The First Pass in First Class

I remember the first class due to several events that were unexpected for me: the huge bouquet that my mother and aunt gave me, the refusal of the school librarian to give me books, the trip with my father’s brother on a motorcycle, and the photograph taken at the end of the first class.

My aunt picked up the flowers. She collected a bouquet. My mother worked as a teacher in the same school; she had no time to train me. She was preparing for the first of September herself, and passed me off to my aunt. However, she said that the bouquet must the largest at school.

My mother instructed me half to death so that I wouldn’t turn around on the line, not talk with classmates, and, in general, behave, as she put it, “like a well-cultured baby.”

I dragged a huge bouquet to school and was exhausted. The trouble was that my mother wanted to come to school early, and so we came when there was no one else. I spent an hour on the school porch, waiting for the start of class.

I remember a white shirt, flowers, and ceremonial order.

There were no lessons on September 1st. Textbooks were given away to schoolboys in classrooms. I broke into the school library, but the librarian refused to help me; first graders were allowed in only during the second half of the year, when we learned to read. To my cry, “But I can read!” the librarian cast a stern look: “If you make a scandal, I will take you to the director!” I silently left.

At home, my mother put me at the table and, forestalling schoolwork, forced me to write sticks and hooks. From the street came the voices of my friends. They had already changed their clothes, had lunch, and rapturously played into “holes-holes.” It made me nervous, and the hooks with sticks turned out bad. Slaps in the face didn’t help me; my mother began to search for my father’s belt, but my grandmother called for dinner, and the execution did not take place.

During lunch, Father came home from work. In honor of September 1, miners who had first-graders were released from work earlier. But the father did not just come; he came with his brother on a motorcycle. It was something! Uncle Zhenya’s Java shone with chrome, smelled of gasoline; it was like a fairy tale, it was the transport of the future! Father’s brother was also seated at the table and grandmother made him a plate of borsch.

After lunch, my mother started her song again about my laziness and poor preparation for school. Everyone was silent, and only my father’s brother came up, took my notebook, and, looking, said: “So what? Fine. He’s still trained and will write excellently. Let him study at school, and now we will go for a drive!” My father supported his brother, and after him, everyone else: my mother backed down. That was how this holiday began for me!

In honor of September 1, my uncle decided to arrange a motor rally. I was delighted. We drove with him to the forest belt, climbed along it onto the highway, and drove towards the 29th mine. Turning towards the Abakumov mine, we swept past Lidievsky Pond, the garden, and, bypassing the mine, drove into Staromikhailovka. There, uncle bought—just think—four ice creams and two bottles of Citro! We devoured ice cream and washed it down with sweet soda! My boyish soul was in seventh heaven with happiness and, enthusiastic, I returned home. This trip—the brilliance of the Java, the smell of gasoline, the taste of ice cream and lemonade—was forever imprinted in my memory.

Write Down Everything…

When I entered second grade, my mother, struggling to improve my academic performance and discipline, applied a rather Jesuit technique: she went up to my teacher and insistently asked her to write down everything that I “toyed” with in class in a diary.

At first, Anna Vasilyevna did not heed her request, and my diary remained pristine from remarks. However, my mother was not too lazy to go to the teacher again and explain that everything should be written in my diary, even the most insignificant misconduct in the form of looking back or exchanging a pencil or eraser with one of my peers.

The kind Anna Vasilyevna finally fulfilled my mother’s request, and beginning at that point, my diary was replete with remarks such as “spoke in class,” “came without an eraser,” “spun around,” “forgot a pencil,” “dropped a notebook,” “soiled the textbook,” and so forth. Naturally, even with one such remark, the assessment of behavior for the week was reduced to “4,” so the punishment was always at least double: on the day the entry was made, and on Saturday, the final flogging.

But the punishment could have been triple, when the reduced rating for the week dragged down the monthly rating, and the monthly rating affected the quarterly rating. However, the estimate for the quarter could be reduced by itself; when, for example, I slipped away from the November demonstration and was punished for this by a vigilant Anna Vasilyevna. I, a third-grader schoolboy, was accused of political immaturity, and the classroom teacher put the “4” in behavior for a quarter, and my parents merrily pummeled me at home.

Three Groups

The first group included the lucky ones who had never been flogged. It was the smallest and, in turn, was divided into two distinct parts. The first, very insignificant, was made up of several children, schoolboys who were under the close supervision of their parents grandparents. They exemplarily studied and were presented by teachers as an example to follow.

