Year two at the orphanage

I (Diana) have gone from tutoring English one afternoon a week to two days this school year at the orphanage that is near our apartment. This year was about getting to know the kids and staff more and more. Building trust with anybody takes time, but Russians are wary by nature and slow to accept. Russian orphans have the double whammy of the cultural mistrust in addition to their abandonment. I knew I had to be as consistent as possible and show up even when I felt poorly.

Let’s start at the door. The vachtas — security — are older ladies who guard the entry way for all their worth, and all know me by now enough to remember my name to write in the visitor’s book. They even know I want the key to kabinet 202. We sometimes make small talk, and usually I get a smile out of them. My favorite is a sweet babushka with brightly-dyed red hair who reminds me of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggey-winkle. She bobs her head and shuffles around to get my key.

With key in hand, I head up to the 2nd floor passing several resident kids on the way. They all know me by now and practice saying “Hello”. That’s about as far as they can manage, but I always stop to ask about what they did that day. In fact, as a wait in my room for my “tutorees” to come, a few little boys have taken to stop in and chat. We usually talk about soccer. My heart has grown for these little guys, as they are child-like still and eagerly seeking attention. Whereas the older teens I tutor have no problem showing their contempt for English lessons and the inconvenience I bring to their ordered lives. One day I was hunting down 14-year-old Masha on her residence floor (I now have free reign to roam the halls), when a gaggle of boys gathered their courage to ask me if I was French. LOL. That was new to me. When I explained that I was American, they just stared. “Is that okay?, ” I asked them. “Oh, yes, it’s fine,” they answered. Then they wanted to know about Lydia who shadows me. 🙂

Not only do the other residents know me, but the vaspitateli — resident counselors or “moms” — for each group now readily greet me. Okay, sometimes they are pretty gruff, but they accept my roaming the halls and do what they can to track down wayward students. So, where are my reluctant students? Off smoking somewhere usually.

Updates on 3 of my students — Andrei, Masha, and Natasha:

Once Lydia and I settle into room 202, the kids start filtering through in 30-minute increments. Once I separated the girls into one-on-one sessions (they were beating each other up when together), the learning atmosphere improved greatly. The boys, Dima and Andrei, have always behaved well together, but 16-year-old Andrei tugs on my heartstrings the most. Dima is often ill, so Andrei and I play games and work on vocabulary associated with that game. His favorite activity was simply drawing cards on which I had written questions, such as “What is your favorite kind of music?” I was surprised how much he gravitated to this considering his language is very weak, and he’s a hoodlum of sorts around the orphanage.

Masha, 14, has been with me for two years now. She has her mood swings from desparately seeking attention to snarling at me. I just smile and laugh to get her to crack a smile. Just when I think she’s ready to bolt out the door when her lesson is over, she hangs on and on, so I know she appreciates the attention. Masha has taught me to press into a relationship to find the nuggets worth savoring. I have the tendency to “move on” when somebody is not immediately receptive to me, but I had to work at my relationship with Masha to build that trust. The reward is Masha actually attempting some English. Two years ago she refused to try.

Natasha, 15, is very unpredictable. Most days she growls at me until about half-way through the lesson when she decides to get to work and look me in the eyes. Like with Masha, I have know her for two years and must show her my tenacity by hunting her down for lessons and showing her that I’m not going anywhere. Trust me. At Easter I asked if she went to church service, she spat, “oh, lord, no!”. And the “lord” was not used reverently. I fear for her future. She has little capacity to consider life outside her childish adolescence and has never understood that she has worth. I could describe most kids at the orphanage this way, but Natasha seems to carry a heavier burden than most.

These are 3 of my 6 regulars. They occupy a lot of my brain space and have taught me much about reaching across cultural, language, and relational barriers.

What about sharing the gospel with them? I don’t yet have permission to go that far with the kids. But on the other hand, they haven’t forbid anything either. After Easter, I asked 15-year-old Vika about the meaning of Easter when I learned that she had been to an Orthodox church, and she told me an interesting combination of truth and myth. I corrected her on the myths, but it didn’t go much further. I don’t have a lot of time with the kids, but I’m slowly building relationships and trust — and in Russian orphan culture, that is foundational. Once, we invited Natasha and Masha over to our apartment during a break, and we hope to do more of that next school year, maybe in a group setting. Then we’ll have more time and opportunity. I also know that the stress of life right now has me in a place to be cautious about new ventures, though. This is an item for prayer.

I hope to continue with them in the fall in any event. The assistant director, with whom I have the most contact, understands that the kids and I have found common ground. And what better to do with ground, but build on it.


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