(Mama’s caption to this google streetview shot I pulled: “My God, it looks even worse!”)
There were several options for schooling in Vilnius. There were district schools, an art school, and then there were “city schools” which specialized in certain subjects. All of the schools were taught in a specific language depending on the school’s population, such as Russian, Lithuanian, or Polish so for Mama the natural option was to go to a Russian School. In Vilnius there were two Russian school that were also considered sort of unofficially Jewish. About a third of the students and a third of the teachers were Jewish. One school specialized in Mathematics, and the other, which Mama attended, specialized in English. Unlike the other schools in the area, where English was taught twice a week, in this school there were English lessons every day.
English had only come in as the new fashionable language after the war — before then the foreign language most commonly taught was German. Also after the war, there were so few people around that Jewish people had more of a chance at making careers than they would in later times. The principal of Mama’s school was a Jewish man who had quite a high level of esteem. He was a decorated war hero, and he was also a man in a school, which was very rare and therefore somewhat revered. He was a decent man by all accounts, and instead of avoiding hiring other Jews as was the general unstated protocol, he had a private policy that, when a Jew vacated a position in the school, he would hire another Jew to replace them. The principal unfortunately died in his fifties of stomach cancer and was replaced by a very unpleasant woman. At that time immigration also began, stripping the school of much of its Jewish staff and student body. Before then however, life at the school was very “hamish”, as Mama puts it, very homey. The school had not only more than the usual Jewish teachers and students, but also a Jewish custodian, librarian, doctor and nurse.
One of the teachers that worked at the school was my own grandmother, Mama’s mother. Baba taught English there for 20 years (enough that she is now receiving a pension from the Lithuanian government!), and so admitting Mama to the school was pretty much a given. However, all children applying to city schools had to go through a cursory examination to make sure they met a certain standard of intelligence. When Mama was six, she was brought before a panel of teachers, a doctor and a nurse for evaluation.
Mama was a strange child. She was extremely well-developed in her cognitive skills, but made up for it by being very behind in physical development. When at age one she was speaking in complete sentences and carrying on conversations, she couldn’t as much as climb a couch, and she fell, stumbled, tripped and got stuck in things constantly. Her overall motor skills were impaired until puberty and caused her a lot of embarrassment before then. But since this panel was examining Mama’s intelligence level, she had a very easy time getting into the school.
Mama stood there in her good dress and a huge round bow and was asked if she knew her letters. Well, Mama was surprised at the question, because she could read since she was four, when she had read every publication in the house including several medical journals. (Which led to her explaining to her astonished grandmother the several ways of how an OBGYN could tell that a woman was carrying twins without an ultrasound.) So Mama said of course she knew her letters. Then a teacher asked, without much hope (and rather condescendingly), if she could maybe read a little?
Little Mama: “Of course.”
The Teacher: “Alright, can you read that?”
She pointed to a huge banner hung behind her.
Little Mama: “По ленинскому пути – к коммунизму!”
Which means, roughly, “Onwards on Lenin’s Road - to Communism!” And as soon as she had read it the teachers said alright alright she could read, that was enough. Then they showed her a picture and asked her to describe it.
Little Mama: “It’s a rabbit eating the bark off a young tree.”
The Doctor: “Is that good or bad?”
Mama thought for a moment.
Little Mama: “I suppose it’s good for the rabbit but bad for the tree.”
At this, Mama was pronounced a philosopher and admitted.
When my grandmother was on the panel one year, the same test was administered to a little boy.
A Teacher: “Describe this picture.”
The Little Boy: “There’s a boy and there’s a goose. The goose is about to bite the little boy in the ass.”
He (and his twin brother, there were two of them!) was in fact admitted to the school despite or perhaps because of this answer.