It was a strange day.
When I arrived at the orphanage, the girls came running down the hallway energetically like little puppies. “I’m Galya!” “I’m Katya!” they giggled.
Immediately there was a fight over who would sit where. I had designed a very simple board game. Roll the die, move a few spaces, and identify a word in English by drawing a card. Within a few minutes, the three other kids were making fun of Galya. They threw her playing piece on the floor. Then they couldn’t find it, so I gave her mine. Finally Galya ran from the room sobbing, as the other kids yelled “you’re psycho!”
I couldn’t help but feel sad. Kids are often mean to each other, but usually those offended can run to mommy, and Galya has no mommy to run to.
I couldn’t find Galya to calm her down, so I reluctantly returned to the remaining students. Misha had an outburst about every two minutes, when it was not his turn. He shouted and slammed his hand on the table, sending things flying.
At the end, I gave them each a vocabulary check-up and rewarded them with one sticker each. I let them choose the stickers themselves, handing over the sheet of stickers as I test the next person. It’s a simple test of their ability to be honest and follow directions. Katya took 2 or 3 stickers. I ripped off the extra ones that she had taken and crumpled them up. She hadn’t passed the test.
I was frustrated and late for the next lesson. I tried to gather my things, but as usual the kids had stolen them. I had carefully hidden my afternoon snack (substitute for lunch), wrapping it in a separate bag to keep it from the kids. Misha found it anyway and announced that I had food that I was hiding. They danced around, refusing to give me my things until I gave them sweets. Suddenly the counselor from the next group walked in. “We are waiting for you,” she said. Katya was wearing my clothing, Lolita had my purse, and Misha had opened my umbrella and was prancing around the room with it. They relinquished my belongings at last and I took off in a hurry.
I got to the next group. They too were running around and jumping on and off the furniture. A few kids were wrestling on the couch. The kids who were supposed to come to English class came in and I tried to turn the light on. They told me that it didn’t work. We lit a lamp and gathered around a little table, reviewing the words from the previous lesson. They remembered everything well, but kids were coming and going constantly and there was shouting.
I began to reminisce about what these children had been like a few years ago, when we knew them at camp. Certain characteristics that had seemed almost humorous when they were little now seemed to be causing problems in adolescence. Katya had been sweet and subdued. Now she seemed almost listless and completely lacking confidence. She gave up halfway through every activity, saying that she didn’t want to participate. Misha was also calm yet distracted, wandering around in his jacket and inspecting things in the room; turning on the tv at one point. Roma, with his curly head of hair, had a long history of behavior problems. As a little child, he would run up and embrace people almost violently. Now he was less physical, but shouted inappropriate phrases incessantly. I used to worry about him since he was the only African-Russian child in the orphanage, but their little group seems tight-knit, since they only have each other. The kids had learned American swears somewhere, and shouted them constantly, but Roma especially. He smiled slyly as he swore and displayed his middle finger.
We tried the board game again with this group. Despite the shouting they remembered words faster and there weren’t as many tears. But the board game didn’t work here either. At ten and eleven years old, they could not seem to wait their turn or be honest about the number of spaces they should go. They constantly squirmed and flailed their arms, knocking the pieces all over. When another was answering a question, they shouted out of turn. The game had lost its point. I turned to take out the next activity and found my materials missing. I must have left them in the first group in my haste. I quickly improvised and invented another activity. Then finally it was time to go. I gave stickers to a few, who took them calmly and not greedily. They continued to ask me about certain English words as I left. There was a desire to learn, at least.
I headed outside. The bus was not there yet and I was glad, because I could finally eat a few crackers.
A man approached me, also waiting for the bus. He asked me about the buses and I observed that there was one approaching, maybe the one that we were waiting for.
“Bon appetit,” he said, in reference to my snack.
“No time to eat?”
“I was with the kids.”
“You’re hardly more than a kid yourself!” I didn’t take offense at this comment, he being elderly.
The man continued to talk and ask questions. I was frustrated because I didn’t know how to answer a stranger appropriately, and I knew that I would probably misunderstand at some point and then we would have to discuss my being a foreigner. As we got on the bus, I realized that it was a long way to the city, with virtually no stops. Forty minutes stuck in conversation with a strange man! What to do? Stop talking for the sake of decency or remain talking in hopes of witnessing about Christ? I’m sure that I don’t understand Russian men and their intentions, and try to avoid such circumstances, but here I was stuck on a bus with nowhere to escape to. Although I wasn’t extremely bothered, I wondered about the man’s motives. Was he:
3) Selling something?
4) A spy?
5) Just looking for a conversation partner?
Part of why the conversation seemed strange is that he asked questions that I would hardly dare to ask my closest friends in the States, let alone a stranger in Russia. “What did you study?” “Where do you live (apartment or room)?” “Where is your family?” “Do they visit?” “What do you do for fun?” “What kind of transportation pass do you buy?” “Do they feed you in the orphanage?”
When it came out that I was a foreigner, he said something about “it being obvious.” And I said “What?” "Don't you know what I'm talking about?" he asked. "No." “Are you a believer?” “Yes.” For a moment I thought that he was a Christian too, but the questions that followed showed that he knew little about Christianity.
“Do you believe in ______ of the soul?” Not understanding fully, I said yes. But he went on to talk about souls being passed on to animals and trees and from person to person. And I had to withdraw my agreement.
“Actually, my faith is a different kind.”
“Aren’t you a Christian?
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, but not in the kind of ‘spiritual’ activity that you are talking about.”
Later, he asked me how I dealt with difficulties in life.
“The Lord helps me.”
“But He can’t always help.”
“Of course He can.”
After the bus ride, I got on the metro, and the man followed me. He took out a catalog of Chinese health products. That was it, he must be selling something. But he did not make an offer. I was a little nervous because he had asked what station I was going to, and I couldn’t very well run away. But after a few stops he got off, and was gone.