My Favorite Schoolteacher.
From Lessons to Life: The Excitement of History and Local Lore


When I studied Ancient History in the fifth grade, I really wanted to become an archaeologist. Getting ready for expeditions, taking part in excavations, and studying the artifacts—that’s what I was dreaming about! I started studying local lore, assuming that this may bring my dream closer to reality. Our history teacher Nadezhda Anatolievna paid great attention to the knowledge and mastering of this subject—she had a comprehensive approach when she taught us the history of our region (this was a subject they used to teach in elementary school at the time), organized a school museum with several exhibits and an extracurricular study class where anyone could write his own script and conduct tours of the museum. As a middle school student, I offered tours for kindergarteners and first-grade students there.

Younger students were taken on a tour of the so-called “hut.” It was a classroom showcasing various items from peasant life. Its women’s and men’s exhibits presented practically everything necessary for housekeeping. This room’s exhibits didn’t seem to surprise me too much at the time, but now, with every passing year, I have a growing admiration for the wisdom, ingenuity and the skills of our ancestors. They knew how to make practically anything by hand. We can’t reproduce today even a half of what they were doing every day. We can lament many things about that time, especially illiteracy, but we who were brought up in the age of consumerism cannot be compared to them.

Often the backstory about the subject matter is much more exciting than the subject it presents

Another room in the museum was located in the hallway of the recreation area. There were several exhibition stands dedicated to different subjects and periods of our history, as well as some models. Older students and adults would visit this area after they viewed the “hut” exhibits. Like any other museum, the information on the stands here was rather succinct. Or there was no information at all. But there was so much work and research behind each photo or brief reference! Often the backstory of obtaining a particular image is much more interesting than the story of the people depicted on it. It is the same with other artifacts.

How can we bring science and life together? Are these notions on the same plane? Or, can it be that life, with its sorrow and joy, stands on its own and science is something distant and unattainable? History as a science has its own peculiarities. History requires that we restore the course of events according to archaeological finds and surviving written sources, and they often contradict one another. What was the social and political life of society, what was its everyday life like, what wars and natural phenomena was it experiencing? Since life on our planet is measured by a great number of years, the objects we dig from the ground primarily bring more questions than answers about the history of that region or era. It is equally difficult to find the truth in written sources, since it’s practically impossible to verify them. How lucky are those researchers if their finds (such as an artifact or a record in an archive/book/map) can support their earlier assumptions, guesses and speculations.

I studied well at school. But I always eagerly waited for that real, penultimate study process to begin. When shall we stop simply exploring all those formulas and theorems, rules and exceptions to the rules, and begin to learn how to use them in real life? I failed to see it happen. Not even during my studies at the university. Not sure what influenced this. Quite possibly it was because of the existing approach to teaching, the education process, or the absence of an individual approach. Nowadays, some decades later, I still look for those connecting links and try to explain them to children. I continue to study along with them, because in my time at school I was unable to grasp those cause-and-effect links. It wasn’t easy to achieve during the lessons taught by Nadezhda Anatolievna either. I think she spent a great deal of time getting ready for those lessons in order to “feed” obscure information to her students in understandable terms.

It is possible that every science has its own approach. So, in order to learn something you need to perceive and understand it yourself, finding all possible meeting points between this particular school subject and life at a given moment. It is good if a teacher/educator helps to organize the process of learning so that it will resonate in the hearts of his pupils. Quite likely, it won't work for everyone. But let’s hope that it will work for some of them. I remember how we, the guides, stood at the hallway in front of the museum entrance and greeted guests on our school museum tours by using a story from the fairy tale “By Pike's Will.” The kids, of course, were surprised. The teachers smiled. Besides, according to Nadezhda Anatolievna's idea, I greeted our visitors wearing a Russian folk costume...

A teacher needs to try to grasp his subject himself in order to locate the meeting points between his subject and life

Your interest in history as a science is awakened at such moments. Not only the facts so difficult to grasp and memorize because they belong to the distant past, but a whole story derived from a single fact. Sometimes presented as a fairy tale, or wearing a costume, or even singing a song. Drawings, photos, proverbs, monuments of architectonics and architecture, and household tools—a competent teacher will use it all.

I don’t remember my communication with my teacher at school time. All that I remember is Nadezhda Anatolievna’s calm work, without any fuss, and her direct participation in the group tours of the museum, her research and gradual accumulation of different information about the life of the school, its founding, life during the war, day-to-day activities, and sincere interest in every single aspect of life. Over the years, grown up orphans from a former orphanage established at a local estate visited us at school. We also met with the relatives of a plane crew lost during the war when they visited the aircraft crash site. We needed to welcome them and impart kind words to everyone.

Unfortunately, I didn’t participate, but many students who were older than me went with Nadezhda Anatolievna on expeditions to nearby villages. They collected artifacts and photos for the museum, as well as recorded memories. Twenty years ago, there were still craftswomen who could thread a weaving loom and make it fully ready for work. Each forged nail, every clay milk jug in the museum of the peasant hut had its own story. And all the artifacts came to the museum in various ways. This, too, has already become a part of its history, albeit unspoken and unknown.

