As six-year-olds are getting their little back packs, pencils, and lunch boxes ready for their first day of school here in the United States, I am reminded of the opening day of school for first graders that I witnessed in Russia in 1990.
We were a group of twenty adults and teenagers from Altoona, PA in an exchange program with twenty adults and teenagers from Rostov on Don in the Soviet Union. In 1989 the Russians had come to Altoona, stayed in our homes and visited our businesses and schools. As the highlight of their visit they had presented a beautiful musical program in our local high school in which over 1400 people had heard their teenage chorus sing a program of Russian folk songs that concluded with “America the Beautiful” and “Let There be Peace on Earth” in perfect English. Tears flowed in the audience. The Cold War was still on, these were the Russians whom Americans had feared for years, and yet that night everyone in the auditorium loved them as friends.
The next year when we visited Moscow and Rostov on Don they arranged for us to stay in hotels, because their tiny apartments, already housing three generations, could not accommodate overnight guests. But they had saved their rationing stamps for months in order to provide us with wonderful meals in their homes. We taught them square dancing that was a great icebreaker, and with the help of various translators we resumed the friendships we had formed in Altoona.
I will never forget the first day of school that we witnessed in Rostov. It was held in an outdoor arena that was filled with parents, teachers and friends of the little six-year-old children. Each little girl and boy was dressed in what had to be a beautiful new outfit, and each child carried an elegant bouquet of flowers. Their faces reflected joy and excitement as they walked into the arena and the crowd cheered them as they began one of their most important journeys in life – their education. To me it seemed so fitting to celebrate this inaugural day as even more significant than their eventual graduation.
After some talks in Russian that we could not understand, the children were entertained by a very talented mime. This young man pretended he was eating an ice cream cone. He loved the taste; it dripped on his suit; he guarded it from others who wanted it; it fell on the floor and so on. The new first graders squealed with delight. This day was a delight for all of them, a day they would long remember as the beginning of their formal education.