Our Borders: When History First Changed (1990)

I stood in front of the classroom fidgeting with the ends of my uniform’s tie belt.

“I don’t want to learn about Lenin, Comrade,” I told my seventh-grade History teacher.

My third grade pioneer picture (1985)

My third grade pioneer picture (1985)

She was a middle-aged woman with blue or green eyes and rich light-brown hair, which she always kept in a low bun tied with a scarf. She was probably beautiful, but at twelve, I didn’t see beauty in adults.

“It’s Mrs. Teacher now,” she said. “Go back to your seat.”

I shuffled back to my desk by the window. The light was fading outside on that 1990 spring afternoon in Galați, Romania.

“Today you get a five,” Mrs. Teacher said, as she penned the grade in her register.

That was a 5 out of 10 (a D). My heart ached. Being a revolutionary youth was coming at a steep price.

“Everyone, open your textbooks at the October Revolution of 1917,” Mrs. Teacher said.

I didn’t. I stared out the window. I turned a deaf ear to Mrs. Teacher’s outdated narrative about the Russian proletariat, the Bolsheviks, the victorious Red Army. I was taking a stand, like many young people who, just a few months before, had marched on the streets of the capital Bucharest demanding an end to the communist regime. Sure, more than a thousand of them had died during the clashes with the state’s armed forces, but I was going home with a 5 that very evening to face my mother, also a teacher.

Outside, younger kids who had finished school earlier in the day gathered at a small playground between the gray and weathered four-story apartment buildings. Two boys played ping-pong on a slanted table. I focused on the fitful bounce of that small white ball as I relived the day when I had joined the budding freedom movement in Romania…

***

It was past noon on Friday, December 22, 1989 when our apartment’s doorbell rang. My younger brother and I wore the inside faux-fur of old coats tied with shoelaces over our pajamas because winters in Romania were cold, especially when radiators registered no more than 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Our grandfather walked in, huffing and panting from climbing two flights of stairs clad in his gray woolen winter coat.

“Ceauşescu has just fled,” he said. “Turn on the TV.”

Our black-and-white TV set, with its rounded corners and slow-to-warm-up tubes, brought forth a motley group of common people speaking all at once. My brother and I joined them in shouting “Victory!” and jumping up and down, then we raced to our collection of magazines, opened each to its first page, and began tearing out Ceauşescu’s portraits. Different versions of the same affable middle-aged man’s face piled up at our feet. My grandfather—a communist at heart since the age of fourteen, a WWII veteran, and a political activist until his fall from grace—watched us in silence and didn’t try to stop us. My parents’ collection of magazines was large though, and after a while, removing Ceauşescu’s smiling face from all of them became tedious. Besides, there was a revolution to join—on TV.

At the beginning of 1990, I went back to school not wearing a red scarf around my neck, but I couldn’t fit in right away. Since second grade, I had been the top pioneer in my class and every Comrade Teacher’s pet. Now my classmates, who discussed during breaks the ditching of the blue-and-white school uniform and listened to pirated Vanilla Ice tapes, looked at me funny. Meanwhile school itself stayed the same. Same Math and Literature classes, same Physics and Chemistry. In History class, Mrs. Teacher assigned us topics to study from the same old textbooks, which by now all missed their first page.

I was still the top student in my class, but when the History teacher assigned us the Russian Revolution to study, I couldn’t step in front of my classmates and parrot the communist propaganda from the old textbook. I had to rebel—though I had hoped the teacher wouldn’t put me on the spot.

***

The bell rang. Mrs. Teacher left with the grade register under her arm. I turned away from the darkening window to smiling faces that welcomed me. I was taken aback. My classmates nodded at me, slow motions, narrowed eyes. I was one of them, now that I too had a 5.

I left school laughing and strutting, but halfway home, I began slouching. I still had to face my mother, the teacher. With a 5 in History, no less. I rehearsed my revolutionary discourse one more time— bad Lenin and communist propaganda, good freedom—before slipping the key into the lock.

“What’s your teacher supposed to do?” my mother said, amused. “She has no new textbooks. Go wash your hands for dinner.”

I felt like a bullet had just whizzed past my ear. I hurried down the hallway to the bathroom, happy to still be alive.

“You know,” my mother said during dinner, “it’s always smart to learn about different ideas and points of view.”

