Hannah's world - three years later

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In 1999, Monitor readers met Hannah, a 3-year-old Russian girl who was adopted by American parents. Photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman chronicled Hannah's journey from the stark orphanage in which she lived outside Moscow to her new life in Massachusetts.

The transition wasn't easy as Hannah adjusted to a new family, new home, and a world in which she had her own clothes, a big sister, and much more personal attention than ever before.

Today, Marjorie Coeyman and Ms. Freeman update us on what's happening in Hannah's life: She has a baby brother and a Boston terrier. She attends school and takes music lessons. Hers is a story marked by resilience, determination, and a lot of love.

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Today what seems normal to Hannah Faith Rocklein is riding in her family's shiny SUV, gliding through the school day among a pack of well-fed, Baby Gap-clad first-grade classmates, and settling down for the night in the perfectly appointed pink bedroom she shares with her big sister, Abby.

She rushes off to school in the morning with an HFR-monogrammed backpack poised on her small shoulders and chunky sneakers with flashing lights emphasizing each step. She loves watching a video of "The Wizard of Oz," plunking her way through a piano lesson, and taking a family vacation at Disney World.

But it was only three years ago that this little girl was hungry almost all the time and didn't have as much as a pair of shoes to call her own.

Her name then was Anna Sinyaeva. She was the occupant of bed No. 15 in a state-run orphanage two hours outside Moscow. A mother struggling with alcoholism had deserted her. Her father's identity was unknown.

The transformation of Hannah's life and prospects through adoption by an American family is in many respects truly a Cinderella story come true. The child who once seemed all alone in the world now has loving parents, a sister and a brother, a home in an affluent suburb, and even a chubby Boston terrier named Sadie with whom to romp.

And yet, unlike the fairy tales told in books, Hannah's transitions have not all come swiftly, and they have not all been smooth.

Before adopting Hannah, Mary and Bob Rocklein were advised not to take the 3-year-old child. Her medical records suggested signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. A doctor who had examined her called her unresponsive and developmentally disabled.

But the Rockleins, who first saw her pictured with the label "Waiting Child" in a brochure from an adoption agency, somehow felt she was meant to be their daughter. For Mary, who was adopted herself at the age of 2-1/2, the desire to add this girl to their family was especially fierce.

So in August 1999, disregarding the warnings, they flew to Moscow, finalized adoption proceedings, and brought Anna - renamed Hannah - home with them.

Things would never be quite the same again at the Rocklein household.

Becoming friends and sisters

First there was Hannah's adjustment to her new surroundings. Her big sister, Abby - Bob and Mary's biological daughter - was initially consumed with jealousy. Hannah herself was floored by the enormous change she was being asked to process in so short a period of time.

The immediate result was constant fighting between the girls and outrageous temper tantrums - including spitting, kicking, and screaming - from Hannah.

Yet the passage through this difficult period proved remarkably rapid. And when the family emerged from those dark days, they found themselves in a place they hadn't expected.

Within weeks, the two little girls had forged a close alliance.

Although Hannah and Abby look enough alike to be biological sisters, their characters could hardly be more different. Hannah is a born adventurer, eager to experiment and investigate. She experiences so little fear that her parents sometimes pray for her to learn a bit of caution.

Abby, however, is shy. She tends to cling to the familiar and see danger where none actually exists.

But with the powerful new bond between the girls, the Rockleins almost immediately became conscious of a change coming over Abby. Very quickly her new little sister - entirely unconsciously - was teaching her to play more freely and explore more widely.

"Hannah brought Abby out," says Bob. "I fully credit her with that, I really do."

At the same time, Hannah's needs awoke in Abby a deeply maternal side. She quickly took on the role of guide, teacher, and mentor in Hannah's new world. She answered the questions, set the example, and - when the adults around them were baffled - served as Hannah's interpreter and ambassador.

The girls shared equally in their delight when Mary became pregnant again and Noah - or "Buddy," as Hannah calls him - further expanded their family.

Good days and bad

But outside the house things were not always as wonderful. When Hannah began kindergarten things seemed to return to a darker time. She lagged behind the other children developmentally, especially in her speech, and her peers were quick to laugh and tease. She accepted the abuse passively, but suffered greatly.

"She came off the bus crying almost every day," remembers Mary.

One thing the Rockleins already understood, however, was that Hannah was not a quitter. While still in Russia and only 15 months old, the little girl became gravely ill and was not expected to recover. But she fought her way from the hospital back to the orphanage, earning from her doctors the nickname of "miracle child."

At school, Hannah proved herself to be a miracle child once more. She worked her way not just to peer acceptance but to social confidence. This year she's friends with everyone.

And instead of tears on the bus, Hannah's now the one who organizes the children into a line at the bus stop, with even the sixth-graders obeying her. Vacationing at Disney World her parents are both amazed and amused to hear her chatting with new friends - children and adults alike - she seems to make at every turn.

Hannah's schoolwork, however, remains a concern. She splits her time this year between kindergarten and first grade. Her teachers and various school specialists agreed at a recent conference that they're seeing progress, but her reading, speech, and writing skills trail those of her peers by about a year and a half.

Interestingly, however, concerns about fetal alcohol syndrome eventually proved unfounded, and other developmental problems that had been predicted never materialized. Concerns about Hannah now seem to be restricted principally to her language skills.

There are moments when she seems to drift in her own private world. Sometimes it's not clear if she fails to understand the instructions adults are giving her, or if - like many children given to daydreaming - she simply isn't listening.

Most of the time at school, the little girl flies about, lithe and energetic, long hair floating in the breeze and stretch pants hanging low on her nearly nonexistent hips. At home, she rushes to greet Noah with big hugs and kisses and squeals with joy at a playful nuzzle from Sadie.

There are moments, however, when Hannah's confidence clearly falters. She never speaks of Russia or her early memories. When the girls' singing teacher - a Russian immigrant - tries to speak to her in her native language, she seems baffled.

But she never forgets the fact of her adoption, and there is pain attached to that awareness. When learning Bible stories, the tale of the infant Moses' separation from his mother causes Hannah to break into sobs.

Mary remembers her own adoption and feels Hannah's hurt all over again. "You don't quite belong, and you just know that," she says. But perhaps it is also because of her own adoption that Mary refuses to agonize over Hannah's situation.

Adopting a child with Hannah's background was not the easiest route her family could have taken, Mary admits.

"Yes, of course it would be easier not to have to deal with these specialists and conferences and so on," she agrees.

"But things that are easier," she insists, "are not necessarily better."

Hannah the Happy

In some ways Hannah remains a mystery to her adoptive family. They are often amused - and occasionally bemused - by her fearlessness, her take-charge style of leadership, and her willingness to strike up a conversation with anyone at any time and in any place.

But what she remembers about her past, whether she worries about her challenges in school, what she daydreams about when she sometimes disappears inside herself - these are all things her parents wonder about but cannot know for certain.

What they do know, however, is that most of the time Hannah is their little ray of sunshine. She skips, she hops, she explores, she keeps a vigilant watch over both her little brother and her older sister. She is a giver. Her heart is full, and her desire to contribute to the happiness of her family is almost palpable.

Whatever path Hannah's development takes, says Mary, there's one thing she holds to as a certainty. "Hannah's going to be a special person, a caretaker, a helper. She has something special to give this world."

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