short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Working within the Framework of the Other's Values

People make decisions about us all the time. Are we good or bad? Do they like us? They use their own value systems, not ours, to make these decisions. During the Cold War, most official documents required by Americans in the Soviet Union were difficult to obtain, so it was no surprise that three weeks after I had arrived as an exchange scholar at the University of Moscow, the American Embassy was no closer to getting the paperwork to enroll my daughter, Lizzie, in school than they had been when we arrived.

"Don't worry," I told the embassy officer. "Soviet officials are used to working with embassy personnel, but I doubt that they've seen a mad American mother."

I home and asked a friend who had moved from Krasnodar to Moscow what she had done to enroll her child, and I followed the same procedure. I dressed Lizzie in a pretty pink dress since she did not yet have a school uniform and tied Russian-style ribbons in her hair, which I braided in Russian fashion. Then, off we went to meet the director of the school that I wanted Lizzie to attend.

The director of the school was very taken with Lizzie and with the fact that after only two weeks in Moscow, she was answering questions fully, accurately, and in literate Russian (something, as a foreign language teacher, I made sure of before going to the school). She was also impressed with Lizzie's level of education. (Of course, it helped that Lizzie had skipped two grades at home.) She accepted Lizzie and told me to get the napravlenie (enrollment permission) for her school at the Main School Directorate, located on a small alley off the Old Arbat.

Off I went, Lizzie in her pink dress and pink ribbons in tow. Lizzie quickly garnered the sympathy of the elderly lady in charge of transfers. Unusually gentle for a bureaucrat, she sympathized, "It's wrong to hold a child out of school for two weeks."

I concurred and mentioned that Lizzie cried at night because she could not attend school. Well, that comment, made to someone from a culture that puts children first and foremost, immediately brought forth a document. We were in fine shape until the bureaucrat had to fill in the name of the transfer city: Washington. She had thought we were transferring from another city in the Soviet Union and had no choice but to send us away to the International Division. However, she did send along a partially filled-in document, which made it easier for the International Division bureaucrat to make the decision to enroll Lizzie.

Technically, no one had to enroll her because she had not yet received permission for enrollment from the Ministry of Education. In those days, the ministry could dally forever so the mad American mother had to come up with a plan. I did. That plan was to use Russian values (love for children and appreciation for education) to get what Lizzie needed. Before leaving earlier in the day for the Main School Directorate, I had given myself 24 hours to get her enrolled, but I managed to do it in even less.

The International Division bureaucrat wavered. On the one hand, she had the paperwork from the International Division, but on the other hand, she had nothing from the ministry. I jumped in and pleasantly explained that I realized I might seem impatient but that was because of an American upbringing that I could not walk away from, even in a foreign land. "In America," I said, "we value education, and we love children."

"So do we," insisted the International Division bureaucrat. With that, she sat down and signed the napravlenie.

As she handed the document to me, she muttered, mostly to herself, "I wonder if we will ever get the permission slip for the files from the ministry." To this day, I have no idea if she ever did. However, Lizzie spent delightful months in school in Moscow, thanks to a bureaucrat who was willing to bend the rules during the height of the Cold War. I don't know if that kind lady ever felt any kind of reward for her remarkable deed, but I do know that, thanks to her, Lizzie, her friends, and school did as the one American child and the many Russian children learned a lot about each other and each other's countries from each other in a way that no political system can foster -- or undermine.


Excerpted and adapted from a story I published in a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.


  1. Thank you for sharing this experience. It opens my eyes to a world I haven't been able to experience.

  2. Elizabeth:
    That took courage. When I got angry at the high school here in our town, all I could do was cry.

  3. Wow, you had a good plan and persistence. Lizzie deserved all the help. Love of education, love for children prevailed despite the cold war, despite differences in culture. I wish I am resourceful and have tthe same will power that you have. A blessed, healthy and happy new year to you and your loved ones :)

  4. Val, Quietspirit, and MaLou, thank you so much for your comments, not just here but on many posts throughout 2009. I hope you have a wonderful, peaceful, and blessed 2010!


About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.