Practicing d'etente in a classroom

MY second-grade class got a firsthand look at the ``enemy'' and decided that he wasn't what they expected. Watching them get to know him convinced me that American and Soviet adults can know and trust each other, bit by bit, just the way Americans come to know and trust each other. Andrei Melville, a prominent Soviet scholar, was in Philadelphia to talk about a book he co-wrote with other Soviet and American scholars, and he spent an hour in our classroom.

We had begun to study about the Soviet Union because of the previous Reagan-Gorbachev summit. It hadn't been an easy unit. The class believed Russia was a scary place, filled with unhappy people who had to wait in lines for too little food and be ordered about by soldiers. And they knew the Russians had lots of bombs all aimed at the US, and that the only reason they didn't shoot them off was that we had lots of bombs aimed at them. My students also knew that our weapons were peaceful and theirs were violent. And the Russians were causing trouble all over the world. So it wasn't easy.

I told the children that Dr. Melville wasn't going to talk about war or the arms race, but my students seemed to expect a huge, burly giant to march in the room, snap his heels together, and begin to growl at them. They had learned to fear the Soviets.

But finally they were going to meet a real Russian, a writer who would talk about what it is like in Russia. Little did they (or I) know what a delightful experience was in store for us.

Melville didn't look like a bear when three eight-year-old girls led him into class. Whitney, Wendy, and Leigh had gotten up the courage to be hostesses, and when they led him in, he looked like a friendly man. He was short; he wore glasses and a suit not unlike what their fathers wear; and he gave a smile to the girls seated on the floor as Abby led him to the front of the room. Seeing that Abby was safe with him, the rest of the girls relaxed a bit.

When I introduced him to the class, I saw them grow more eager. They had prepared a picture book for his 10-year-old daughter, to show her how they lived in Philadelphia. We had included a Polaroid of each of them along with an illustrated list of what they loved to do. And they each had a question for him.

At first the hands went up tentatively, but as the first questions were answered in a warm and gentle way, each girl took her turn. ``Do you have guinea pigs?'' one asked. ``What's that?'' Melville replied. ``Here, look in our book.'' ``Oh, yes, my daughter wanted one but we couldn't get one because I knew I would have to take care of it.''

Do you have Coke? (``No, but we have Pepsi.'') Do you drink it warm or cold? (``Oh, it must be very cold!'')

Do you have TV? (``Yes.'') Do you have cable? (``No, there is a disagreement about whether we should have it or not.'') Does your daughter like to sled? (``What are sleds?'' Quick opening of the picture book. ``Oh, yes.'') Do you have sleigh rides? (``Yes, but just for fun.'') Do you have a car?

Is your daughter's school a lot like our school or a lot different? Does she wear a uniform? (``Yes, but she doesn't like it.'') How long does school go in the afternoon? Does she go during the summer? (``No, she has vacation.'')

How did you learn English? Was it hard? Are drugs more a problem in Russia or the US? (``I think more in the US, but if we don't do something about them, they will be just as much a problem for us.'')

And finally, ``Do you have rainbows?'' (``Ah, yes, of course.'')

And all the while the interaction was as warm and natural on both sides as if a favorite uncle was visiting. The classroom was transformed. And when I asked if some of the girls wanted to take Dr. Melville on a tour, all the hands shot up, and two took him by the hand to show him their favorite spots and introduce him to special people. They were so impressed when he spoke in French to the French teacher.

When he left, there was a calm that took over, ever so briefly, in a class of 18 young girls. They had met the enemy, and he was a kind man. He had been touched when they gave him a school T-shirt for his daughter.

One small interaction probably said it best. One of the girls was drawing a picture and she asked him if his daughter liked to color. He said she did. ``Would you like to take this to her so she could finish it?'' (``Of course.'')

Now I know some people will say this is all too simple and sweet, and they will probably use the word ``naive.'' It's true that we didn't discuss Afghanistan or Central America.

But this simple sharing of a child's picture symbolizes to me the cooperation and the spirit demanded of Americans and Soviets on many levels, to find ways to paint the full picture of two superpowers discovering how to coexist instead of threatening each other with daily destruction.

At least I know 18 little girls who think there's a lot better chance that we can do it than they did before they met a real Russian.

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