A lesson in Russian gratitude

My colleagues and I burned up the Internet exchanging ideas for gifts to take to the former Soviet Union when we would visit in October. Twenty-eight of us, from many regions of the United States, would travel to schools in cities and towns all across Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan as participants in an educational exchange. We expected to collaborate with our colleagues from afar, but we had no idea how warmly we would be received by them and by everyone else we would meet.

We knew to take school supplies: maps, paperback books, bulletin-board cutouts, chalk and erasers, even masks for Halloween. We knew to take personal items for our host families: sweatshirts with university insignias, blue jeans, cassette tapes, calendars, picture books of the US. But what would we bring for the children, the hundreds of children we would meet, teach, and grow to love during our two weeks in the public schools?

"You have to have a gift for everyone," my well-traveled friends told me. So I asked everyone I knew for help and ideas. My state representative gave me a flag of Indiana and 50 state pins to present. The chamber of commerce donated T-shirts and pens. My state teacher's organization supplied me with pencils, and my local book dealer helped me find magazines on topics I knew were of interest to my hosts. I tried to imagine whom I might meet and what would be appropriate.

FOR children, I went to my friend the librarian. She gave me stacks of bookmarks, a roll of stickers, and, at the last minute, threw in a sheet of "tattoos," those water-permeable temporary designs that children use to decorate themselves. The tattoos, a bright yellow spiral design, were an advertisement for an Internet research site. Would the children of Russia know what tattoos were?

"Well, put them in your bag anyway," my friend said. "They won't take up any room." That was fortunate. My bags were already filled to capacity, and fully half of what I was taking I planned to give away.

"When do we give our families the gifts we've brought for them?" we asked our Moscow group leader a few days later, hours before we 28 high school teachers separated to travel to our individual destinations.

"In the beginning," she answered. "It's customary."

The first night, then, I gave my family my gifts. I was pleased with what I had selected: Magnetic Poetry and a pair of blue jeans for my colleague; a sweatshirt for her husband; a rare fossil for the son whom I already knew was an avid rock collector. "Spasebo," they said (spah-SEE-buh). "Thank you." And promptly gifted me back.

"Good thing I held back some gifts," I wrote in my journal that night. A few nights later, I gave them some American magazines and a few other items. They gave me more gifts in exchange. "Spasebo," they said. Thank you.

I soon saw that we were engaged in a ceremony of friendship deeply embedded in the culture. Wherever I went, I carried a canvas bag loaded with the presents I had chosen in Indiana. Whenever I offered my gifts, tangible overtures of friendship and tokens of my appreciation for the hospitality of the people, I was presented with gifts myself.

Sometimes I was given postcard views of the place I was visiting: the beautiful Kola Peninsula, 1,000 miles from Moscow, above the Arctic Circle. Sometimes the gift was food - cranberry pies and yellow raspberries from the North. Once the gift was a set of postage stamps; another time a sample of apatite, the ore that is mined in Kirovsk, the town where I was staying.

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.

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.

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