2. Excuse me, comrade teacher!

In September 1984, I learnt that the wild ones were few and far between.

“A woman’s education is her power, her security and her voice. Education will be the making of you. Education will open many doors for you and it will give you financial independence. Your power will come from your knowledge. But your education will not be a given, you will have to work very hard for it. It is not the intelligent and the very clever ones who achieve great things in life, it is those who work very hard for it.”

My father’s words.

Our two cottages had these traditional Serbian, locally hand made wooden “vitrines” (similar to a Welsh Dresser) each, which proudly showed off the works of Ivo Andrić, Sigmund Freud, Tolstoy, Pushkin & Dostoevsky. One of my chores was to polish the books once a week. I’d dress up, put my mum’s high heels on and I’d polish away. I used to love opening the books; I’d imagine the world within them. I’d inhale their scent of mystique and I’d look at all the pictures for ages. I’d pretend that I could read, making up words and saying them out loud as I turned the silky pages.

Education was a topic discussed very often by my family. We were always told that it was one of the most important things in our lives. With good education, our opportunities were endless. My grandmother was the most intelligent woman I knew, my youngest uncle was a doctor and a few of my father’s other siblings were highly educated.

But my father and my mother weren’t; they had sacrificed their further education to protect the farm and support others around them. They had worked incredibly hard to support my father’s siblings, who were already at university by the time my grandfather died. My parents are a true example of successful people whose education came from their hard work, travel and clever networking. I firmly believe that one doesn’t have to have a degree to call oneself educated. “Always surround yourself with people smarter than you.”, they’d say to me.

I was the first one of the grandchildren to go to school. I felt this huge pressure; a lot was expected of me. Perhaps I felt intimidated, or perhaps I feared whether I would be able to fill the boots of these high achievers; I definitely feared.

I remember telling my mum that I wanted to stay on the farm forever. I was so worried about her being lonely. My childish mind misunderstood a mother’s strength. “I have seen how much Baba misses her children. I don’t want you to miss me too. I don’t want to leave you.” But she calmly reassured me that our bond would never break & that she would always be with me. As much as everyone loved our farm and our wonderful wild, organic life we were living, farming is an exceptionally physically hard life, therefore our parents wanted a better life for us, a physically easier life than them. They wanted us to travel and see the world too.

For the first time, I felt this unsettling feeling deep inside my tummy; I felt what I now know was childhood anxiety. I didn’t want to leave the safety net of my family. I also feared that I wouldn’t belong. I wanted to stay wild and free forever, but I had to venture into the world of “comrades” instead.

Whether I liked it or not, It was time for me to fight and withstand the wrath of communism and the cast iron rules of my school.

My new school rucksack was ready and heavy; it was full of beautifully smelling new books wrapped in crisp brown paper, new notepads and a massive pencil case packed with all the pencils that I might need in my first year. Mum was always so thoughtful and generous.

I was fully armed with my carbon weapons of mass distraction.

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 small shop & a post office next to our school, which had the only working phone line in our village. This is where we used to go to phone family members who lived further away. The postman knew all the gossip!
I remember my first day of school so well; I was very nervous and excited to meet new friends, at the same time. 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’ French granddaughter. I had shiny new red shoes on and my jet black curly hair in pigtails, tied with red ribbons. I was ready. But my heart was breaking; I had to leave my brother behind on the farm. I was so worried that he’d be lonely as he was the youngest in our wild gang, 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. He was so kind, loving and helpful. He had a very strong sense of honesty and fairness. But I worried that he was too kind for his own good.

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. Johnny was our German Shepherd. He was amazing and so gentle with my brother and I; 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.

