Every school day, I was racing against the clock. I could not afford to waste one minute. If I was in the morning shift, I would get up around 7:30 A.M., have a quick breakfast, put on my uniform that my mom pressed for me every night, grab my backpack, and run to school as fast as I could to make it to the classroom before 8 A.M. It would have taken me about five minutes to get there if I had walked.
I did not like getting up early in the morning. Somehow I managed to be inside the classroom seconds before my teacher did. The program consisted of four or five classes of 45 minutes each back to back with a break of ten-fifteen minutes in between to give teachers enough time to get to their next class. This was when I could talk to my classmates, had a snack or a small sandwich that I brought from home, and get my books ready.
When the weather was warm we went to play in the courtyard. We were able to squeeze a game in those ten – minute breaks. It didn’t matter to us that we were all sweaty and stinky and could hardly catch our breaths on our way back to the classroom. We simply loved spending time outdoors.
When the teacher walked into the room we would stand up until we were told to take our seats. Every day, each class started with taking roll. This took about a minute and allowed us to settle down. By the time the teacher finished taking roll we had everything ready to begin class. Next, we would check homework. Homework was very important. This took about 6-7 minutes.
Then the teacher quizzed the students that needed a grade or sometimes for no particular reason. There were usually 4-5 students that had to go in front of the class and answer questions. You never knew when your name might get called. It was like playing the lottery. You did not want to get caught without being prepared. If you got one bad grade you had to work four times harder to make up some of the points you lost. This took about 10 minutes.
Teachers did not need to ask too many questions to find out if you studied. The other students were also allowed to participate. If you were prepared for the day you needed to take advantage of this opportunity and earn some extra good grades. Then the teacher continued with the lesson for another 10-12 minutes without any interruptions or questions from students. We copied everything the teacher wrote on the board without being told. Then we practiced together for about 10 minutes and on our own for another 10 minutes. At the end of the class, we were told what our homework was going to be and stood up again until the teacher left the room.
When the leaves started to fall we were going on field trips to parks. We walked around collecting maple and oak leaves, acorns, and chestnuts.I used to press leaves between the pages of a book. I could not resist their beautiful shades of burnt orange, crimson, and bright yellow. We used to throw leaves up in the air or at each other, make mounds, lay on the ground, and cover ourselves with them.
The wintertime was the most exciting time. We would quickly get our coats and go outside to play. We had a quick snowballs fight, chased each other in the snow, or slid on ice. We laughed so much when we fell on the ground. Our faces and hands were getting all red. We did not feel the cold. Then we ran back into the building to make it to class on time. We didn’t care that we still had snow stuck to our boots and clothes. We were giggling every time we saw teachers stepping into a puddle when they were walking down the hallway. I still remember the smell of snow on my gloves.
We finished our program around 12:20 – 1 P.M. and walked back home. I was hoping that the elevator would work but did not mind taking the stairs. I was skipping steps and rushed to get home and do my homework so I can go outside and play. Our apartment was at 10th floor. Sometimes I would count how long it took me to get there.
I did not like the afternoon shift at school. The program began around 12-12:30 P.M. Teachers did not like this shift either. Just like us kids, they preferred to go to work early, finish early, and have the rest of the day to themselves. The best teachers, usually veteran teachers, and those with connections were able to work the morning shift. I did not like some of my teachers from the afternoon shift because either they were new and did not know much about the subject they had to teach or they were closed to retirement and lost interest in teaching. Either way, I was a studious child.
If I went to school in the morning, I would start my homework immediately when I got home and continued until I left for track practice. When I returned from an approximately two – hour practice session, I would finish my school work. On the days with no practice, I couldn’t wait to go and play. Sometimes we stayed out until dark to finish a game.
When I had school in the afternoon I got home by 5 P.M. and finished my homework. I had to go to practice the next day. I came back home around 11:30 A.M. and had just enough time to change clothes, get something quick to eat, and run to school. If I didn’t have practice, I did my school work in the morning from 9 A.M to 11 A.M. I did not go outside to play. I liked to sleep late and missed a few morning practices. I had a persuasive coach that called me every morning when I did not show up.
I had to take the bus and walk for about ten minutes to get to the track. I usually had to run to make it on time. I had not always liked to go there. I only liked it when I was doing well because that was the time when I got all the attention from the coach and my family. When I did less than expected, my coach focused his attention on other kid that was doing better than me. My family was not supportive either when that happened. They only liked to see a champion.
It was difficult to do well in school if you participated in high performance sports that were taking place only outside the school program. Teachers did not like it when I couldn’t be in school because of practice or track meet. There was a lot of catching up for me to do. Luckily, I was bright enough to manage both well. I did not hesitate however, to miss practice when there was a lot of studying. Academics were always more important to me than sports even though I was excelling at both.
The school program was the same for both shifts. We also had Saturday school. I liked Saturdays. It was a short school day. We only had Art, P.E., and some other classes like Biology or Geography that we did not consider as important as Math, for example. I was excused many times from going to school on Saturdays because of track meet.
On our way back from school, we were always discussing homework and made plans for when we were going to meet outside. We did not make any plans if we had too much work to do. We spent whatever time was necessary to get it done. Sometimes we were doing homework over the phone. My mom did not like it because it was pretty expensive. I was only allowed to use the phone when I got sick and missed school to find out what my homework was. It was very difficult to catch up if you were absent even for one day.
When there were enough kids to play a game we had always played something that involved running. I liked to compete with boys and tried to run faster than they did. It started to get warm towards the end of March. I couldn’t wait to get outside wearing just a sweater. It made it easier to move around.
The trees started to bloom. We couldn’t wait to climb trees. I liked bringing home branches from the flowering trees such as cherry and apple trees. There was an explosion of colors between the many beautiful trees and flowers that were growing wild around the building. I loved walking around and picking flowers.
We were taking petals from cosmos and attached them to our nails.
We picked cherries and wore them as earrings. We were making necklaces out of wisteria flowers. There were purple and white lilac trees growing close to the building. Lilac was my favorite tree. I loved its smell and liked chewing the flowers. We were always looking for lilac flowers with five petals. When I found any I would press them. It was said that they would bring you good luck.
l remember there was an old man living at first floor that created a rose garden right outside his apartment. It was the most beautiful and fragrant garden I had ever seen. He had to keep an eye on it at all times because kids were trying to steal his roses. Every now and then, I would ask him for a rose. He had never refused me. He would look for the most beautiful rose he could find. I would carefully bring it home and give it to my mom.
The last part of the school year was short. It all ended with a ceremony where the top students from each class were recognized and awarded prizes that consisted of books. This was a very important time in the life of a child. Sometimes the homeroom teacher would ask these students to pick the books they liked, wrap them in cellophane paper, and tie them with a colorful ribbon that usually had the colors of the national flag. A certificate that showed the student’s rank and average for the year was attached at the top of the package.
Students that placed first in class were responsible for making their own wreath out of flowers for the teacher to place on their heads when the principal called their name. It was a nice feeling to leave the crowd and know that hundreds of eyes were watching you. That was your moment. You got to walk up straight and proud holding your books and wearing your wreath. I remember how my sister made my first wreath out of daisies.
This was the event that marked the end of the school year. Afterwards, we rushed back home, changed clothes, and went outside to play. We had three long months of summer awaiting for us.
For more on my childhood in communist Romania also see Home Alone During the March 4, 1977 Earthquake, My First and Only True Friend, I Made It to My First Real Christmas in America, and Taste I Could Never Forget