Letters from the Former U.S.S.R

By Cary, Emily Pritchard | Phi Delta Kappan, May 1996 | Go to article overview

Letters from the Former U.S.S.R


Cary, Emily Pritchard, Phi Delta Kappan


Ms. Cary shares excerpts from letters written to her by teachers in the former U.S.S.R. that provide compelling evidence that the world has grown smaller and its inhabitants more dependent on one another.

Ronald Reagan dubbed it the "Evil Empire," but he never talked with its citizens, never probed their thoughts, never discovered that the only true barrier to human understanding is an inability to communicate with others. As a result, another American generation grew up believing that all citizens of the former Soviet Union were heartless robots bent on devouring the rest of the planet.

Thanks to events in the past few years that have knocked down both walls and opinions, we discover that the vast population we once dreaded consists of human beings who share our moral philosophy and dreams for the future. None of these new friends are more compatible with us than the teachers who clamor for an opportunity to unburden their hearts and souls to American educators.

As the first step in a project to revamp the contemporary world cultures curriculum in the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools, a group of us who teach in the district sent our names and addresses to a teachers' magazine distributed throughout the former U.S.S.R. We asked readers of the magazine to send us their personal impressions of the social, economic, and political changes they had experienced.

The responses - at once hopeful and poignant - began arriving in the summer of 1992, sometimes several a day. Even our mailman became excited, often tooting his horn to let me know that he had stuffed another thick airmail envelope into our box at the end of the driveway.

At first, my sole link to these strangers was our mutual profession. But we soon went beyond exchanging lesson plans and discussing the current educational theories of such scholars as Howard Gardner at Harvard and A. I. Bliznyuk and L. S. Panova at the Nezhin Teachers Training Institute in Ukraine. We have transcended international boundaries to communicate intimately with our colleagues. No longer philosophical opposites, we have become close friends.

The key, of course, is our correspondents' determination to master English in order to bridge the philosophical and political barriers that once isolated them from the West. Even though I cannot respond adequately in Russian, they persevere in English. Often the writing is polished, as in the case of the language teachers; other correspondents grope for correct usage and tenses. Regardless of their language training, their hearts shine through the words. As diverse in personality and professional expertise as my American colleagues, my new friends are united in their desire to become the finest teachers possible.

Just as they look to us for guidance, so will their students one day welcome communication on many levels with the youngsters we now teach. To ensure continued world peace and friendship, American schools should make mastery of at least one foreign language a goal for all students. Certainly Spanish, French, Japanese, and Chinese merit consideration in this regard - but if that language is Russian, our generation will have done much toward gathering these former isolates into the circle of friendship.

The following excerpts from the correspondence give compelling evidence that the world has grown smaller and its inhabitants more dependent on one another. No longer can we tolerate prejudice on any level.

Nickolavena of Vyatskiye Polyani, Kirov Region, Russia, could be any teacher, wife, and mother in North Dakota, Louisiana, or Vermont. Initially addressing me as her "dear unknown foreign friend," the 46-year-old English teacher describes herself as a small woman with dark hair and dark eyes, whose hobbies are modern and old music, skating, and swimming. Her husband, Mikhail, "is a builder who prefers to read historical books when he is free." Their son, Alyasha, 14, "is a nice boy with dark hair and blue eyes, who likes to read, listen to modern music, write poems, carve figures in wood, and play football at school and with his father. …

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