It’s every teacher’s worst nightmare: an unmotivated student entirely uninterested in the subject. That’s the kind of student Albert was at first. He and his three younger sisters were born and raised in Finland, where their father was working and where Albert had completed nine grades in a Finnish school. The kids spoke Russian only at home. And it was torture for them—the parents’ native language felt utterly foreign and appeared detached from their everyday Finnish life.
Then the father was unexpectedly transferred back to Russia. Albert was now faced with the challenge of graduating from a Russian school and, naturally, passing the EGE (the Unified State Exam) in Russian Language. Since in Finland children complete twelve grade levels, unlike in Russia, where eleven grades are standard, Albert had to not only catch up to the school program while completing three grades in two years, but also prepare for the infamous exams that Russian children begin preparing for since practically first grade. And all that in a non-native and hardly-beloved language.
I’m a Russian language and literature tutor and I help high schoolers prepare for the EGE without losing their sanity. I first met Albert at the very beginning of his last school year. He spoke quite well, almost without an accent, but wrote so poorly, even on a short dictation exercise, that his parents’ request to get him up to 45-50 points Roughly equivalent to a grade “C”. on the EGE seemed absolutely fantastical. The bane of Albert’s existence was the second part of the exam, which required him to read a text and write an essay on it, incorporating examples from Russian literature. He’d sometimes switch to English when he didn’t know a word, couldn’t grasp the concept of metaphors, had never read poetry, and of the literature studied at school remembered only Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter—though he couldn’t recall the author’s name. As for reading, my new student didn’t like it in any language—in general, he couldn’t understand why he should be subjected to all this suffering. The Russian teacher at school had told Albert’s parents that their son would not get even the minimum score to pass the exam. The parents, for their part, hoped their son would get into one of Moscow’s universities. Without a scholarship, of course.
For two months or so, we struggled through the elementary and middle school curricula, torturing each other. I tried hard to be relatable, came up with mnemonics, wrote funny poems in Internet slang to help him remember proper pronunciation and stress for reading…. All the while, a deeply unhappy Albert waited for my attempts to entertain him to finish, then played computer games until the next lesson.
One day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. For an essay, I had asked Albert to “re-read” several sections of War and Peace, a book they were supposed to have studied the previous year at school. Naturally, Albert hadn’t done anything, and was sitting there with a bored look, silently hating everything.
I went into teacher mode.
“You realize you have to pass the EGE, right? And you’re not doing your homework. Not doing practice tests. Not reading. I’m not asking for the impossible here. Read in Finnish, read in English, however you like, but could you just get through a couple of pages a week?! I’m not asking you to read the whole epic!”
“I don’t even know what an epic is!”, my student wailed.
“‘Game of Thrones’ is an epic!”, I said in utter desperation...and suddenly realized I’d hit the bullseye. For the first time in two months of lessons, a hint of interest appeared in Albert’s eyes. He looked skeptical, but no quite so apathetic.
And so I explained literature theory, using modern TV series for examples. He was a real expert on these shows and now he understood me perfectly. I told him that “Game of Thrones” was an epic, because this popular series (like the books it’s based on) comprised an entire “universe,” with global events and countless characters that not only battled for control of kingdoms but also united to confront a mortal threat to all of humanity. “Breaking Bad,” a series about a chemistry teacher who started producing drugs, was more like a novel because it showed significant development in the characters as they endured unbearable circumstances. Everyone’s beloved “Sherlock” was essentially a collection of mystery novellas, while “Lie to Me,” a series about a psychologist that can sense lies by observing a person’s facial expressions, was an excellent novel with one leading plot line. Using the death of Lord Bolton from “Game of Thrones” as an example—he stabbed his overlord’s son to death and was killed by his own son in the following season—I explained chiastic structure to Albert. “Black Mirror,” a series about a future where progress has played a cruel joke on humanity, served to illustrate the building blocks of a dystopia.
For the rest of the lesson, we were engrossed in heated discussions over whether Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf from “Game of Thrones,” was a romantic hero, what John Snow (one of the bravest and noblest characters of the series) had in common with Pyotr Grinyov, and whether the fate of medieval bastards differed from that of Pierre Bezukhov. We recalled several sayings of Lord Ned Stark and tried hard to find Russian analogues. On one occasion, we were deciding what the White Walkers were an allegory for in modern life—Albert insisted that these almost mythological creatures threatening natural life symbolized nuclear war, while I argued that they represented ecological disaster. Around this time, his mom knocked on the door and told us we had gone an hour over the lesson time.
By the next class, Albert had read the chapters of War and Peace I had assigned him. When we started discussing how the events in these chapters could be used in an essay, Albert briefly stalled, thinking hard, then, surprising himself, said:
“Hélène is so nasty...she stinks.”
That was it. Here was a person ready for a serious conversation. Albert had his own opinion, and that meant something had hooked him. To the point that he had wanted to discuss! Then he sat down to read War and Peace from the beginning. In Russian!
From then on, we got along great. We started to laugh a lot in lessons and Albert would come up with his own ways to better remember terms and rules. Examples from Russian poetry had meant nothing to him and now we had Tyrion the dwarf to personify “understatement,” and Gregor Clegane, a knight of superhuman height, to embody “hyperbole.” Many characters’ names on “Game of Thrones” were perfect neologisms, and “crows” were a metaphor, since that’s what the epic called the Night’s Watch guards, who wore black clothing to show their renunciation of their family, title, and rights.
Albert used to say that all activities besides computer games were useless. Sadly, I don’t know much about games, but I quickly saw how much he loved the art of cinema. I suggested he watch several film adaptations of Russian classics. While The Ascent, a Soviet film based on Vasil Bykov’s novel Sotnikov, didn’t impress him, I was surprised at his interest in the role morphine played in Anna Karenina’s suicide. When I was at school, the accepted interpretation of Anna’s decision to kill herself was a “tormented soul and unsolvable life problems,” but my Finn was convinced: if Anna hadn’t been “intoxicated” (he used the English word) with morphine, everything would have turned out differently. Though he started reading the book, he couldn’t quite finish—such a thick novel does, of course, require certain reading skills and a lot of time. After watching the British series “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” starring Daniel Radcliffe however, he happily read Bulgakov’s A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which spurred a dialogue about the differences between Russian and British humor. The Master and Margarita followed, and also inspired discussions spanning several lessons.
That’s how my “hopeless” Finnish student began reading. Not because his parents or teachers or I forced him to or talked him into it. He simply understood that books are full of plots and events that are often more complex and surprising than our favorite series and that you can discuss the actions and adventures of book characters with no less enthusiasm than you would the newest blockbuster. By spring, when his parents offered him a choice between Finnish and Russian universities, Albert just said, “What, did I study Russian this long for nothing?” And he thrilled his parents and teachers when he passed the EGE with a solid “B,” overtaking a few Russian-speaking classmates as he did.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Cover picture: Flickr
Follow us on Facebook.