High School After Communism

We never needed protection and guards in U.S. schools. The community and the local police dealt with undesirables and criminal elements. We did not have metal detectors in high school in the 70s or 80s. It is rare now that a school in the U.S. does not have some type of security, including metal detectors. In the old country we did not need security. Everyone was terrified of the police and the communist party’s swift one way ticket to a real jail far away. A communist dictatorship was certainly a strong deterrent to crime in general.

I wanted to revisit the one place that helped shape who I am today and gave me the resolve to move far away to the land of opportunity and freedom – my old high school. I knew most of my former teachers had probably passed away or were very old and long retired. I was looking for evidence that the communist indoctrination disappeared. The first positive sign was the change in the name. Gone was the communist era name, C. Dobrogeanu-Gherea – the new high school had been renamed Nikita Stanescu, honoring a famous Romanian poet.

I was surprised to see a guard booth at my old high school and a chicken wire fence. The building had been renovated last year and the concrete exterior painted a happy yellow. After 15 minutes of deliberations, trying to hold on to my professional camera which the toothless guard wanted me to surrender before I could go in, the principal met me at the door for an official tour.

Although it was 5 p.m., classes were still in session and there was a beehive of activity. Students no longer wore the ugly uniforms but casual, age appropriate clothes. A larger gym had been built as an annex to the main school.

The first stop was the faculty lounge. Ten teachers and an orthodox priest were preparing for the next class. A large icon of the Virgin Mary had replaced the “cult of personality” worshipping portrait of the former dictator Ceausescu. The principal introduced me as an alumna. In the ensuing silence, one lady volunteered, she remembered me – we graduated at the same time. As she spoke, a jolt of adrenalin surged. I recognized her voice – it was Dana Malisca, my former best friend. For twelve years, we sat in the same classes and the same uncomfortable benches, writing each other notes of boredom whenever we could, and arguing over academic things constantly. This was beyond serendipity, it was divine intervention. What are the odds that I can find my former friend after so many years during a visit late in the afternoon? I was not so much looking for people, as I looking for a place in time and evidence that the darkness I experienced was gone. And Dana teaches geography at the same high school!

Dana joined our impromptu tour. The cosmetic changes of the school did not mitigate the feel of unease and inner preservation fear that used to grip me every time I stepped inside the school. The bathrooms smelled the same and I was scared to enter. We used to wade in an inch of urine and water to go to the latrine, a whole in the cement ground with two foot rests. Now they have modern commodes and functioning sinks.

The computer lab had twenty stations of flat screen desktops. It was hot and humid like everywhere else. No air conditioning – the smart meters prevented its use. I am not sure that happened in summer time as well, it was late fall and unusually hot. The students were very welcoming and polite. As soon as I was introduced to them, they quickly started searching my name on the web.

The school added a cheerful biology lab and improved the chemistry and physics labs. Students no longer have access to the locked chemicals, which is a good thing. Dana reminded me how we accidentally set fire to the Christmas tree with the burner from the lab – we had decorated it with so much paper garland, it went up in smoke in no time. Principal Marinescu, whom we all feared, lectured us on fire hazards. He never applied physical punishment to girls who did something unacceptable or violated school standards. Principal Marinescu is 90 years old now and never misses a beginning of the school year ceremony.

I pictured the stage in the courtyard where Dana and I used to get prizes for good grades at the end of each year. We were always in strict competition. The communist party headquarters gave good students a book at the end of the year, sometimes a literary piece, sometimes a propaganda piece. We were not very aware in the beginning as to the content and intent of the gift – we were just happy to be rewarded because we had studied so hard.

We assembled in the same yard every morning for the principal’s pep talk of the day and filed into the building one by one through the back door for the usual uniform and matriculation number inspection. We had a number embroidered on our uniforms, indicating the name of the high school that we were attending and the individual numbers that we were assigned. If we ever misbehaved in public, that number was reported to the principal. Because the number was required on our coat sleeves as well, we could be reported even outside of school. If anyone was found dressed inappropriately, he/she was sent home immediately. Shaving, makeup, and inappropriate hair styles were strictly forbidden. Out of wedlock pregnancies resulted in immediate expulsion from school. I did not see any evidence now of nurseries on school premises as is the case in some school districts in the U.S.

Students who had finished their classes were milling about the courtyard casually and relaxed some talking, some exchanging homework assignments. The gate guard was checking their home passes to make sure, they were not skipping class.

The old gym still had the parallel bars and the beam where we practiced gymnastics. My knees really hurt today from the many falls I had taken off the beam. Sports were not optional and some of us were more gifted than others in gymnastics, handball, volleyball, basketball, and soccer.

Memories are flooding back, people, places, some good, many bad, and ghosts of a terrorized communist indoctrinating past. The school is modern and cheery today, the sunshine flooding through the large windows. A tear found its way to the corner of my eye. Perhaps it is the sun; perhaps it is the repressed memories of pain and discomfort from so long ago. Maybe I am happy that the young faces around me are not subjected to the repressive life I knew.

Students are no longer required to take four hours of home economics. My former teacher, Mrs. Enescu, was not very happy with students like me who hated to sit four hours a week learning how to sew, knit, and cook. If she could only remember me, she is 94 years old and with a keen mind, I would tell her how much her counted cross stitch lessons have helped me deal with stress when I was pursuing my doctoral degree.

Women under communism were not encouraged to pursue degrees beyond high school; they were required to be good wives and mothers with a high school diploma. Few places were available for them at the university and men were favored. I’ve always wondered why liberal women think that communism will install the egalitarian utopia they seek. American women already have more freedom to choose whatever they wish to do than any other culture in the world. Communism would only bring them back to the early 20th century.

Some teachers lamented that, while things have improved tremendously, even adding religion to the curriculum, education has been watered down, de-emphasizing history to make room for the new educational model of the global citizen who no longer identifies with a distinct nationality with its own language, borders, and culture. The multiculturalism drive from the European Union comes with many grants and scholarships that are hard to turn down. The gym teacher commented in passing that the change was superficially aesthetic and that she hated the highly polished brown doors that looked like coffin lids.

I could not tell the extent of substantive change around my old high school but I was struck by the relaxed atmosphere of both faculty and teachers. Students offered respect to their teachers not out of fear but out of personal admiration for their scholarship. I left the grounds with the satisfactory knowledge that no other generation since 1989 has been indoctrinated into the hideous communist utopia.

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