Monday mornings are never fun, but when you go back to school every week at the age of 30 it’s even worse. I should play fair; I am actually supposed to do this – I am a teacher after all. But there is something about classrooms that will remind us all of being trapped in a space where we must obey a direct figure of authority. How good did the bell at the end of the school day feel? And what was the overriding emotion? For most of us it was surely of relief, of escape.
Which is ironic, given the history of my current school. Some of you may have seen that video of a Russian road “eating itself” that was featured on the Top Gear website two years ago – that happenned a few hundred metres from our company’s front door – or heard about a block of flats that partially exploded after a faulty gas leak. Yep, that was our road again. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that on Kharkovskaya Street in Tyumen there is an intriguing history; our building is only about 20 years old, but previously it was actually a prison.
Now there stands a slightly incongruous collection of older blocks of flats, newer developments and children’s playgrounds, but in the 1970s it housed some minor offenders. Viktor* (I’m doing the whole not-his-real-name thing for a few reasons) is a successful businessman in his late 50s who used to live directly across the road as a child, and he revealed the real history of our establishment to me one day. “My older brother and I used to live on the third floor, and we could just about see over the wall from our bedroom window,” he told me. “All the inmates were put to work in a small factory producing red bricks and roof tiles, but in their free time they used to get high from concentrated tea leaves. What we used to do was throw tea bags over the wall, and they would tell us stories about their life inside and how they would ‘use’ the tea in large quantities – it was too risky to smuggle cigarettes, although some risked it.”
Be honest – at this point,you’re probably reading this thinking ‘Siberia during the Soviet Union + prison = gulag’; this is a sensitive issue, and can be quite offensive to lump all forms of forced manual labour into that bracket. The horrific camps that Josef Stalin set up across the vast abyss of tundra and forest that make up large swathes of this part of modern day Russia were a different beast entirely – this particular type of prison was built in cities (in this case, it was near the outskirts back then, but is now considered to be almost in the centre) and housed thieves and vandals, not murderers, rapists and political enemies.
Young Viktor and his brother would throw their stash of teabags over the wall, and would sometimes receive gifts handcrafted by the inmates in return. The workshops inside the prison had equipment for all kinds of construction, and with access to certain materials, the prisoners could fashion the most remarkable objects. “This pen probably weighs about half a kilo,” he said as he handed me what looked like a tiny rocket. “My brother had to send cigarettes over the wall for this one, something he could have got in more trouble for than for teabags!” It was beautiful. It was a normal biro except for the casing, which was thick brass that had been smoothly rounded, and had clearly not been damaged in almost half a century.
When I see my teenage students trudge into the classroom with their Dr Dr Beats headphones clamped to their ears and the eyes glued to their iPhone 6S, their complaints of slave labour at school make me chuckle and think of Viktor and his ‘friends’ across the road. What I will say is that they do seem to have a huge workload compared to what I remember having; the attitude seems to be to force them to do the maximum possible so that they are trained to accept long hours. At University, I had 11 weekly contact hours, some of which I lazily failed to attend, whereas here students regularly work virtually full time jobs before studying in the evening up to 30 hours a week.
In the city of Tyumen, which is the capital of the most oil – rich region in Russia, there is a burgeoning demand for English language learning, and we have by far the largest collection of native speaking teachers. It is the major advantage, as people will lap up the social cache of saying they have a native teacher. I might just be lucky, but I find about 95% of my students to be engaging characters and dedicated language learners. There are some who have been pushed to attend by their company, or children whose parents are obsessed with injecting their them with knowledge, but it is an enjoyable environment in which to teach.
I admit when I first arrived, there was a difference in the attitude towards what constituted a decent level of English between then and now. One night out with a lot of friends, I found myself sitting next to a University professor of English Language, but the problem was that Regina was utterly incomprehensible – my two year old daughter could have made herself better understood.
Of course a fair quantity of beer was partly to blame for her broken speech, but I was shocked that she was teaching higher education students my native tongue. Even in six years, however, I have sensed a real shift towards higher standards in English learning. Now my students are actively looking for international exams for better job opportunities or even visas to live abroad, and it is heartening to see when this comes fruition.
One day my girls will start school, and they will walk through the gates nervously as they face a fairly driven, intimidating atmosphere. I will be more nervous than them without question, but at least I can be safe in the knowledge that for all the drawbacks of being a foreign parent, I have given them one sizeable leg up: English. They can pay me back by letting me try their Russian homework, although I’m not sure much I’ll be able to do. Russians study their own language for 10 years and still debate how to use it as grown adults, so what hope do I have??