By Cheilaugh Garvey, Primary Art Teacher
I’m not much of a beach bum, and I certainly don’t relish sporting my translucent pallor in a bathing suit, so when December break approached, I thought, why not go to Siberia and just embrace the cold?
I contacted my Russian friend Tanya, a fellow teacher who lives in Ust Ilimsk, a small Siberian city located in the Irkutsk region, and we came up with a great “vacation” for both of us; I would join her in her English language classes during my break and help her high school students, assist other English teachers over the course of the week, and share my native tongue with Siberians who had never heard or met a native English speaker in the flesh, let alone a “real” American!
And so my Siberian journey began…
Tanya has been my friend for over two decades. My Russian sister in law set us up as pen pals (no email!) when we both were new mothers living thousands of kilometers apart. This was during the pre-Perestroika era, where food, sundries and money in the Soviet Union were in short order. We corresponded on paper through thick and thin, sharing our mutual family stories and financial struggles, the sad passing of relatives and the tragic death of her young husband to cancer. We exchanged our woes and wonders about motherhood, compared and contrasted notes on our respective education systems and exchanged photographs of our lives. Every few months, I would ship a box of used children’s clothing from the United States to this remote part of Russia where she was busy raising her daughters in one of the harshest areas of the world. This continued for years until we finally met face to face for the first time in Canada, and spent a few days exploring Toronto together.
Over the years, with the advent of email and Facebook, our friendship took on a new level of communication and now we were sharing our teaching experiences around the world in various classrooms and time zones via Skype “visits”. When we discussed the opportunity for me to meet her students in person in Ust Ilimsk, I leapt at the possibility.
Ust Ilimsk is 1000 kilometers north of Irkutsk, which is situated near Lake Baikal in Siberia. It is a city that is slowly dying, a remote part of Russia that used to be a hub for logging and hydropower, and formerly the location of several gulags during Stalin’s reign. It was officially founded as a city in 1966 and boasts snow covered, frigid, winter temperatures as low as -50C and summers that are humid and hot and can hit temperatures as high as 30C. The landscape is barren, but at the same time, beautiful Siberian birch trees fill the narrow spaces between stark concrete apartment buildings where, in winter, cars park haphazardly on unwieldy mounds of dirty ice and snow.
I flew into Irkutsk via Beijing; Tanya was waiting for me eagerly after so many years. We embraced, I pulled on my heaviest winter coat and we headed off to see her daughter, Nastya, where we would spend the night in her studio before the fourteen-hour bus ride the next day to Ust Ilimsk. We took a side trip to beautiful Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, containing more water than the North American Great Lakes combined. It’s the world’s deepest lake and considered the clearest and oldest in the world, estimated at 25 million years. From the Han-Xiongnu war during the 1st century to the Trans-Siberian Railroad built in the early 1900’s, Lake Baikal has a colorful history and boasts amazing terrain and animal life, like their famous sub-arctic seals and water birds. At the time of my visit, it was brisk and sunny. We snacked on locally smoked trout and hot tea along the beach.
A winter morning does not arrive with sunshine or blue skies in Irkutsk. We were at the bus depot by 9am, and it was still dark. The bus ride was arduous through small outposts and lonesome bus stops on the sides of empty snow covered, local roads. I watched nine movies, ate twelve tangerines, a bowl of soup and used 2 questionable outhouses. Although I did not speak Russian, I made acquaintances that insisted on “selfies”, and sharing their snacks.
As soon as we arrived at her apartment late that night, Tanya’s younger daughter, Liz, briefed me about her fellow classmates and their plans for me during the week. Tanya and I formulated our own ideas and set our alarms for Monday.
It was still “night time” when we left for school that morning, and the students were lining up for their assembly. Boys wore black suits and ties, and girls in bright green vests and skirts, with the youngest in blue dresses. Once the announcement had been made that I was there, students of all ages swarmed me with hugs and requests for photos and autographs, and begged me to visit their classrooms. I went from class to class that morning teaching third graders how to sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and fifth graders how to sing some Christmas carols. The high school students were inquisitive and excited to meet an American and quizzed me on everything from my favorite music to how I felt about the sanctions placed upon their country and the post-election presidential results. Did I like Russia? Did I speak any Russian? What does Russian sound like to an American? What was the best thing about Ust Ilimsk? I had been to their country twice before; I did like it. I was prudently apolitical.
We played Mad Libs, a game revolving around silly word choices, vocabulary games and debated politics “without judgment zones”. Students ranged from shy to brazen, but overall they were feisty and talkative, asking for American English pronunciations and asking to add slang to their vocabularies. Immediately after school, I met with English language teachers from across the region; many and most too embarrassed to speak out loud fearing their English “wasn’t good enough”. I shared EAL materials and anecdotes about my teaching experiences and culture. Every day I visited different levels of English classes, then with the teachers after school. When school was finished, there were “appearances” to be made across Ust-Ilimsk at the art school, hockey club and women’s craft groups. I smiled, signed autographs, posed for photographs while Tanya tirelessly translated my interview questions.
By the end of the week, I was exhausted. Happy, fulfilled, but exhausted. I had visited two school districts, seen dozens of classrooms, taught several lessons, had dinner with various students’ families, skied, leapt unabashedly naked into snowdrifts after a sauna, and became an honorary member of the boys’ ice hockey team.
This was one of the most memorable “breaks” I had ever experienced.
I didn’t realize how much darkness had surrounded my visit to Siberia, how little light there was in December, yet it never occurred to me how bright and light-filled it had been until I was boarding the plane to go home. The sunshine emanated from the children’s faces, their eagerness to learn, the curiosity and bravery they demonstrated by asking the questions, even written on the backs of their hands. The hospitality and generosity of Ust Ilimsk was second to none…in the deepest of Siberia, I had found warmth and light in the darkest cold of winter.
My enthusiasm for teaching had been rekindled in this remote part of the world. I had been inspired by inquisitive, motivated students and stimulated by fresh perspectives in a community that was reluctantly open-minded, but had demonstrated a willingness to embrace and accept a stranger into their fold; a momentous step for Russians, typically and traditionally xenophobic. Without saying as much, I had experienced the IB mission deep in Siberia…an “aim to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”.