I stood in front of the classroom fidgeting with the ends of my uniform’s cord belt.
“I don’t want to learn about Lenin, Comrade,” I told my seventh-grade History teacher.
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.
“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 and refused to listen 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 Teacher’s outdated narrative about the Russian proletariat, the Bolsheviks, the victorious Red Army.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 World War II 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 reprints 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 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 (newer?) History textbook.
In high school, we studied a third version of Romanian history, which taught us about our indestructible ties to 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 the act of 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)
Previous: The 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.