Excuse me, comrade teacher!
It was time. It was finally time for me to start my new adventure; it was time for me to start school. My new school rucksack had been packed for a while; it was full of beautifully smelling new books, new notepads and a massive pencil case packed with all the pens and erasers that I might need in my first year. Perhaps mum got a bit carried away. Our lovely mum was always so thoughtful and generous. My books were all nicely wrapped too; I was ready!
I started school when I was seven years old. This was the standard school starting age. Our classes would start at 0730 and finish at 1200.
My school was about two kilometres away, (around 1.2 miles), down the hill from our farm, nestled in the middle of our village, surrounded by soft sloping hills on one side and a birch park on the other. The western edge of our birch park was softly caressed by our stunningly clear Pliva river.
We also had a post office next to our school, which had the only usable phone line in our village. This is where we used to go to phone family members who lived further away.
I remember my first day of school so well. It was a bright, but misty September’s morning. I was dressed in my best outfit; a beautiful dress that I received from our neighbours’ daughter who lived in France. I had shiny new red shoes on and my jet black curly hair in pigtails, tied with red ribbons. I was so excited! The only thing that I was sad about was that I had to leave my brother behind on the farm; I was so worried that he’d be lonely as he was the youngest amongst us and the only one who hadn’t started school yet. Baba promised me that she’d look after him very well and that she’d make sure that he had plenty of fun.
My mum only took me in for the first morning and after that I had to walk by myself for a little while and then I would join my friends who lived downhill from our farm. My friends were all boys.
I also had this one faithful companion who followed me every morning to school and who waited for me every afternoon by the school door. This was my best friend, Johnny, our German Shepherd. Johnny was amazing. He was so gentle with my brother and I and he followed us almost everywhere. Life on the farm was quite tough at times and theft of sheep was quite common, so we had a few working dogs around the farm. Johnny was not one of these guard dogs, however; he was our pet. He was a quiet and playful dog. A true gentle giant.
I felt so happy that I was finally going to school.
Mum said that I was very bright, but that I still had to study really hard if I wanted to achieve good grades. She also told me that despite the strict communist regime in our country, our education was very good and varied and that it will take me far. We were always told that education was one of the most important things in our lives. With good education, our opportunities were endless.
But oh, my goodness, I struggled! I struggled with communism, first of all. After living this carefree life for seven years, suddenly there were so many restrictions, too many rules which were not allowed to be bent; there was very little allowance for any kind of error. I always felt that we were not allowed to just be children, we had to conform to these “brainwashing” rules. We had to be very careful about what we said. Always.
It would be unfair of me to say that this was all our teachers’ fault; they simply had to obey these rules, otherwise they would have lost their jobs.
I think only people who lived in a communist country would truly understand what this was like for a child or for our parents. You live in fear of being reprimanded, all the time.
Communism creates this very formulaic, socially expected and socially accepted mould of how children should behave, actually they present a mould of how a “comrade” should behave. I struggled with this as much as my father did. Unfortunately, actually I would say fortunately, we did not fit this mould.
I felt fearful and nervous most of the time, but my playfulness would crop up every now and again and get me into trouble; there was absolutely nothing I or anyone can do about that!
I also struggled with some of the girls in my class; some of them seemed to be so sensitive about everything and I pretty much thought of myself as a boy, a tomboy. It wasn’t their fault, I liked boys better; a lot actually. This love for boys, and later men, follows me to this day. Ahem!
Our country, then, was called Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was a communist country which consisted of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. My parents, however, refused to be members of any communist party. They owned a lot of land and they did not wish to be constrained by anyone or any country. Proud and stubborn comes to my mind. And, by my parents, I mostly mean my father.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that my parents were right and everyone else around us was wrong. There were thousands of people who were very happy with being communists and they took pride in being one. But that was not my family.
Because they were not members of a communist party, my mum and dad could not get any state jobs. They had founded their own private transport company as well as having the farm. Their transport company started off as just one truck and a driver.
Dad was the only driver to begin with, mum did all the admin. He travelled the length and breadth of Yugoslavia to establish his business network. This was wonderful for his business, which grew at a rapid rate. Both mum and dad worked terribly hard.
I remember we missed our dad a lot when he used to go on his long business trips. On the day that dad would be due back, our mum used to wait for him, late into the night, leaning over their bedroom window, looking out for his truck lights or listening out for the familiar sound of the truck’s engine. I remember lying in their bed, snuggled up, watching my mum waiting for our dad at the window, with the hills in the background. She would wait up until his arrival; mum absolutely adored him. Whenever our dad came back from his trips, he always used to bring us presents. One present I will never forget was this black and white puppy that daddy brought to our room in his coat pocket. He was the tiniest and the cutest little dog we had ever seen. We named him Bobby. I am not sure what breed he was, but he remained small. He was a feisty little thing.
I would say that Bosnia was the most ethnically diverse of all the Yugoslavian republics. It was made up of three regions; Bosnian Serb region, Bosnian Croat region and Bosnian Muslims region. I come from a Serbian family and my village was very diverse, which made my upbringing very exciting.
My grandmother was, and my parents are very open-minded people. We had regular visits in our home from all three ethnic groups and both my mum and dad had Serbian, Muslim and Croatian friends, especially my father. His friends came from all over Yugoslavia. These connections opened up so many opportunities for my family and for our village.
Being at school took some getting used to. My parents gave me strict instructions that I was not allowed to mention that we still celebrated Christmas, or any religious occasion; this was our family secret. We had to address our teachers by calling them “comrade teacher”. They were very strict, and they didn’t like it if the children asked too many questions. Sadly, for me, I had lots of questions. I was always encouraged by my family to speak my mind and to ask for an explanation if I didn’t understand what I was being taught.
