When my friend emailed to say, I see you’re travelling and teaching English again – wanna come do some stuff at the University of Essex for me? I said yes because you guys: the cash for a gig like that is huge. Enough to work for four weeks, but to fund twelve more. And that means my favourite thing in the world -- time for writing. But a month’s work became three weeks, became two, became one. And I was tired: I’d spent two months in Italy, living out of a bag, and just come back from a trip to Austria with a drama group who only had one volume setting: really fucking high. I was in need of my own bed.
She called me on the coach, on my way home. Can you come the day after tomorrow, she said. I know it’s hardly worth your time but I’m desperate. I’d already given my word is the thing. So I didn’t bother to unpack. I headed off. My bed had to wait.
I’d never taught Russian kids before. They’re so… serious. In a class of 17 year-olds it was the Italians and Spanish who responded to me. They vibe off my whole let’s do this the way you wanna do it approach. I call it collaborative learning. That’s code for: hanging out.
The Russian kids liked more structure. Authority. Discipline. They fascinated me. In one lesson, I had two groups explain the story of The Ant and The Grasshopper. The Italian kids enthused, “And so, for to making good party times, grasshopper always fun! Fun! Fun! And ant, he too much heavy, always working. In the winter, the grasshopper had much exciting memories, but not too much food. Ant said, okay! I give you food. But next time you must for to make preparations for difficult times ahead, crazy grasshopper!”
That’s Italy all over: ah! It’ll be okay. May as well have a good time whilst we can!
But then, the Russians: “Grasshopper. Urgh. He no understand hard work. He always drink. Always dance. Always play. There is no time for to play. Ant: he understand hard work. He good worker. Focused worker. In the winter, the ant, he have food to survive. The grasshopper, he have no food. And so? He die.”
The Italian students were up in arms. No! they screamed. The ant must give the grasshopper some food! The grasshopper – the fun, happy grasshopper – he can’t DIE!
The Russians were adamant: in their county, if you do not work, if you do not act responsibly, if you are not accountable, it’s certain death.
That difference between them, between those two groups of kids, those two attitudes and two cultures, it thrilled me.
Not long after, one of the Russian teachers sat in on a drama workshop I ran. I was petrified of her: she yelled at the kids after one of my warm-up songs – a song that had featured quite the provocative hip thrust. It was designed to be silly, a way to make them laugh and to lose their inhibitions. The way she spoke to them afterwards, the words were foreign but the meaning was clear: never were they to repeat that. That might be okay in England, but it most certainly shouldn’t be taken home.
Shit, I thought. This is going to be a loooooong workshop.
Except, afterwards, when I was hot and sweaty and exhausted from running and laughing and giving 110% to a job I love – teenagers, they’re the fucking shit, man – she approached me. And it wasn’t to bollock me. Wasn’t to tell me off. This Russian teacher with the serious face, she said: “When I ask my students what they remember about this campus in six months, they will tell me: Laura.”
It wasn’t so much a compliment as an instruction. “Yes, Olga,” I said. I was still scared.
“Come to work for me,” she said. “For two months. In Russia. I will pay for your flight, your visa. You will have accommodation and food.” Then she gave me a figure that would serve as my weekly wage.
I had to clarify: that much money *every* week?
Yes, she said. The catch was this: it'd be in Siberia.
I didn’t sleep that night. I tossed and I turned. I can’t go to Siberia, I admonished. No way. What will I do in goddamn SIBERIA? Nah. No. I’m going to tell her no. I’ll figure out another way to make rent.
By morning, my colleagues asked what I had decided. “The thought of it terrifies me,” I said. “SIBERIA. That is unlike anything I’ve ever known.”
Oooof, they replied. Well. Just tell her no, then.
“That’s not what I meant,” I replied. “It’s because it terrifies me that I have to do it. I can't be beaten by my fear. I have to go to Siberia.”
I leave in a week.