In contrast to them, the other part of the same group included tomboys, whose study and school behavior was seen by their closest relatives as “on the drum.” They could do anything. During the lesson, it was considered to be a special valor to turn on the transistor receiver, to release a sparrow or cat.

Once, my friend Vitka Ryazantsev brought a snake and released it in the classroom. While the runaway reptile was rushing about in class and the screeching girls were jumping around the desks, pretty, frightened Anna Vasilyevna called the head teacher, and he killed the defenseless snake with a mop. We buried the reptile in a shrub along the railway and stopped bringing animals to class.

During the “interrogation,” Vitka, trying to avoid calling his parents to school, said that Serge Clause brought a snake to school. I was numb from this betrayal, but my mother, trying to make me an ideal scholar, did not understand, and a flogging of several days began. That year could be called “the year of the snake” for me.

The second group, the largest, consisted of those who were flogged from case to case; for example, when a bad mark was recorded in the diary or they had a record of very bad behavior. It included my closest friends: Seryoga Dokukin, Sasha Bichukov, Mishka Shchipanovsky, Valera Krivonoskin, and some others.

The third group, slightly larger in number than the first, and significantly smaller than the second, consisted of youths who were flogged every day, or almost every day. My brother and I belonged to this group. Our mother, a teacher of Russian language and literature, was terribly afraid that we were discrediting her authority and therefore took preventive measures, such as flogging for the slightest offense. The reason could be anything you like: unkempt hair, unbuttoned shirt collar, untied or improperly-tied pioneer tie, and much more…


This hairstyle for boys was called “forelock” or “under the forelock.” It was almost mandatory for all the boys of the elementary grades. And, if in the first and second grades, even the most desperate tomboys turned their heads and meekly cut their hair, then in the third grade liberties began with the hairstyle “under the Canada.” In the fourth grade, the struggle for the “Canada” began on a widespread scale in all classes. In the fifth grade, all the boys flaunted the “Canada.”

The most dashing guys sometimes cut their hair “under Kotovsky.” Bald heads were not taken seriously by society—they were ridiculed—so there were few such guys. The hairstyle “under Kotovsky” took its toll at the end of the school year, and the rare boy did not try to take long vacations to give his head a rest from the lush thickets.

For me, the hairstyle “under the forelock” was the rule until the fifth grade. Why? No questions arose. The sticking tuft was a great fixture for a mother’s handful. She enthusiastically dragged me for this tuft of hair when at hand there was no belt or other device for flogging.

Attempts to change the hairstyle failed. Seeing me after the hairdresser in an “indecent” form, my mother called my father, and the execution began.

The occasion helped. The summer holidays were ending, I had to go to the fifth grade, and my mother allocated ten kopecks for the hated forelock. I knew that if I appeared in the classroom with this children’s haircut, I would be subjected to jokes and ridicule. My soul ached. I had to get 20 kopecks accumulated over the past days from a cache; a fashionable, desperate, tomboy hairstyle like the “Canadian” cost 25 kopecks. I went to the hairdresser.

I did not want to return home. I imagined the future reprisal, and my inner voice cowardly whispered: “It would be better if you cut your hair under the forelock…it would be better if you cut your hair under your forelock today…”

I went to the gate and saw that we had someone; the guests came. This made me incredibly happy; in the presence of strangers, my mother did not beat my brother and me, but pretended to be a respectable, cultured woman.

I entered the house and saw that it was my mother’s sister:  Aunt Tonya and her husband. Despondency pierced my body again; my aunt and uncle were not considered strangers, and with them around, my mother could behave as unbridled as if they were not there. But the matter took a supportive turn for me.

“Serge, how beautiful you are!” said my aunt.

“Have you come from the hairdresser?” asked Uncle Vitya.

“Yes,” I answered.

My mother began to make an evil face and asked menacingly:

“Who allowed you to cut your hair like that?”

“Who are you, Zinaida Nikolaevna? interrupted my uncle. “Now all the boys are cutting their hair like that.”

“Zina, he has a normal haircut,” the aunt added.

Mother was silent. Apparently, she wasn’t in the mood to cause a scandal; she only occasionally cast displeased glances at me and angrily googled her eyes. After a while, she stopped. So I got the right to wear a “Canadian.”


For all installments from In the Shadow of the Belt, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Introduction
  2. Chapter 1: Early Childhood