At the beginning, I indeed asked lots of questions, but I got punished so many times, that in the end I just stopped asking, I listened like everyone else. However, it did take me a few years to learn my lessons and to conform.
The way the teachers punished us was to stand and face the corner of the classroom, in front of everyone else! I can’t tell you how many times I faced the bloody corner; they might as well have named it Vesna’s corner.
Mum says that she never got punished, but apparently dad did get punished a lot. His teacher used to make him roll his trousers up and make him kneel down in the corner, facing the wall, on the floor that was covered by rough sand or corn. And if dad was particularly “vocal” about this treatment, his teacher used to hit his fingertips with a cane. Dad said that he was able to take it all, he was strong and healthy, but he always felt sorry for the smaller and slightly weaker children who were punished in the same way.
One of the times that I stood in the corner, longer than ever before, sticks in my mind more than any other.
I think I was about nine years old. We were all sitting in our classroom, waiting for our teacher to come in, he was late. He eventually came in and said that he had an announcement to make. He stood in front of all of us and said that the village is finally going to have new phone lines put in and that every household will have a phone.
This was such great news! We were all so excited!
Our teacher quietened us all down and carried on: “However, we have decided that you will all help with this project. You will all help with the digging and with the laying the new cables down.”
Absolute silence in the classroom. Nobody spoke.
Nobody, that is, apart from one child. Vesna stands up and says:
“Excuse me, comrade teacher! You cannot exploit us! I think what you are doing is criminal! You will practically use US, children, as child labour! This is shocking. We are not strong enough to carry this out. I refuse to do this.”
Our teacher just covered his face, sighed, and then he said:
“Is that so, Vesna?”
I loudly and proudly said: “Yes!”
Not a single beep from the rest of the children. They were all staring at the blackboard and I swear they weren’t even blinking!
The teacher walked out. We could hear him talking quietly to someone outside in the corridor. He came back in, followed by – MY DAD! I could see that my dad was very angry; he didn’t look at me. His face was bright red, with anger. The two adults stood in front of all of us. The teacher said:
“Children, Vesna’s father will dig first, with his tractor; all you have to do is help with laying the new cable down and then cover it all back up with soil. Understood?!”
The whole class: “Understood, comrade teacher!”
At this point, Vesna is still standing.
My father just walks out, still not looking at me.
Our teacher says: “Vesna, I think you’ve said enough. Go to the corner!”
I knew I was in so much trouble! I couldn’t wait to go home to apologise to my father. I felt so bad. The wait for the end of our lessons was agonising. Also, I wasn’t allowed to lean onto the wall, my back and neck were killing me!
I remember I practically raced up the hill to our farm, ahead of my friends and my brother. When I got home, my dad was sitting at the old, large wooden kitchen table, telling my grandmother what had happened. She didn’t say anything, she could see that he was angry, but she stood up and she just about managed to walk out of the house when she started laughing, out loud! She just managed to say, through her laughter: “She is YOUR daughter.”
My dad was furious, with her and with me. I sheepishly went forward. I stood there waiting for him to speak, whilst he looked at me with an unbroken stare.
He finally spoke:
“You! You! My own child…You! …I have worked so hard to make this happen! I have travelled so far so that every house can have its own phone, I have put so much effort into this. But…my own child…My own child! How can I now expect anyone else to help?!”
He paused, trying to suppress a smile.
“Go…Make yourself useful! Go, and… feed the chickens!”
And that was that. Once dad calmed down, we all had a laugh about it later when mum got home. He knew that he would contradict himself if he told me off more. All I did was speak my mind. After all, that was the way they were bringing me up; to speak up.
Certainly, my little outburst gave some people something to talk about.
This hurt me, because some of the children would tell me what their parents thought of me. “I didn’t behave appropriately, for a girl.” They blamed my parents too.
It also hurt that I was being punished at school, continuously. It was such a struggle to strike a balance between our open-minded home life and this restrictive communist school life. I don’t think that I ever truly understood it. I never really got used to it, I just learnt to keep quiet eventually.
I count myself lucky to have been brought up with my eyes wide open, by my strong family. However, it was like a double-edged sword at times, being different in a small community was hard.
The funny thing was, most of the other children were very happy to do what they were told. They didn’t question it. Perhaps that’s because their parents were strict communists, or perhaps they were just wiser than me.
I, as ever, wore my heart on my sleeve and had no filter. Got into trouble for it so many times.
Looking back, I don’t regret this for one second. Now that I am forty, I only regret getting upset about people’s reactions to me or about what they said or thought about me. I was a child, I was growing up, I was inquisitive and free.
Every child should be free to speak their mind, whilst being respectful and kind.
But I will not lie and say that I never wished that I was like everyone else. I did. There were many times when all I desperately wanted was to fit in. This was confusing at times, because we can try to be something or someone else, but at certain trigger points, out true nature pipes up.
I truly recognise these innocent qualities in our younger son. He has no filter either and he too wears his heart on his sleeve. He is terribly outspoken.
I can now see, that it was absolutely wonderful to have gone through this first myself. I can now teach my son from my mistakes. It is absolutely OK to be the way he is, as long as his behaviour doesn’t hurt anyone or anyone’s feelings.
He will learn to channel his energy, his mouth and his strength as he gets older. We will guide him, all the way.
Children’s enthusiasm, their energy or their thirst for learning and exploring, must never be squashed, we can only channel it or direct it. We can only guide them and help them along.
I feel so lucky that our children are growing up in such safe and free environment. And I feel incredibly lucky to have the freedom, and to feel confident enough to support our children to be who they are.
They are unique. Every child is a unique child.