Bildung 6

Another professor who influenced me back in Ukraine was Irina Mykolaivna (I forgot her last name.) She was the most beautiful and stylish professor of all and was known for being principled and never accepting bribes. The rumor was that she had a rich husband, and that allowed her to be as principled as she wanted.

I discovered, though, that there was no rich husband in the picture. Irina Mykolaivna worked on the side, selling vegetables at the market. She didn’t run the risk of students catching her at what was considered a very shameful job because fresh vegetables were expensive and students never came to the market. Except me who was rich. Of course, I never told anybody about her secret.

Irina Mykolaivna taught Ukrainian history and shocked us all during her first lecture by speaking perfect Ukrainian and telling us, “I wake up every morning, listen to the national anthem on the radio, discover that “Ukraine isn’t dead yet”* and that gives me the energy to go on.”

She was a passionate Ukrainian patriot, and her lectures were mesmerizing. She was also the only professor ever to give me a B in her course. After I got my grade, I showed up in her office with a huge bouquet of white roses.

“What do you want?” Irina Mykolaivna asked in Ukrainian. “I’m not changing your grade, so you can keep the flowers.”

“No, the bouquet is not for the grade,” I babbled. “It’s for you. You are such an inspiration, you changed my life. Thank you, thank you.”

I shoved the bouquet in her hands and ran away.

I spent the next year in the archives, learning about the history of my country. It was the most emotionally ravaging intellectual adventure in  my life. Every time I worked in the archives, I’d have to make efforts to avoid destroying the documents with the tears that were streaming down my face. The workers of the archives thought I was trying to trace relatives who’d disappeared during Stalinist purges. But I wasn’t looking for relatives. I was looking for an entire civilization that had been stolen from me.

* This is the first line of Ukraine’s national anthem.


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