Part I Old
NOW FOR THE
Smelly pigs and scattering sheep had already tarnished the golden days
of my childhood. Now the civilized world made a new claim on my free time.
First grade loomed closer, and I must learn the ABC’s. This happened
literally at Mother’s knee, sitting next to her on a short wooden
bench, polished to a shine by the bottoms of my older siblings. She sat
at the spinning wheel, turning flax into thin thread which would eventually
become linen cloth, at the same time turning me from innocent child into
a reader. She would produce a worn book with a picture of a red rooster
on the cover, the family's ABCs. I guess the book was new when Osvalds
arrived, but when my turn came, some of the letters had almost been rubbed
out. I got to say aloud the letters Mother pointed out with a wooden dowel.
The hardest story in the book was a piece about a hoot owl. I knew I could
never, ever learn it. It was my uncle Janis who broke the stalemate between
me and the hoot owl story, as I said earlier.
Religion was another plague of my childhood. I hated memorizing the Ten
Commandments, or Three Articles of Faith as they are called in the Lutheran
church manual. I had no idea what they meant, I didn’t understand
the point of religion, nobody bothered to explain anything to me, and
first grade approached like a summer storm. The idea of separating church
and state hadn’t reached Latvia back then—in order to begin
school I would have to pass religion as well as reading. The examiner
was the new pastor of the Tirza parish, a rumpled old man called Ozolins
who didn’t even speak good Latvian. He was ugly, he stammered, “nam,
nam, nam,” and he showered us innocent children with smelly saliva
when he talked. On exam day, he sat in his special chair, wrapped in a
black robe like a vulture. We approached him one by one, respectful-like,
to be tested in reading. I feared the worst, but I did pass the test,
just barely, so I didn’t get the reward: a booklet. Big deal. I
ran back to freedom as fast as my legs would carry me, wiping Ozolins’
spittle off my face
I was seven when I began the serious learning phase of my life. I arrived,
combed, freshly scrubbed and dried to a shine, at the Pagasts school on
a chilly fall morning. The schoolhouse was a two-story wooden building
that creaked gently in the wind and smelled, comfortably, of old shoes.
The ground floor was a dormitory for the boarding kids and the top floor
housed the two classrooms, a small one for the “first winter”
kids, those who like me were beginning their education. Second- through
fourth-winter kids met in the larger upstairs hall. A center aisle separated
second and fourth winter pupils from the third winter class, which was
the largest. Boys sat in the front rows, the girls in the back. Before
even touching the three R’s, we learned to stand at attention when
the teacher marched into the room, and again when he left. Rule breakers
stood interminably in the corner, facing the class. The school day ran
from seven AM to noon, and two to four PM.
The boarding kids, those who lived far away or whose father wasn’t
willing to provide transportation as ours did, arrived early on Monday
and went home at noon on Saturday. Accommodations at school were basic
at best. The school had no kitchen and no refrigeration, so cold water
from the tap was all the boarding kids had to drink. Their food boxes
were kept in the school cupboard, located in the hallway on the second
floor. They brought food for a week: rye bread, boiled meat, and bacon
fat to spread on the bread. The food stayed fairly fresh in the cupboard,
cooler than our classrooms. Mice helped themselves if a food box was left
open—we often caught sight of a gray tail disappearing behind the
cupboard when we burst out of the classroom at recess. The dormitory,
especially the boys’ section, was messy and smelly. A janitor cleaned
the grit from the stairs and the classrooms once a week, usually on Saturday,
so whatever trash we generated during the week remained where it had fallen—not
that we dropped much. We were too well behaved for that, and we had no
packaged foods or canned drinks to generate litter.
Robert and I were lucky to live less than a kilometer away, so we could
go home for a hot lunch. On the downside, we walked to school in temperatures
down to -15 degrees centigrade, blizzard, snow or sleet, it didn’t
matter. Snow closure did not exist — classes were always on for
the boarding kids anyway. In severe blizzard conditions, or high winds
which happened pretty often, Father would harness a horse and drive us
on the sleigh. One time a storm had completely erased the main road under
snowdrifts. Father harnessed Masha, our old mare, to the work sled, to
take us to school. Masha bravely pulled the sled through the snow drifts,
but when we got to the uphill part, she completely sank in the snow. The
story of Masha’s disappearance, her tail sticking out of the snow
like a flag and showering us with snowflakes, warmed our bellies with
laughter for months after. We had to get off the sled and drop into the
drifts ourselves, to lighten up her load. Eventually we made it over the
hill and the road was clear all the way to the school.