I nodded. Aha, what did she know about convictions and idealism?

***

At the beginning of eighth grade we received new History textbooks. They were a reprint of a history book from the 1920s, from the times of King Ferdinand I, from before communism, when Romania had land and factory owners and millions of poor people who knew their place in the world and worked from an early age for little money and no benefits. That book showed me a new (old?) history that bore little resemblance to what I had known about the past. It was a beautiful book though, with pictures in oval frames of kings and queens and ministers and industrialists—all good people who used to be bad people in the old History textbook.

In high school, we studied a third version of Romanian history, which taught us about our indestructible ties with Western Europe, abandoned for half a century behind the Iron Curtain. In college, I read in Lucian Boia’s History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness about rewriting history in order to support contemporary national ideology.

By then, nothing seemed as simple and straightforward as it had in those cleared-eyed days of early 1990, when history first changed.

Next: Gone (1990–1992 CE)

PreviousThe Two Ends of the Telescope (1989 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

13 thoughts on “Our Borders: When History First Changed (1990)

  1. Okay Roxana, beautifully done. I’m hooked. You should consider a memoir when you finish your book. One question though; what prompted the little 5th grade rebellion?

    • My rebellion was against the teacher who continued to use the same old history books from before the revolution. The revolution itself had happened in 1989, a few months before. I wasn’t even in the capital, where most people got hurt and killed. But I watched it on TV – it was the most interesting thing I had ever seen on TV until then. I remember when the anchor announced on Christmas evening that the revolutionary court had found Ceausescu guilty of genocide and executed him and his wife. I remember feeling sick to my stomach. Everybody was shaken that day.
      Then, in January we kids went back to school. By then we had a provisional government and all. Freedom was the word of the day. So see, I was safe all the time – but I felt quite the revolutionary those days.

  2. Hi Roxana – This piece is interesting and beautiful. You were raised in a different world and this story is wonderful. I am older – 54 – but I remember as a child in Catholic school “studying” communist children quite regularly and being taught to feel sorry for them (you), being told that the indoctrination that communist kids received every day was dangerous for us innocent American children, even those of us who lived in small Montana towns a half a world away. You probably know this, but there was even a series of educational films for American kids on the subject. We came to believe that you all might invade us any day and force your rotten communism down our throats. It was quite an important part of our curriculum – learning to despise and fear poor little communist children who had no control over their lives because state propaganda had made them into monsters. Reading the piece makes me see very clearly the propaganda that was leveled at us! I love your blog!

    • That’s so interesting, Rebecca! We too had special classes, called Political Info, in which we learned about the poor capitalist kids who didn’t have the bright future we had. Many of those classes happened late in the afternoon, and, in wintertime, when the electricity was cut-off, Comrade Teacher would talk about our bright future at the glow of flashlights. We, on the other hand, in the darkness of the classroom had a lot of fun!
      Also, we had documentaries on TV about capitalism, and I remember the plaintive voice of the woman narrating them. The movies were about the people in the West, who seemed to all live under bridges, have nothing to eat but drugs, while their kids had nothing to play with but guns. They were black-and-white and looked a lot like the political attack ads we see in the US during election season. I much preferred the 15 minutes of Disney cartoons that the only TV station in Romania aired once a week, on Saturdays, at 1pm.

  3. Roxana, I’ve really enjoyed your writing (although I failed to comment on the first piece). This brief glimpse into your own past was very interesting and enlightening. I hope you continue to write along these lines (as well as other topics that interest you). You are obviously a very talented writer and your voice should be heard.

  4. Very good, Roxana. History as memoir. The personal as emblematic of the cultural. A summary of regime changes and their effects. I, for one, am happy that you broke through the Iron Curtain. I look forward to more of your insights about the world we knew existed but never understood. Pauvre Nadia…

    • Thanks, Jack. I think I was pretty lucky to live through those interesting times. And pretty lucky to move to Seattle and think back to those times from a new perspective.

  5. Who is this brave soul mentioned only by “brother” who joined the victory chants and glorious book ripping?
    I bet he was a dashing figure, fighting the oppressors everywhere he met them, smiting the unbelievers in freedom and democracy.
    He seems the have been very learned (A+++++ student) and stylish. Do I sense some brotherly rivalry from the passing mentioning of him? Oh such an inspiration he must have been to all around him!

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