A Treasured Russian Tradition is Violated

The Pageantry of the First Day of School

In Russia, September 1 is the first day of school. It is a day of pageantry, parades, patriotic music, and nervous, yet excited, children. Each year, I am in Moscow for the opening of the university’s academic year and I often take advantage of this opportunity to visit local Russian schools to enjoy the unique and moving ceremonies that initiate the new school year in Russia. We have nothing quite like this in America.

This year, the weather in Moscow was beautiful on September 1 and the children and their parents were able to enjoy the bright fall morning. Little boys were dressed in dark suits with ties, and the girls were just gorgeous in their lace dresses with large bows in their hair. Boys and girls carried large bouquets of flowers for the teachers and their parents proudly walked with them, often hand-in-hand, with cameras poised.

At the local school in my neighborhood, the school yard began to fill up around 8:30 a.m., and the recorded martial music started blaring from the loud speakers shortly after the crowds began to gather outside. Parents and grandparents were as excited as the children and the three groups continually mixed together, despite the efforts of the school officials.

The first order of business was to line up the classes and group them together with their teachers; students identified their teachers by the class number held high above the teachers heads on sticks. This was a chaotic scene, but no one seemed to worry, and after a short time the classes were more or less in line. Periodically, a hassled parent would come bursting through the crowd dragging his or her child and frantically searching for the right line for their student. The class numbers were announced, the teacher’s name given, and the students marched into the courtyard to form a half-circle near the front doors of the school.

After most of the classes were standing in order in the courtyard, the oldest students in the school – comparable to our 11th graders in the States – were invited into the courtyard with much applause. But the loudest applause came when the class numbers for the first-year students was announced. They were clearly the focus of the ceremonies and the parents struggled to get photos, even climbing on the platform and the steps by the front door to get the best picture. Periodically the teachers gently, but firmly, reminded them not to block the path to the front doors.

Then the “platform party” appeared. The school principal and her master-of-ceremony, whose deep bass voice could be heard over the noise of the crowd, called the group to order and the visiting dignitaries were introduced. An army general, an air force general, and a naval commander were the first to be identified; they were all decked out in full uniform with a chest full of medals. Next, several distinguished professors and a local politician were introduced. One of the officers and the local politician were allowed to give a short speech — speeches to which few people listened.

The crowd did quiet down, however, when five first-graders were lead up to the platform. The first little boy quoted some poetry and passed the big microphone on to the next one. Each student did their lines flawlessly, often shouting into the microphone, which they were apparently told to do.

The MC, dressed in a white suit with a bright red dress shirt and white tie, began reading off the class numbers and, as he did so, the teacher whose name he called would lead her students to the front steps and then into the school, to the cheers of the parents. Gradually the courtyard began to empty until there were only two groups of students left – the oldest and the youngest, who were then rearranged into a half-circle in front of the platform party, the little kids on the inside and the big ones behind them.

At this point in the ceremony, the tallest boy, a handsome kid, picked up one of the cutest first graders and placed her on his shoulders and then paraded around the semi-circle. She smiled and rang a small bell as she enjoyed the attention of the crowd. If she was nervous, it was not evident. When the tall boy returned her to her place, I noticed his grandfather came over to him and gave him a “high five.” He was clearly proud of his grandson.

After another short speech by the principal, the older students handed over the textbooks to the new first-graders, grabbed their hands and marched them into the school. Parents and grandparents were now free to leave, but no one seemed to be in a big hurry. In a country like Russia, where education is highly valued and where parents put their hope for their children in quality education, they wanted to savor the moment.

The Terror in Beslan

What a terrible tragedy to have this pageant, this tradition, violated by a group of 32 terrorists! I could not believe it when I heard the news that night about the attack in Beslan, Russia. I can hardly imagine the pain and fright that these parents and children experienced when the excitement of the first day of school was interrupted by gun shots, explosions, and masked terrorists charging into the school courtyard. The innocence, the excitement, the hopes – all evaporated in a few frightening moments.

Russia has experienced years of terrorist attacks — more than 16 since June 1995, including explosions at Metro stations, hostage takeovers of theatres and hospitals, downed airliners, and now a violent seizure of a school. We can identify with their pain, in light of September 11, 2001, and probably the best response is to express our condolences, offer them help with medical and other supplies as needed, and find ways to work together in this struggle against a common enemy.