The lift dings, and from it emerges a stocky girl of about 10, and a weather beaten-looking man in a leather jacket. Taking the man to be the girl’s father, I shake his hand and, as I am in a hurry, mentally file his slightly bemused expression for later. The girl and I walk to the classroom, accompanied by the gentle swishing sound of her warmly padded winter trousers. I note the Western brand name on the side, a brand outside the pocket of most of the girl’s contemporaries.
This is Sasha, my latest one-to-one student, my Waterloo and my catch 22 rolled into one. I am to teach her English, a private lesson once a week, and prepare her for an English language exam.
My predecessor, a young American woman, has left me a note to prepare me for the onslaught of Sasha. ‘Sasha is a clever little girl,’ it begins ‘who doesn’t like to be told what to do.’ It lists the variety of methods my young charge is likely to use in an endless quest to take control of lesson time. The mention of the name ‘Sasha’ or worse, ‘Sasha’s mother’, are bywords for eye-rolling and tutting in the staffroom – but no offers to take her off my hands are forthcoming and would anyway have been pointless: Sasha’s parents want only the best for their children, and, in this small city with few foreigners, the best is a recently arrived Englishwoman with no experience of teaching children and a recently-acquired 3 month TEFL course under her belt.
Our time together quickly establishes a pattern. On entering the classroom, Sasha invariably grabs a board marker and begs to tell me something that happened at school that day, a story which simply has to be illustrated on the board. Once seated, she rips open a giant packet of caramel-filled waffles purchased from the vending machine downstairs and begins to cram them into her mouth. Her cheeks, tanned from the regular visits to the family’s Spanish holiday home, become smooth and rounded like burger buns as she chews. She speaks English with surprising fluency for a child of her age – but not as well as she – or her parents, I suspect – would like to think. The reason for this quickly becomes clear. Pressed to carry out written practice exercises for the exam that her parents want her to take, she spends a good 10 minutes hurling herself around the classroom in a rage, a calf in a pen threatened with the stun gun. After much persuasion, she carelessly dashes off the required 30 words and then challenges each of my corrections. The eyes that she fixes on me have a wide, intense stare, like those of a bird of prey, hunting for a weakness to exploit, the eyebrows as bushy as those of an elderly politician. At the same time, I also catch glimpses, in the perfect skin and tumble of thick, wavy hair, of the rather sultry young woman that she is likely to become in a few short years.
My weekly sessions with Sasha continue to be tortuous. I am completely wrong-footed in the face of her behaviour. Despite my experience of power games in the corporate world, I am astonished at the level of power that a child 30 years my junior has to make me feel inadequate. I also feel guilty – surely it is wrong to dislike a child as much as I dislike Sasha – and, on a good day, slightly sorry for this child and her younger brother, also one of my students, who, at the end of a school day, should really be out playing. And, most shamefully, I frequently fantasize about fighting fire with fire, to subject her to the same disdainful glances and catty remarks of which I am often the recipient (“Do you think you look nice in that colour?”) Bizarrely, though, as time goes on, I begin to realise that, despite her attempts to show the opposite, I occupy an important part of this child’s life. Sasha begs me to become her friend on vKontakte, Russia’s social networking site. And in a country where a woman of 25 is considered to be an old maid, she and her brother are fascinated by my single status. “Where are your children?” they ask. “But why aren’t you married?” and (my particular favourite) “My mum said, ‘When is your English teacher going to get married?’’’
This is my first real brush with the phenomenon that is the ‘new Russian’, or at least its offspring. The things that would have got you to the head of the queue in Soviet times – the party membership, the war medals – have been superseded by designer labels and 4x4s. Sasha and her parents regard themselves as a cut above the ordinary Russian, and those who work for them are their staff. In only-recently-capitalist Russia, Sasha and her family are living a life of incredible privilege, and they know it. Theirs is a life of private school, regular foreign holidays, and, that ultimate new Russian status symbol, a mother who doesn’t work. Not for this child daily journeys on a dingy and crowded trolleybus with the rest of humanity: instead, she is able to observe the streets at one remove, from the back seat of a shiny, black 4×4 with tinted windows.
At the end of our first lesson, I ask Sasha, “Who was that man who was with you earlier – was he your father?” “No,” she replies, tutting and rolling her eyes. “He’s our driver.”