The Last Walk to School

Why do I need to learn to read when I will be walking cows my whole life?

Most villagers own a cow or two but don’t have a pasture. They walk their cows to grassy areas and stay with them while they eat.

When Maria and Nikolai, my biological parents, were working, Maria would wake me up and there would be milk and bread with jelly, butter or wet bread with sugar. I would walk alone to school, it wasn’t far. Classes lasted from morning to afternoon. In school my teachers never encouraged me to learn. I don’t think they expected much from me because of the family I came from.

Education in my village of less than 1,000 wasn’t very important. I didn’t know why I needed to learn to read when I would be walking cows my whole life.

I was always tired because I stayed up late and went out to steal at night. Maria didn’t know I was going out at night but even if she had known I don’t think she would have said anything.

I liked kindergarten because they fed us kasha, a milk soup, but I hated sleeping after we ate. Naps were for little kids and I was already past that. I had to do things, explore things. I would say, “Can I go to the toilet?” which was outside, behind the school. I didn’t actually go. I would climb the fence and leave. Other times I couldn’t leave because the teacher would be watching, so I would hide under one of the playground slides. One time I was hiding behind the slide and the teacher was looking for me. I was scared because if she caught me she would get my ear. After she left, I ran for my life and wandered around the village.

I remember in first grade the teacher read the class a book called Bukvar, or alphabet book. I guess we were studying the letter Z because the animal name was zayets, which means rabbit. The story was about a rabbit that goes outside in the winter. I remember looking at the picture for a long time. There was a grass hill with a rabbit on top. The story compared a wild rabbit and another type of rabbit, a krol, which is a huge, grey domestic rabbit. One turns white in wintertime; the krol stays grey.

In school there were three classes: reading, math and gym class. In gym class, there was a rope tied to the ceiling that the kids would climb up as an exercise. I climbed up but was too scared to climb down. The teacher yelled at me, “Andry get down!” It was cold in the gym and I was wearing a hat. As I figured out how to get down the rope my hat fell on the floor. In my rush to do what the had said teacher said I forgot about my hat and went home.

At home Olya and Dima, my little sister and brother, were taking a nap. Maria was at work so she couldn’t tell me what to do. Only Hannah was home but I mostly ignored her. I dropped off my book bag. I didn’t change because I didn’t have any other clothes. I went fishing. Sometimes we would eat the fish I caught unless they were too small. When I got home it was very late, but Maria made me do my homework because I had played during the day.

The house had three rooms and was dark and cold. There wasn’t electricity so I sat at the table doing my math worksheet by candle light. That was the only source of light. I remember looking at the problem for a long time as if I would just see the answer: 7–5 = __. I couldn’t figure out what the solution was. It was easy to go up on my fingers but going down was hard.

The next day was my 7th birthday and it was windy and even colder than the day before. While I was walking to school, the mayor stopped his car me and asked, “Where is your hat?” I said it was at the school gym. He said, “Let’s go to the school to get it.” After I got my hat he explained that Maria, Olya and Dima were already in Tetiiv, the next town, and he had to take me there. Then we drove to Tetiiv in his grey Jetta.

Skinny, grey trees line the road to Tetiiv.

When we got to there, I saw Olya and Dima in the back seat of a big van. They were looking out the rear window at me. The mayor took my hand and led me to where the driver was standing and gave my hand to him. The mayor told him, “It’s okay to take them now.” As the driver and I walked to the van where Olya and Dima were, he asked me how I was doing in school. I don’t remember what I replied.

When we were leaving I saw Maria. She was standing in front of a huge building with a wooden door. To the right of the door was a sign that said Derzhavniy, or government building. She looked skinny and grey like the trees that lined the road on the way from Telizhentsy to Titiiv. She was crying. The van took us to the orphanage.

My adopted son, Andry, and I wrote most of these stories at a coffee shop on Saturday mornings. He titled the collection MY LIFE BEFORE: a Memoir of a Family Created Through Adoption.