How did you come here? Did you always want to come to America?Rhonda
No. It’s a long story.
When I was seven, my father managed to get me into School #5, although technically I was supposed to go to School #2. But School #5 was much better, with a focus on math, and my father wanted me to be a mathematician. By the time I hit high school, it was clear that mathematical specialization wasn’t for me.
Student academic competitions are very big in Russia, as big as the high school football is in Texas. The school had a high profile and I consistently placed in top three in municipal student Olympiads in biology, chemistry, geography, history, etc. Curiously, I was disqualified from a literature Olympiad, because they were sure I plagiarized my short story. They didn’t know where from and they couldn’t prove it, but they were sure that a 14 year old couldn’t have written it. I thought my poor teacher would have an aneurysm on the spot. She had watched me write it. I kind of didn’t care about it, because as my father frequently explained to me, “Писанина никогда тебя не покормит,” which translates to “Scribbling will never feed you.” He claims to not remember this.
It got so bad that when a competition was coming, they would just stick me in there without even asking. But when I went to a math Olympiad, I drew a blank. There were about 7 or 8 problems and I solved none. Zero. When the teacher in charge of it was discussing results, he said, “Some of your solved everything and some of you solved none.” And then he looked at me. I was so scarred by the experience, I still remember his face as he said it. 🙂
My mother quickly realized that I was hitting diminishing returns. She would watch me study and study and study, and the best I could manage in math was a B. The school had just implemented a new class specialization with a focus in Biology and I said I wanted to transfer. My mom was all for it. My father pitched a huge fit. Words like “Over my dead body” were said. Curiously, he doesn’t remember this either. Mom eventually wore him down and I transferred. It was so easy, I can’t even explain it. I breezed through my classes.
At that point, somehow the teacher in charge of biology program became connected with Western Carolina University Chemistry department. She was tall, statuesque, long hair, attractive, spoke English well, and so WCU decided to sponsor a group of five students and five teachers to come to US and visit them during their special summer camp for young scientists, or something like that. Sorry, it was long ago, and my English wasn’t good back then. Basically, they marched high school kids into the mountains, showed them dried up pine trees, and talked about acid rain and effects of pollution.
So there came a time to select the students for the trip. The first student was the son of the biology teacher’s friend. He spoke English well and was a spoiled kid. The second, and his name was Herman, and I don’t know why I remember that, was the son of the warehouse supervisor who sponsored the trip. The third was a good looking blond kid who was good at sports. I don’t even remember the fourth one. But basically when they got down to the final spot, they realized that they needed a girl and someone who would actually answer if a scientific question was asked. I fit the bill.
They asked me if I would go. I said yes. I came home and told my mom about it, and she laughed for like 5 minutes. When she was finally able to talk, she said, “Honey, people like us don’t go abroad.”
In two weeks I brought home the visa application and a packet of forms. My parents finally realized it was for real and promptly panicked. My dad ran all over town and flew to Moscow to get me a passport and a visa. Mom frantically tried to scrape together some money to buy валюта, foreign currency because they couldn’t send me there with nothing. Things were sold. Decent clothes that wouldn’t embarrass the family were purchased. I had never had so much attention lavished on me by my parents in my entire life.
Finally I joined the student group and we flew to US. We went to Washington, walked around, almost saw President Bush Senior, who at the last moment decided he was too busy and informed our teachers that he had to spend his time serving Americans rather than meeting Russians. That was a quote. 🙂 Finally we flew to NC. As we were driving around in a van, we ended up stopping at a private school in Georgia, Rabun Gap Nacoochee, where a former student of the WCU’s Chemistry Department head worked as a chemistry teacher.
We toured the lab building and I got really sad. It was so depressing. They had tables. They had Bunsen burners, and sinks, and real laboratory equipment, and chemicals. The only reaction we have done in Russian school was mixing CuSO4 + BaCl2 → BaSO4 + CuCl2
It forms a white precipitate. ::waves a little flag:: Wooo. So Mr. Mallot, who was the chemistry teacher, came up and asked me why I was sad. I tried to explain it to him in my broken English and then I pulled out a notebook I took with me, because I had expected chemical questions, and showed him all the theoretical equations for the reactions and told him I had no idea what any of those compounds looked like.
We left the school, and then a few days later, they sent over a full scholarship packet with my name on it. I won’t bore you with the description of the freak out that followed with my family. I only had a year to go in Russian high school. What if I went to US for a year and then had to come back and I would have to redo a year? What if I got pregnant? What if I got shot, because people randomly shoot each other in America? What if, what if?
Long story short, I ended up coming for a year, then the school gave me another scholarship fro the next year, but by that point they ran out of classes to give me. Through a complicated series of events Duke offered me a very good scholarship, not quite a full ride, but close. But WCU offered me a full ride and adults in my life talked me into going to WCU instead, because it was a smaller school and I wouldn’t fall through the cracks. I started in January of my senior year and met Gordon in the English class. Things took a sharp turn at the end of that semester, but that’s a story for another time.
And that’s how I came to America.