TEACHERS TOUR RUSSIA
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
Sitting in her stark office, the Russian grade school principal had the empathetic ears of Union County educators Louise Squire and Sharon Freeman.
Freeman and Squire were with a group of American educators who had just asked the Russian principal about the difficulties she faced in the classroom because of limited resources.
The Russian educator did not answer the question, at least not directly. Still, her response was illuminating.
We dont talk about our difficulties because if we did we would never stop. We just try to be positive, said the principal,who works in Petrozavodsk, a city north of St. Petersburg.
Squire and Freeman do not doubt the Russian womans words. The Union County educators were struck by how rundown Russias schools are and how few resources its teachers have.
After what we saw I dont think that I will ever complain about what I do or do not have, said Freeman, a fourth-grade teacher at Union Elementary School.
Freeman and Squire, a teacher at Cove High School, were members of a group of educators who toured Russia, Finland and Estonia as part of a program put on by the Portland-based Columbia Education Center. Participants studied environmental issues and social, economic and political relationships in the three countries.
Freeman and Squire saw natural wonders and historic marvels such as Russian Orthodox churches that were centuries old. Unfortunately, the schools they saw in Russia were not among the marvels.
Like many Russian buildings, the schools had a drab, run-down appearance and few furnishings. School budgets are so low that there is no money available to replace wornout chalkboards. As a result, many have been painted brown so they can be written on, Squire said.
The Petrozavodsk principal Squire and Freeman met was sensitive about the condition of her school.
Dont look at the walls. Just know that we have 40 good teachers, the educator told Squire and Freeman.
The condition of Russias schools was symbolic of much of the country. Many of the areas Freeman and Squire saw were run down. Except for portions of some cities, every area of Russia that Freeman and Squire saw seemed impoverished.
Everything was dirty and run down. Many buildings needed to be painted, Freeman said.
The teachers observed that everyone carries plastic bags with them when they go shopping. They cannot afford anything more luxurious.
You never see anyone with backpacks, Freeman said.
One also never sees anyone cutting their lawn in Russia because the people there do not have yards. Most people who live in Russias cities dont have lawns because they live in apartments. In the country, all the land surrounding houses is used to grow crops.
The crops grown often include potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers.
We had tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers with every lunch and dinner. We could have had them with every breakfast if we had wanted to, Freeman said.
Squire noted that cities in Russia are less spread out than in the United States.
There is less sprawl, said Squire, who teaches math, accounting, Spanish and home economics at Cove High School.
The Columbia Education Center group spent much of its time learning about environmental issues. In Estonia, for example, there is a lot of concern about the condition of Poldiski, which served as a military base for the Soviet Union.
Large amounts of fuel were dumped by the military into the Poldiski area because of the former Soviet Unions quota system. Under the system, a military bases monthly fuel quota would be reduced if it had not used it by the end of each month. Large amounts of fuel were regularly dumped out by people at the base so that the fuel quota would not be reduced.
Freeman and Squire were impressed with the national pride the people of Estonia have. Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic Republics, has been independent for only 32 years of its long history.
The people of Estonia have continued to maintain their culture and language, Freeman said.
Estonia was ruled by a variety of countries through 1918. It gained its independence and maintained it through 1940, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union. Estonia became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In addition to the fuel waste problem in Estonia, the visiting educators also learned about the impact global warming is having on people in Finland.
It used to be that the people of Finland could count on having their largest bodies of water frozen throughout the winter. Today they remain frozen for just two months a year.
Squire and Freeman saw many scenic wonders in Finland, Russia and Estonia. One thing they saw few of were waterfalls, which are rare because of the relatively flat terrain. Squire noted that the people of Russia take great pride in the few waterfalls they have.
They pale, though, when compared to places such as Multnomah Falls, Squire said.
Historic treasures that the people of Finland, Russia and Estonia take great pride in include their churches, many of which are centuries old. One of the most prized is a cathedral in the Russian town of Kizhi. The Russian Orthodox church has been compared to the Tajmahal, Squire said.
So striking is the cathedral that during World War II a Finnish pilot refused to drop his bombs on the structure even though it was reported to be occupied by enemy soldiers. The pilot checked to see if there were footprints in the snow around the cathedral. When the pilot saw none he refused to bomb the cathedral. The pilot was later honored by the Russian people, Freeman said.
Freeman and Squire were both struck by the toll that World War II took on Russia. The impact is most evident at St. Petersburg. About 500,000 people died there during World War II and a series of mass graves commemorates them. Each grave is like a raised garden bed mound and is 500 by 200 feet in size. An eternal flame burns at all the mass graves, each of which is covered by grass.
When you see the losses which other countries have had it really puts things in perspective, Freeman said.
Despite long days and much travel the tour passed quickly for Squire and Freeman, who are good friends.
There was so much. Everyday I thought, How can it get more interesting? Freeman said. And then it would.