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A lesson in Russian gratitude

(Page 2 of 2)



The pattern continued at school. When I admired the traditional craft items the students had made in their domestic-science classes, the teachers gave me samples of the children's work and samples of their own. At the end of a Russian literature class, the teacher presented me with a copy of a famous painting of the legendary heroes the students had been discussing. I visited a social studies class and gave the teacher a map of the United States when the period was over. The next day, he met me at the door to the school. He had a ruble note from Czarist days and another from the Soviet period for me. My map seemed paltry by comparison.

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WHEREVER I went, I was given a gift. "Spasebo," I said, and wondered how I would ever fit it all in my suitcase.

I could not find a way to thank these people and not be thanked back. Except, I thought, for the children. When I spoke with them, they were trapped in their classrooms and contained behind their desks, so I could distribute my gifts and not be embarrassed by reciprocal generosity. Indeed, the teenagers accepted my bookmarks and pencils; the middle-schoolers loved the stickers. For the small children, I gave bright, crayon-shaped Band-Aids to their teachers. The children would never know where the Band-Aids had come from, and that was as I liked it.

One day when I was observing a math class, I noticed a ballpoint pen design on the back of a fifth-form student's hand. I tried to photograph this homemade tattoo to show my librarian friend, but the boy so vigorously waved his hand in the air to answer his teacher's questions that I couldn't capture his artistry on film. An hour later, watching an English class, I saw the boy again.

Prompted by the ballpoint-pen design, at the appropriate time I pulled the sheet of tattoos from my canvas bag. The students knew instantly what they were. A tall girl with long blond braids and unusual poise was chosen by consensus to cut the tattoos apart.

"Careful, careful," the other children, who clustered around her, said in Russian. One boy, slight in form, was particularly eager. He leaned forward, his eyes fixed on the scissors. I watched the girl separate the designs, snapped a picture of the watchful group, and then left to attend a performance in the music room.

When I returned and slipped into a desk at the back of the room, I saw that every student was wearing a bright yellow spiral on the back of his or her hand. They waved their hands in the air to show me. "Spasebo," they whispered across the room.

"You're welcome," I whispered back from my station.

The bell rang, and the children filed out, fluttering their hands in my direction as they left. The boy who'd been so attentive to the process of cutting the tattoos apart broke rank and darted toward me. I couldn't miss the intensity in his wide brown eyes. He stopped and thrust out his hand. A small red rubber eraser, no larger than a dime, lay in his palm. He pushed it across the desk to me. "Spasebo," he said. Thank you.

Suddenly, I understood. And now, of all the treasures I brought home from Russia, the little red eraser is closest to my heart. A small boy, following the custom of his country, helped me to understand that to say thank you, as I wish to say to the people of Russia, words are not enough.