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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ugly Uniforms Didn't Hinder Good Education

The academic year is in full swing. This Sept. 1, I noticed that the children came to school in their finest garb, carrying bouquets for their new teachers, just as we used to. But with each passing year, school seems more like a traditional club for children, where they can "party" and trade game cards, rather than a place to actually imbibe knowledge.

I remember when I entered the first grade. I had a dark-blue, checkered knapsack no one else had anything like it. Before the start of the school year, my parents went to a parent-teacher conference, and my mother came home upset. "They gave us a list of 24 objects," she said and my parents had to buy all of them. In addition to pens, pencils, colored paper, glue, notebooks, a diary, folders, letters the list went on my parents were supposed to buy "scissors with blunt tips." Where would we find those? My mother was also upset that girls hair could only be styled in braids or cut short. I, who had worn my long hair loose or in a ponytail, had my luxurious tresses cut short.

The girls uniform was a brown dress of awful material, with a black and white apron, and lace sewn onto the collar and cuffs. The boys wore ugly, gray suits. In a few years, we hated our uniforms and tried in every possible way to come to school dressed in something else. Class clean-ups or subbotniki were holidays, because we could come to school in "work clothes." On such days, many little girls appeared in their best finery; some even came in patent-leather shoes.

Before I entered ninth grade, I had a uniform sewn for me through the atelier of the Detsky Mir childrens department store. And although the apron looked a bit better, the dress was of the same brown school fabric. When I was finishing high school, the uniform changed. Girls in the upper classes were to wear dark blue suits; the boys, blue blazers. As attitudes became more liberal toward the end of the Soviet period, the government couldnt keep tabs on the boys, who had started coming to school more and more often in jeans; the girls made only minimal attempts to wear something that looked like the school uniform.

With the triumph of democracy, uniforms were no longer mandatory. This made kids happy, but, oddly enough, some parents were upset. Uniforms had been a great leveler, with all children equal on a sartorial level, and coming to school in everyday clothes merely pointed up the differences in childrens social and economic status. Clothing thus became an additional type of stress for kids at school.

Okay, so we hated our uniforms. But what about the education and training we received?

I clearly remember our first lesson in first grade: We were told just how to sit at our desk in an "attitude of attention," precisely how to raise our hand, exactly how to put our things in our desk: first the diary, then textbook, then notebook, and so on.

In those days, a lot of attention was paid to mandatory minutiae. It wasnt easy to fulfill all the school requirements, and our parents, of course, shouldered the greatest burden in that regard. In a country where there constantly were problems in finding specific items, our parents had to demonstrate unusual inventiveness: to find a certain required object, buy it, bring it to school.

We also had to continually bring "materials from nature" such as pine cones, dried leaves, chestnuts. Schools taught a sort of reverence toward nature. In first grade, we had to make a "nature calendar," noting with special symbols a clear or gray day, whether or not it was rainy, what the temperature was. Perhaps this inculcating in children a love for nature was part of developing a "love for the Motherland." We were to love our Motherland deeply and all its grasses, leaves, rivers and fields.

I was in first grade for exactly 23 days, and then I fell ill. For many weeks, I studied at home, returning to school only in November, on the day that they were inducting the first-graders into the Oktyabryata, the childrens organization at a level below the Pioneers. I couldnt miss that event.

The Oktyabryata pin, a red star sporting a portrait of little Lenin, had changed somewhat by 1969, when I got mine. The stars had once been metal with gold on them, but by 1969 we got plastic stars.

We were accepted into the Oktyabryata by the Pioneers. In addition to giving us the star pins, the Pioneers also gave us little books they had made themselves. Each page of the booklet contained a picture with an Oktyabryata rule written on it. The first rule was, "Oktyabryata Are Friendly Kids."

Then our class was divided into "little stars," each with five children. The groups consisted of different positions: a leader or "commander of the little star" a nurse, a teachers helper, and so on. We were all supposed to make signs that signified who we were. The commander wore a red star; the nurse, a red cross. One little boy came up to the teacher with a sign on which he had drawn a bird of paradise. "What does this mean?" the teacher asked. "It means I love birds," the boy replied. But since there was no such bird-loving position in the "little star" group, the boy had to redo his sign.

Years later, my son started attending school when the Oktyabryata, Lenin and Motherland were no longer part of the curriculum. Now Moscow has taken the place of the Motherland; the countrys capital is now studied as a special subject. (My son recently had his grade lowered in "Moscow knowledge" because he didnt know how many floors the Izmailovo hotel complex has.)

"Work lessons" no longer exist; manual labor has been replaced by informatika. Apparently, todays schools dont think people will have to be able to do anything with their hands. As a result, my son cant hammer in a nail or glue anything together. And I wont talk about his penmanship. No one requires anything of children anymore, but in addition to getting rid of those minutiae we had to master, schools have also reduced their level of requirements in academic subjects.

My son first went to a public school. But I got the impression that he wasnt really learning anything there. The only thing the teacher did was to scold and sometimes humiliate the students. Teachers in public schools receive very low wages, and they sometimes take their anger at life out on the kids.

So we transferred our son to a private school with a good reputation. The teachers there are respectful and very kind. The academic process doesnt elicit repulsion. But theres the same problem: Almost nothing is required of the children. They do their homework in half an hour, and Im not sure that my son is receiving deep, systematic knowledge on any given subject. For now, it turns out that were paying the school to treat our son humanely.

These days I wonder if our Soviet school system with its strict discipline and at times silly requirements was really so bad after all? When all is said and done, it did give us a good education.

Irina Glushchenko is a theater critic and freelance journalist. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.