Years later, upon graduating from school and the institute, I returned to studies of local history. I started by actively searching for my ancestors, made a genealogical tree according to the data available at that time, and began to collect local history information with particular zeal. I collected every kind of information. Because man and personal history are an integral part of the historical period. I sought information in libraries and museums; I also asked local historians and searched archives. It turned out that there are still people in our village who are genuinely interested in the history of our region. With the guidance of Nadezhda Anatolievna, we began to meet practically every month in the reading room of a local library. How warm and wonderful were those meetings! Soulful, filled with warmth and history, the discussions there would often become jumbled because the participants had too much information and excitement. Sometimes had more structured meetings, with several reports presented by various group members. And then, two hours later, we’d walk home together. We would return home on frosty evenings when the snow crunched under our feet, or though pouring rain in spring or fall. I was lucky, because Nadezhda Anatolievna lived next door to me, so we were the last to say goodbye. That’s when the past smoothly transitioned into the present, when plans were made for the future, and tentative ideas of our future expeditions were laid out.

Nadezhda Anatolievna was the soul of our meetings and their leader. She selected the theme and tactfully commented and supplemented our individual reports. We would often explore curious finds and artifacts brought to our meetings. I remember a piece of a mammoth jaw found not far from our village during the construction of a gas station. I remember that memorable meeting of ours as if it were yesterday. How reverently we unfolded a canvas cloth holding an artifact, so incomprehensible and distant from our day...

The participants often brought maps, photographs, drawings, and albums to the meetings. And lots of memories. Sometimes we exchanged news like getting a reply from the archive, or an important article published somewhere, new people we have met and new things we have learned. We shared news about a trip to the archives and finding important information there, sometimes written in illegible handwriting, in the midst of hundreds of first and last names. We were so inspired and enthused, but even more excited about these meetings! I don't know about the other participants, but these meetings gave me new energy to keep looking for new leads and clues from long-lost threads and tangled bits of our history. Thanks to my teacher, many forgotten pieces of history seemed to come back to life, inspiring and stirring interest over and over again.

Thanks to my teacher, much of what we had forgotten as if found new life, inspired, and stirred interest over and over again

Nadezhda Anatolievna was able to publish several informative brochures about the history of our region. She accumulated this information over years of work and dozens of meetings with elderly residents who shared their memories. She stopped working as a schoolteacher for several years ago, but she continues to head the school museum activities. Not only does she preserve the past, but she also actively promotes it among the schoolchildren and the guests of the school. She tells the people of today about our hopes that in the future new researchers will find new important and interesting facts on the history of our region and the people who lived there.

Our shared interests have helped me to maintain communication with this bright and wonderful woman for several decades. It is such a joy to be a close associate of such a wise and thoughtful person as Nadezhda Anatolievna! It is wonderful that I have someone to call and share bits of local lore news; that our local landowner’s hamlet had not two but four owners, or that the instructions left by General A.V. Suvorov for his peasants have been found and published, or that he was an outstanding landowner. She is the one I can talk with about my search for the fates of army recruits, repressed clergymen, or wealthy and hardworking peasants. She is the one I can share the joy with about the memorialization of the name of a fallen pilot in a neighboring village. Seven last names (of a pilot and his crew) were etched in the stone of a war memorial, but the eighth pilot wasn’t listed for unknown reasons. So much time has passed and it took so much effort, attention and campaigning! His relatives came, but they didn’t find his last name on the monument. Only now, nearly eighty years later, the last name of pilot Borisov was added to the memorial plaque. This person’s name found its due place on the monument.

I was recently able to impress Nadezhda Anatolievna. The fate of a priest who served in a local church in the early twentieth century has remained unknown for many years. His name was mentioned in the documents regarding the seizure of church treasures, but that was it. For a long time, the local historians could only assume where and how Fr. Theodore spent his last years. So many different documents and lists were inspected by all kinds of people throughout those years! But no one was able to find the cherished name that has become especially dear thanks to the surviving memories of parishioners and photographs. Remote access to certain archives in our country today allows anyone interested in the history of their family to find information about their ancestors. So, while I was looking through hundreds of scanned pages of documents in hopes of finding my family members, I accidentally came upon our “lost” Fr. Theodore. This priest died in 1922 of typhoid fever and was buried in the cemetery next to the church where he has served for over thirty years. It is hard to convey the feelings that rushed over us after this discovery. Even now, we still remain under the impression of that find and the excitement still runs high. As it turns out, Fr. Theodore was practically next to us all that time (for a century already) under the shadow of his church, which never closed down. Probably, this is how it happens not just in research, but also in life. We often look for things in all the wrong places, or assume the wrong things, while the answer would lie on the surface, right before our eyes. It’s just that the right time hadn’t yet come to find.

As in any other process, it is important to communicate with like-minded people, be it in science, or in creative fields. This is about having support, mentorship, and exchange of experience. It is too hard to start and continue doing things on your own, and you don’t always have enough strength, knowledge, or assertiveness. But one phone call can change many things. And once again, you hurry to respond, and once again, you are anxious to research, discover and meet new people.

Olga Suntsova
Translation by Liubov Ambrose


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