Both Dr. Fleming’s column “Thinking Outside the Boxes” in the current issue of the magazine and John Seiler’s “Welcome Back to the Slammer…er…School” blog on our website inspired me to share some of my personal experiences with the 12 years of torment known as school. I began my grade school education in the last months of the USSR’s existence in September 1991 and finished it towards the end of Dubya’s first term. It spanned two countries, one state, and two counties.
In his column, Dr. Fleming compares “a boy brought up reading Homer and Scott and Stevenson” to a boy watching pop-culture, Hollywood dreck. I would add that most boys in grade school today, would not even know who Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson are, and would maybe hear of Homer after watching Troy with Brad Pitt and Eric Bana.
I spent my first through third grades in a rather average school in a rather average post-Soviet capital. But my peers read and discussed authors like Stevenson, Dumas, and Conan Doyle. When I arrived to America and started attending first, a modern Orthodox yeshiva (which had mostly secular, upper middle class American Jewish kids), and then public schools in a White, middle class outburb of New York City, my new classmates were blissfully unaware of the above-mentioned authors and when they read at all, they read either comic books or the Goosebumps series of R.L. Stine. I got my first writer’s honorarium for a senior essay I wrote extolling the virtues of reading, explaining that both in my old country and new, reading great books made me think for myself (read: disbelieve official propaganda).
As for the prissy, effeminate state of today’s schoolboys lamented by John Seiler, I could not agree more. I remember the hallway and schoolyard battles we used to have back in Kishinev, where boys could be boys and push, shove, throw an occasional punch, play tag, and wrestle. Back there you knew, that if you insult someone, you’ll probably have to face him in a fistfight.
Needless to say, such masculinity was nowhere to be found in my new American schools. I remember when a friend and I decided to settle accounts with two obnoxious American Jewish classmates who kept making fun of our off-the-boat accents and even more insultingly, did not pass the ball to us in soccer. On the last day of school, Andrei and I asked Evan Gottlieb and Ben Goldenberg to “come outside for a talk”. And when our cowardly adversaries refused, we, like Vladimir Putin years later, threatened to “rub them out in the loo”. I still remember their pale faces and how they whimpered about going to the principal.
I do not mention Andrei’s last name for a reason. You see, about seven years afterwards, he fled to Russia to avoid felony charges. And I became a criminal defense lawyer. Go figure.