Saturday, May 30, 2015

Last Call

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) - Spring isn't just smelt from the fragrant blossoming trees. It is heard in the shy and awkward laughter of teenage school children gathering, singing and at times dancing around the streets of Moscow. For over the past few days I have been witnessing an almost euphoric mood of high expectations of a long exciting future ahead sustained by the thought that just after this celebration, school students must still sit exams. Among those students I noticed that some of them still dawned school uniforms that date back over 60 years. Some female students are still wearing that traditional brown uniform, with an outer white flock, as well as those prominent hair ribbons which startle foreign visitors. Their uniforms are draped with the red golden waist ribbon which symbolizes their final day at school. Among all this
lively gaiety can be heard the haunting ring of the last bell!

While walking around Moscow I accidentally bumped into some students I had taught, aged from 14-15. They were not
celebrating 'the last call,' but success in some Latin exams. "We have just sat and passed our last exam in Latin! We are so relieved ... We all did well. All of us got fives," said a beaming 15-year-old student who adores reading history books. All of them were feasting on an outdoor table at a Macdonald's restaurant in Prospect Mir. The students attend one of the few gymnasiums in Moscow which offers students a deep grounding in Latin and Greek. Such a school is reminiscent of an old public school in Britain which once commonly prevailed at the turn of the 19th century. I wondered if I was looking at budding historians or diplomats.

In other parts of the city I was confronted yet again by a person waving a placard with 'Free smile and hug.'

Since the person was not a girl, I declined. The man impotently attempted to block the way of an alluring
woman who managed to deftly draft around him.


What, then, is this custom named 'The Last Call'? I have witnessed this event a couple of times. This is a unique custom, practiced in Russia in many, but not all schools. It is quite original! On the last day of school, children gather in the school playground to sing songs, recite poems and make farewell speeches. But the crown of this event is when the oldest student of the school chivalrously carries on his shoulders the youngest  pupil who rings a bell. A more later
addition is that each pupil sends off a balloon with a secret wish.

The custom arose soon after the Great Patriotic War when an injured soldier returned to assume the post of head master at school number 182 (currently number 1388), in 1947. The soldier, Gregory Leonidovich Assev, organised the first 'Last Call' on 25 May 1948. This teacher is fondly remembered by his surviving school students. '

'He was not only a war hero but a man with a great vision.' This was an amazing man.

'He had been under whistling bullets all through the war, suffered from concussion and limped around school. He was very strict but we loved and respected him. He was a very authoritative figure and used it for good effect. He taught us Russian and literature. He was a great organiser! ... He arranged for the creation of labour camps and that we exercise before lessons ... Gregory Leonidovich decided to
arrange the celebration to honour the end of the school year.'

People liked this idea and now is is difficult to imagine how this all began from one school,' said former pupil Valery Lintinsky.


Asked 'What new customs might surface along with 'The Last Call,' one girl, Yula, stated, 'We don't have to change anything. It is all brilliant! The dancing! The songs! What could be more wonderful?'

Another pupil Artem stated, 'The school should be handed over to all the school graduates!' 

One 12-year-old student, Sonya, stated, 'Yes, my school celebrates 'The last call' and we are usually asked to visit the school hall but I have never witnessed this in person.'

Svetlana Wilson, a 54 year old artist, stated her school never had this custom. However, she thoughtfully suggested, 'The Last Call should be held not before the final exams but after it. I mean how can pupils truly relax at a celebration organised the day before exams?  Their minds are on exams and not having a good time!'

Indeed, many school students gathered to celebrate for a few hours and then dashed home to bury themselves in studies. They face taking tense exams which might decide their future fate. Taking the Unitary State exam is no casual affair. It has been rendered highly problematic by growing corruption which pervades the very entrance process.

Fair exams have been tarnished by revelations of cheating, favouritism and nepotism which allows some of the richest and untalented school students to enter Moscow State University. Now students of Russian Literature are obliged to write a composition on questions such as, 'Is it better to love than be loved?' or 'The man who says war is not a bad thing knows nothing about war? ' What criteria is to be used to assess those compositions has not been made wholly explicit!

So entering university has become more problematic. The quota of freely available places has been cut and now approximately two thirds of places at universities are paid! The old free system of further education no longer exists if it ever did! Some 'students' are too idle to even pick up a book. Instead, they just purchase a diploma. In fact, experts state that as many as 20% of diplomas in circulation are fake. So 20% of 'graduates' have never even sat or passed exams. Even the dissertations of some leading Russian politicians are thought to be plagarised.

Many of those long term questions were not on the minds of those school students. For now, at least for an hour or two, they were wallowing in the lavish sunshine which shined like a good omen.

They seemed freshly young, carefree and glowing with optimism.

They had three months of freedom and a long leisurely idyllic
summer spent in one of the Moscow parks, the dacha or abroad. (At least some students) could be forgiven for believing paradise was knocking at the door before the looming storm. Where are those students going?, and what will become of them? This is anyone's guess. However, somewhere, someone is remorselessly ringing a bell in a school. Maybe this bell will drive away and deter evil spirits for a time. In any case, students in the park ought to knock on wood!

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