I had a Russian teacher once who didn’t much like me. In her defense, I did not attend class with particular regularity. In my defense, this was because she had committed two terrible indiscretions, the second being worse than the first: she had a class favorite, and it wasn’t me.
Instead of witnessing such wrong-headedness, I took to lolling about in the park with my friends. But come the final exam, I made sure to attend. I am nothing if not a model of propriety.
It was an oral exam, and it was worth the bulk of our grade.
“Ruth,” she said, “as you may have heard, we read War and Peace in class.” I had not heard this. To have heard this would have required me to associate with my classmates.
Instead of answering, I genteelly scraped my jaw off the floor and rearranged my features into a stretched, sub-par variation of “oh, did you not notice me in class?”
All this time she was looking at me from the top of her eyes, and I was steadily smiling back. Maybe overly widely. Never show fear, shock or complete consternation to the enemy.
“Ruth,” she said, “please tell me about Prince Andrei and Natasha.”
I nodded. Like many a Russophile, after all, I HAD read the damn book, or at least the Peace part of it. But in English, my friends. Not in Russian. Not after but three months of the language! I could not FATHOM how the class had done it. But fake it, I would.
And so, with a polite cough, I passionately brought Tolstoy down a notch, to my simpleton’s grasp of Russian.
Once upon a time, there was a Frenchman called Napoleon. Napoleon did not like Russia. No! Napoleon told himself, Russia must—suffer! Russia—bad! (This is Napoleon, not I. I like Russia. But Napoleon—No!)
Napoleon with many Frenchmen came to Russia, and then Napoleon—with pistols! Bad! Very bad! Many pistols! More than before! The Russian people—sad! War! Many men come in to war!
Prince Andrei also. But Prince Andrei loves Natasha! Natasha additionally loves Prince Andrei’s! They have met each other to dance in a nice place. She is beautiful. He is—there! They dance! And they love each other.
Then Prince Andrei asks Natasha to—live with him forever! Natasha agrees! Prince Andrei is in the war! It is bad! Natasha is at home. France is bad! Napoleon! War! Pistols!
Suddenly, Prince Andrei is—A gun! No! Pain! In his body! Prince Andrei—it is very sad! Prince Andrei’s soul!—leaves him! Forever!
It is very sad. There, that is the anecdote of Prince Andrei and Natasha in War and Peace. Thank you.
She looks at me. I’m sweating and congratulating myself on my genius. It is incidentally the first time I truly realize how flexible one becomes with a new language when one doesn’t have a full vocabulary. And that one should always know the verb for dying.
“Ruth,” she says, in English now, “we only read one scene. When they met, at the ball. Not the whole book.”
“Ah,” I say, growing hotter.
“What am I going to do with you?”
Ah, this is great. I hadn’t realized I would get a vote here. I am very good at advice. I lean forward. “If I were you, I would either fail me or give me an A+.” I nod. “I would lean toward the A+.”
She dismisses me. I don’t get a chance to explain why I would give myself the A+.
My grade comes in two weeks later. She’s had the audacity to give me a B+. I fume. I would have preferred a stronger statement, one way or another. But I guess this is what she did, nick the pleasure from a high grade, showing ultimately the point is knowledge but also respect.
Years later we met again and I can say I was still not her class favorite. And once again hers became the only Russian class I ever skipped.