At first I found nothing special about the room. In the cabinet in the corner the class journals stood as a reminder I needed to input my grades before the parent-teacher conferences. The head of the language department had spoken to me sternly about recording my grades, but she’d spoken in Russian and I hadn’t felt shamed enough to compute them instantly as she wished. I then saw the television set. It looked new and the electrical cord was plugged into the wall. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I stood and approached slowly as though it were an animal that might kick. Warmth radiated from smooth plastic into my palm when I touched it; someone had been watching TV recently. I touched the power button tentatively as though it would surely shock me. Nothing happened. I gave up and returned to my seat. A minute later, after I’d cursed myself for thinking the TV would work, the picture and sound blinked on. I was then watching the Russian national team play water polo some time in the past. They were still called the Soviets. And they were winning—finishing off a water polo massacre, in fact—up by a dozen goals. I’d stumbled onto the RVN—the Russian Victory Network. I invented this name after watching endless replays of Russian athletes dominating second-tier sports. During the next several weeks I learned to expect the near-impossible comeback in cross-country skiing and never to bet against a Russian getting pummeled in a German boxing hall.
Nata, the school’s young English teacher, entered the lounge with an elderly woman whose hair was dyed an unnatural orange. The woman was a Romanian teacher. Nata and the woman nodded to me as they entered and sat on the opposite side of the room to safely speak about me in whispers. They looked in my direction frequently, and turned their heads away rapidly when I turned to look at them.
The pair of language teachers hardly seemed interested in sport.
“You like sport?” Nata bellowed across the room.
I said that I did and Nata poked the ribs of the Romanian teacher (a poke, perhaps, for the fire-haired woman having doubted Nata’s ability with English). Nata was only twenty-four years old—young for the faculty at this lyceum—and never spoke to me in English without having prepared her statements in advance.
“What do you think of Alabama?” Nata asked next. “The state in America.”
I didn’t know what to say. She obviously hadn’t misspoken.
Nata took a paper from her breast pocket and reversed the folds. She presented me the sheet, on which I read a series of minimum-wage job listings in Montgomery, Alabama. My first thought went to the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. He’d once gotten in trouble for saying his Mexicans were only offered the jobs even the blacks weren’t willing to touch; now I read over a list of jobs for Moldovans in Alabama—jobs nobody else on Earth would take.
“The people are friendly,” I said.
She asked about the work and shook her head when I described the duties of motel chambermaids and theme park custodians.
“Just an idea,” she said. “Work and travel. Like you.”
Nata translated everything I’d said to the Romanian teacher, who shook her head while saying nyet, nyet, nyet. The woman told Nata she should trust me; I’d voluntarily come to Moldova and wouldn’t lie about bad jobs.
Nata smiled, though I could tell she was disappointed. Then her expression changed to authentic joy. “Do you remember your first day,” she asked. “A girl came to you saying a boy had burnt her hair with a match.” Nata covered her mouth before giggles overcame her. She regained her composure and said, “You patted her head and said, ‘Well done.'” She quickly translated for the Romanian teacher and the two began laughing. “People have been laughing about you ever since.”
The pair left after wishing me health and happiness.
Shortly after, I ended my day with eighth graders. The alpha girl who kept order was absent, skipping class, and I knew there was going to be a problem; Miroslav was sitting in the front row. This was the boy who enjoyed playing recorded monkey noises off his cell phone to distract me. He wasn’t sitting close in order to learn.
“What do you want, Miroslav?”
“Give me your cell phone.”
“You’re in Nastia’s space.”
“She’s not here.”
“She’ll hit you when she hears of this.”
“Not a problem, Mr. Aaron.”
So we began the lesson with a focused Miroslav front and center. I remember thinking he seemed mature. Ten minutes later he stood to leave. He went around shaking the hands of each boy. The girls received hugs. I told him to sit.
“No, I have to leave now.”
“Do you have a note?”
He smiled and walked out the door.
“He’s leaving,” said one of the boys.
“I see that.”
“To Russia. He’s leaving school to find work. You won’t see him again.”
I looked at one of the girls I trusted and she nodded to indicate it was true. I ran into the hall and caught up with Miroslav, told him I was sorry, that I hadn’t understood. He shook my hand as an adult would have. He was fourteen. His new maturity nearly made me cry. From one day to the next he’d decided to switch off his childhood emotions—and he’d done it. Now he was going to find work outside Moscow. The thirty-hour bus ride departed from Balti in a short while.
Before he walked away Miroslav wished me health, happiness, and luck with my bad students.
I returned to class.
The students afterward were silent and respectful. I wanted a girl to cry so that I could support her. The bell rang to change periods and the pupils moved along without any need for me. Not wishing to leave the school, I returned to the teachers’ room and watched a hockey match, the Reds versus a team in blue, the match without score for the first five minutes until the blue goalie let in a soft dribbler, and then the floodgates opened.
A. A. Weiss grew up in Maine and now resides in New York City. He works as a foreign language teacher after having lived in Ecuador, Mexico, Moldova and New Jersey. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Pure Slush and The Writing Disorder. “The Russian Victory Network” is excerpted from a work-in-progress memoir.