As much as I dreaded stepping into the cool & dark corridor of our school every day, I felt so happy that I was finally able to venture into our beautiful village on my own, more often. I loved our farm, but the village had a shop & the shop sold sweets. Up until then, I had only ever had home made sweets, cakes and halva; these new sweets were such a novelty to me. They were delicious! I was only ever allowed to buy just one a day. I still remember my brother and I going to the shop for the first time. Before we entered the shop, my brother took his shoes off. He was incredibly sweet, he worried that his muddy farm shoes would make their pristine floor dirty. As I write this, I am overwhelmed with such warmth, just thinking back of this cute black haired boy, who had the kindest dark brown eyes.

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 curriculum was very good, respected and varied; it would take me far.

I really wanted to make my mum and dad proud, but from the very beginning, I really struggled. My wild spirit was repeatedly being hushed and squashed. I struggled with communism, most 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. We had to be very careful about what we said. We were only allowed to express pure, blind & unquestionable loyalty to Tito and to communism. It saddened me deeply that we were not allowed to just be children, we had to conform to these brainwashing rules.
It would be unfair of me to say that this was all our teachers’ doing; 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. We had to be very careful about what we said, and who our friends were. 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. looking back, I would say fortunately we did not fit this iron mould.

I felt fearful and anxious 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 could do about that.
I also struggled with some of the girls in my class; some of them seemed to be so sensitive about anything and everything. They didn’t once want to jump over the school fences or make marble holes in the ground, with the heels of their shoes; they wanted to look presentable and pristine. However, much to my mother’s disappointment, I couldn’t care less how I looked. I just wanted to have fun, show off my strength and my skill of climbing trees, and of course, I’d arm wrestle the boys. Actually, I pretty much thought of myself as a boy, a tomboy, therefore the girls annoyed me. I found them rather inefficient. It wasn’t their fault, I liked boys better; a lot actually. This love of 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 father, however, refused to be a member of any communist party. He had inherited and owned a lot of land, of which he felt very protective about. He also did not wish to be constrained by anyone or any country. When it comes to my parents, 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 father was 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, not my dad. Mum became a member of a communist party, in order to get a state job. If one didn’t have this little red membership booklet, which meant that one “belonged”, then one was unemployable.

Our father refused to belong. He founded his own private transport company, as well as having the farm. The 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 and further, 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 very familiar sound of the truck’s engine. I remember lying in their bed, snuggled up, watching my mum’s silhouette waiting for our dad at the window, with the hills in the background. She would wait up late 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. It 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 very small. He was a feisty little bugger.
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. However, 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. But we had to keep many secrets. Too many times, uniformed men would turn up at our door, wanting to know what our dad was up to, or where he was. My parents gave me strict instructions that I was not allowed to mention where he was. Because dad didn’t belong, he was seen as a threat to the brainwashed system.

We had always been Serbian Orthodox Christians, therefore we still joyfully celebrated Christmas, Easter and our family’s saint day, traditionally called slava. Our family’s saint day was St Nicholas. However, because of mum’s belonging, we had to hide that we celebrated any religious occasions, which of we were very fond and proud of. This was particularly hard, because all of these beautiful celebrations were part of our heritage, and those were traditions which had been passed on from one generation to another. We had to put thick blankets up on the windows, so nobody could possibly see what we were up to. We were not allowed to mention this to our friends, or to anyone at school.

It took me a long time to get used to the school rules. 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, too many for their liking. 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! I think what you are doing is criminal! You will practically use US, children, as free, child labour! This is shocking. You cannot exploit us! We are not strong enough to carry this out. I refuse to do this.”
Our teacher just covered his face with his hands, sighed, and then he said:
“Is that so, Vesna?”
I loudly and proudly said: “Yes!”
Silence.
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. I was hoping that at least one child would support me in this, but the silence continued.
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, he was clenching his jaw, but his poker face stayed firmly on. 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 dig a bit more where necessary, 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!”
Oh my goodness, 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 bloody killing me!
After the final bell rang that day, 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 our 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 objected! How can I now expect anyone else to help?!”

My bottom lip wobbled.
He paused, trying to suppress a smile.
“Go…Make yourself useful! Go, and… feed the chickens!”
And that was that. Once dad had 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 in my forties, 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.

 

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