The elementary school of the Druviena Pagasts was one of the best in the
county of Valka. We had two well-trained teachers and a three-shelf library
of folk tales, stories of good and evil, and adventure stories such as
Robinson Crusoe. My favorite was a story about how God chased the Devil
and how the Devil was thrown in the Rijas kiln and a fire made at the
opening so he couldn’t get out. We could take books home over the
weekend, but mostly it was the grownups who read them. We were too busy
having fun to spend time reading.
In that “first winter” I learned arithmetic, Russian and Lettish
language, Bible stories and Lutheran hymns, gymnastics and calligraphy.
School was not easy for a reluctant scholar like me. I especially loathed
the long Bible stories that we had to memorize, though I did pretty well
in Russian and arithmetic. Classes began at the rude hour of seven AM,
in the pitch darkness of winter. We ran home at four, at six we ate Mother’s
hot supper, and before our nine o’clock bedtime we hit the books
again, to prepare the next day’s lessons. The whole thing started
all over again next day.
One morning, opening my book bag, I realized I hadn’t done a stitch
of religion homework. What now? Glued to my seat, I waited for the ax
to fall—surely I’d have to stand in the corner for the whole
religion period. But, when all else fails, fake illness. I squirmed, clutching
my head in agony. The boy next to me —there must be a God after
all! — obligingly reported my “headache” to the teacher,
and I was promptly dispatched to get some rest in the dormitory. I shuffled
painfully out the door, but as soon as I turned the corner of the hall,
I broke into a run. I didn’t dare to take my fake sickness home,
because Father would take one long look at me and know the truth—he
always did. When Bible class was over my “headache” was miraculously
cured, and I rejoined my classmates for the other lessons. Father never
found me out.
With the arrival of the second winter, I watched the new “first
winter” kids’ arrive. They now occupied the special room,
and I was placed in the larger hall. The third winter class was the largest.
By the fourth winter, class size was down, because many dropped out of
school for good at the end of the third winter in order to work on the
farms. The Tarzier children attended the fourth and fifth winter classes
to prepare for the advanced state exam.
I think of my school years, between the ages of seven and fifteen, as
the happiest time of my life, full of mischief but full of love, too.
In squirrel hunt, one of our school games, we divided ourselves into squirrels,
hunters, and dogs. The squirrels had to stay up on trees—we played
in an area of young trees growing close to each other, so it was easy
to jump from tree to tree. Anyone falling off a tree was out of the game.
The dogs would bark if they sighted a squirrel, and the hunters would
then shoot the squirrel with a snowball. Whoever scored the greatest number
of snowball hits won the game.
After school or during the two-hour lunch we released pent-up energy in
ferocious snow battles. We built snow fortresses, solidified with buckets
of water, and from the safety of our fortress we hurled frozen snowballs
at the other camp. The teachers tried to control the mayhem, but we sometimes
returned to class with cut lips and eyes swollen shut. Our snowball fights
were so earnest and bloody that one of our classmates, Janis Poruks, immortalized
them in his book, The Battle at Knipska. His story takes the reader on
a retreat across the open field, toward the deep gully, across the bridge
and into the woodlands beyond. In one final show of bravery, the retreating
party makes its final stand at the bridge before surrender and the end
of the great snow war. The final battle to defend the bridge at Knipska
is desperate and almost too real. After the humiliating retreat through
the woods, the warring parties shake the snow and ice off their clothes
and go back to class to be schoolchildren again.
The school held two main social events each year. One was the folk play
evening that we started by petitioning to celebrate the names of our two
teachers—the Lettish calendar has a name for every day of the year.
How could the teachers refuse! So we lined the long class benches along
the walls of the big room and we had a large dance floor. We danced (a
sort of square dance) until midnight.
The last day of the school year was field trip day. We usually went to
Vellins, “Devil’s Lake,” in thick dark woods. We walked
along the forest road and then through the woods for a short stretch to
the Vellins grounds, where the woods opened up into dry, high ground good
for all sorts of games. The place was surrounded by swampy meadows through
which flowed a small creek. To the north one could see a mountain ridge
called the Devil’s Mountain. The whole area had a spooky quality,
good for freaking out the first graders. Pleasure and play were mixed
with sadness on this last day of school. We wrote in each other’s
albums and exchanged small gifts. We looked forward to the summer, but
we must say good-bye to our friends and foes of the third grade, most
of whom were out of school for good. After four winters, in the spring
of 1914 I finished community school. I was the best in the boys’
class, though a girl got better grades than I did.
On June 28 of that year Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated in
Bosnia, and by August the conflict had engulfed Russia and become World
War I. It would eventually involve 32 nations around the globe.
Tarziers, A Eulogy
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