From Russia, with Child Experimentation

September 16th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Polls

Forget my headline. I actually have a huge sense of admiration for this man, Clifford J. Levy, after reading his story of throwing his children defenseless into the icy waters of Slavic education in the upcoming NYT Magazine. Here’s him setting the stage:

My three children once were among the coddled offspring of Park Slope, Brooklyn. But when I became a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, my wife and I decided that we wanted to immerse them in life abroad. No international schools where the instruction is in English. Ours would go to a local one, with real Russians. When we told friends in Brooklyn of our plans, they tended to say things like, Wow, you’re so brave. But we knew what they were really thinking: What are you, crazy? It was bad enough that we were abandoning beloved Park Slope, with its brownstones and organic coffee bars, for a country still often seen in the American imagination as callous and forbidding. To throw our kids into a Russian school — that seemed like child abuse.

I’ve never met this man, but as readers of the ‘Wagon might know, I do a modified version of what he does for a living. That is, I live in NYC, but cover Russia from time to time. Actually, it’s a little more than that. I lived in Russia, I studied Russian, the first longform articles I ever wrote were for the Moscow Times, written about the delightfully bizarre Russian diaspora in and around Seattle, where I lived. The pay was disastrous, yet was the assignment was enough of a thrill that I quit my career as a musician soon afterwards, to the joy of the many Seattleites, some of them presumably Russians, who just wanted to get drunk without having to listen to me play.

It also happens that the first job in journalism I was ever offered was at the Moscow Times, which was in the habit of trying to lure naive hatchlings like me into taking very little pay to move to one of the most expensive cities in the world. But I was even broker than they knew and might have taken the job, if it weren’t for fear of exactly the scenario that Levy approached with such vigor. I didn’t have kids, but was already well into building a life with my girlfriend. And Moscow just didn’t strike me as a place to take an American, a Californian, no less. That she is half-Asian also didn’t bode well, as Central Asians are to Moscow what Mexicans are to Sun City, Arizona: a crucial and despised workforce.

That may all still be true. Just last month I was in Moscow having the same conversation with an old friend of mine: I could never move to Moscow, out of a combination of my own faults and Moscow’s faults. It’s corrupt, I’m morally weak, it’s polluted, so am I, etc., etc.

But if life had turned differently and I felt like I could do Moscow with my family, I should hope to do it like Levy. Watch the video at least. He threw his children to the wolves. He took them out of the Green Zone of international schools and sent them right into Sadr City, an all-Russian school with almost no foreign-speakers. And the kids, despite their valid and self-possessed points like ‘everyone thinks it’s easy for kids to learn a new language, but it was hard‘ (I paraphrase), seemed better for the experience. They learned the real lessons I keep wanting to teach my kids: that there is more than one way to life a life. That an obstacle that might seem impossibly difficult at first will just melt away with time and effort. Also, they speak beautiful Russian, especially the boy. I’ve had to work hard even to be able to mangle Russian, so I’m both impressed and jealous.

There’s a lesson beyond Moscow for us, and maybe for anyone else who tilts toward the abroad. We want this kind of thing for our kids. Especially if it came in a place like Mexico, where half of my wife’s family comes from, or elsewhere on the hispanoparlante  spectrum. We want them to live an immersed life in some incredibly different and perhaps difficult place. But it’s a tricky thing. It means moving and finding new work and paying taxes here and there and not being sure if it is really just our own scheme or something that would actually benefit the kids as well.

[Worth interjecting here, of course, that the experience of being trapped in a classroom that doesn’t speak your language, with a punishing academic culture happens every day here in the States to no less worthy kids, by the millions. With the added difficulties that immigrants are usually poorer, without health care, or sometimes documentation, so that every moment of every day is like living in a hostile Babylon from which there is no ready escape].

For Levy, and for me, it’s different. What he did with his kids was a highly voluntary choice, a luxury as such. And who knows how it will turn out, how the kids will turn out. Rootless and insecure? Cosmopolitan and confident? It always depends on the kid. But Levy and his wife deserve credit for making the most important point of all: it’s possible.

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