The pictures of Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov, the Holy Trinity of Communism, projected their benign paternal smiles from their place high on the back of our classroom wall. This was 1954. It was our Russian hour. We were learning to sing “Volga”(Volga, Volga, matyradnaya, Volga, Ruszka, yareka…Nyevigyela tu pudarka, koddanszkova Kazaka…. is my bad Hungarian translated memory of this song). It was a lovely tune, full of love and longing, on the same level of feeling as “Isten Elti a Magyart” our Hungarian national anthem. I was 8 years old, one of the many faceless kids in our form. My neighbour and playmate, Tibor (Tibi) was seated quite far away from me, because we were conspiratorial and got into a lot of trouble over all kinds of stuff.
Our teacher was a drab lady, intensely serious, earnest – a real drill sergeant, I now realize trying to remember her. She didn’t demonstrate one flash of humour, ever, although she was basically kind and didn’t make extreme comparisons about our performance, to our faces, at least. However, our parents had an inside line into the classroom, it appeared, for the slightest falling down on our job as student mysteriously greeted us as a “What did you do! Why must you get singled out for blame?” on our return to home.
During recess our group tended to go absolutely wild and manic. We badly needed to let off steam! We gossiped, plotted, teased, bucked up each other in little sub-groups. We ran around yelling and laughing.
One of the trouble-makers in class, a clever and inquisitive boy, drifted around from group to group in the schoolyard. He quietly whispered, sotto voce, and groups would grow around him. He said he had concocted some “itching powder” guaranteed to drive even the most self-controlled and calm one of us wild. Loudly we deliberated and argued as how there was no such thing, and where did he find this stuff? He produced an envelope. It contained a mysterious white powder, which he assured us would have us all convulsing with fits of scratching if we but put a little pinch down the back of our shirts. He proposed to pass it around to all of us to try, once we were back inside the classroom. He promised the reaction of our teacher would be quite hilarious to see.
In orderly line-up, we marched back into the classroom, quietly excited that the next hour would provide some relief from the constant and repetitive drilling we had to endure while at school. Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov looked really pleased about something. Our teacher resumed teaching us fragments of the Volga song. She wrote the phrases in Cyrillic on the blackboard, then the translation in Hungarian. We copied these down as she kept repeating the correct pronounciation over and over again. Every time she turned her back on the class to write a new phrase on the board, the envelope was passed from hand to hand, surreptitiously, the powder disributed among us all. Many kids tucked the powder down the back of their neck, while the more serious and “good” ones just passed on the envelope without taking a pinch.
Finishing the writing portion of our exercise, the teacher had us place our hands behind the small of our backs, sit up straight and begin following the written phrases on the board to sing the song. Over and over again we did this, until we really sounded quite good, I thought. “Sing with emotion”, the teacher would exhort. We did! “Really feel the song and what it means!,she said. We tried to do this, really getting into the spirit of things.
Soon, kids sitting in front of me began to move one hand or another up their back, scratching. Others would squirm. Some pressed back into the chair and writhed about subtly. A few gave up the pretence that they were all right and began to scratch with vigour, quite noticeable. Tibi, sitting a few rows in front of me cast back a quick grin. One girl beside me started to giggle and just couldn’t stop. Teacher looked about the classroom and demanded to know, “What’s got into you all?” More wriggling, scraching, chuckling and giggling. The instigator piped up and said “There must be something wrong here, I feel awful and very itchy… can I please go home?” Teacher walked over and looked at the back of his neck, then proceeded to the next scratcher and did the same. She began to look concerned, worried even. Then she left the classroom and brought back the Principal. He looked over several kids’ necks, scratched his head with a “My God” kind of expression as he thought and debated about what to do with us all. Finally, he announced that we had to leave the school and walk home quickly. “Don’t linger on the way! And stay away from people on the street”, he said.
Sure, I itched, but this was a huge bonus – freedom for the rest of the school day. Tibi and I skipped home, singing!
Mother was drinking ersatz coffee with Tibi’s Mother. We ran in and reported what happened. We gave clear details and the complete truth. Our mothers checked down the backs of our shirts and discussed the red rash they noticed there. Tibi’s Mother dragged him off home. My mother was furious and ordered me to bed, no talking, no reading, no singing, no playing. So much for freedom, I thought!
As I lay grumbling in bed it occurred to me that maybe Lenin, Stalin and Malenkov really had something to smile about, up there on the back wall of our classroom.
I am still chukling about this situation, even after so long a time. And I wonder if Tibi still does too!