As a little girl I was brought up on fairy tales about a heroine meeting a handsome stranger, falling in love and getting married. The wedding was the happy ending. That’s how I imagined my future; when I grew up I was going to get married. I was born in Ukraine, in a small village called Volchanovka, which means ‘hill of wolves’. Officially it was renamed Novogrigorovka in 1886, but Volchanovka is still used by locals. I always disliked the official name, Novogrigorovka, because I struggled to pronounce the letter R. Every time I was asked where I was from, I felt intimidated. It all started one day in my village school when I was seven, in grade one. The school was in the building of an old private house, where all three grades often had to share the same classroom. There was a boy from grade three whom I liked. Although I’d never said anything to him before, I decided on this particular day to say privet (‘hello’). I waited until lunch break. He was the first to finish his meal. I followed him out of the dining room. “Privet. My name is Albina.” I offered my hand to shake. “Vorona is your name.” He crossed his arms, calling me a crow. “Karr, karr.” He started laughing, his eyes rolling as he mocked my pronunciation of the letter R. Humiliated, I ran to the classroom and hid there for the rest of the lunch break, relieved that no one else had witnessed the scene. I hadn’t known that I sounded abnormal. After school, I told my mother about the boy. “He probably likes you,” she smiled. “Boys do that. They tease girls they like.” I knew that wasn’t true – he’d called me a crow! At home we had an old tape recorder, and that evening, I asked my dad to record my voice. I wanted to compare my pronunciation of privet to that of my twin brother, Lyosha, and my younger sister, Toma, who was just five. My father recorded each of us, and when I listened to the recording, I could hear that my brother’s R, and even my baby sister’s, sounded perfect in comparison to mine. I did sound like a crow! I cried bitterly that night; I wanted to be normal like my brother and sister. My mum tried to calm me down by telling me how many other people in the world were different in some way. “Even Lenin couldn’t pronounce his Rs, and look how many people loved him,” she tried to convince me. But it didn’t work. I was on my own, and no one understood me. The other kids at school would soon also laugh at me. And when I grew up, nobody would want to marry me. Who would want to marry a crow?
Before I learned that I was a crow, I loved to sing. Once, I’d watched a Russian version of the movie Little Red Riding Hood in which the girl sings a song about walking to Africa. The song appealed to me immensely and instantly became one of my favourites. The lyrics said that if you walked long enough and ran far enough, you might just make it to Africa, where crocodiles, hippos, monkeys and green parrots lived among wide rivers and tall mountains. But if you were lazy and afraid to take the first step, you’d never get to Africa. I used to love imagining myself as the girl in the story, and I would often walk or run behind our vegetable garden singing the song, pretending that soon I’d find myself in Africa. I especially liked the idea of finding a green parrot I could teach to repeat my words. But once I found out about my R, I no longer wished to talk or sing in front of others. Instead, I began learning to hide my defect. Shortly afterwards, the summer holidays began. We travelled to Moldova to visit Mum’s parents. She wanted to introduce our eighteen-month-old baby brother, Vasya, to her family. This would be only the third time we children had met our grandparents. When we arrived there, I found that hardly anyone spoke Russian. In fact, only Grandpa could speak a little. I listened to Mum speaking to people in a strange language, which the rest of us, including Dad, couldn’t understand. Grandpa offered to teach us this language, his mother tongue – Moldavian – which I found exciting and interesting. I saw it as a perfect cover for my R. Every morning, Grandpa would make us repeat a few words, and I would start using them straight away to communicate with some new friends I made there. The language barrier helped me stop worrying about whether someone might laugh at me. My new friends didn’t speak Russian and couldn’t possibly know about my flaw. But, back at school, I became quiet again. I didn’t want the other kids to hear me speak. I was constantly worried that my teacher would ask me to come up to the blackboard to answer a question which could expose me as a crow. So when she did ask me questions, I always said that I didn’t know the answer, although I often knew. I needed to get away to where no one knew I was a crow, so I started asking my parents to send me to boarding school, which was in the largest village, Myronivka, thirty kilometres from us. Lyosha’s and my best friends, our neighbours’ three kids, went there, and listening to them, our village school seemed a boring place compared to theirs. Dad always agreed; growing up he’d enjoyed his time at boarding school in Uzbekistan. But our mother worried that the older kids there would bully us, and she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Her answer was always no. My marks soon dropped, and the teacher started pointing me out in front of the class, saying what a poor student I was. At home, I told my mother that I didn’t like to talk in front of other kids because they’d call me a crow. “I’ll talk to your teacher and ask her to let you write the answers down instead of saying them out loud,” Mum said. “That should stop the kids from calling you names.” But it didn’t help. The kids began calling me stupid, and my response was to fight with them. It got so bad I ended up breaking one girl’s little finger. That was when my parents were called to the school. My teacher, who was also the headmaster, had a tense meeting with my mother. I waited in the hall, hearing my mother’s voice rising behind closed doors. On the way home she was very quiet. That night at dinner, my mother announced, “From next year, when Toma starts school, all of you are going to boarding school. In the meantime, Albina, you stay out of fights! Ignore those bullies.” It was two months till the end of the school year. I resolved to behave and not disappoint my mother.
From the moment I entered third grade at the boarding school, my life once again became joyful. I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one in my class with a speech defect. There was also a boy who couldn’t pronounce the letter R, and a girl who couldn’t say the letter C, and no one laughed at them. But, as an added precaution, I decided it might be a good idea to avoid the boys from other classes. That way I could ensure that no one would call me a crow again. Very soon I revelled in school. Toma and I had signed up for dance classes, while Lyosha and I were on the athletics and basketball teams. I also loved studying, especially those subjects where I could discover new things about the world. In geography, for example, when we learned about oceans, I liked the fact that the Indian Ocean was the warmest. I imagined it being the temperature of milk just taken from a cow, and I would often pretend I could hear the sound of its waves lapping the beach. I had gone from being one of the worst to one of the best students in my grade. As a result, I was awarded one of eight scholarships for a month-long educational trip within the Soviet Union. My class teacher, Nina Alekseevna, our guardian for the trip, took us to visit the biology department at Kharkiv’s National University in Gaidary. There, we got to know university students from Africa and South America, who’d come to Ukraine to get a degree in biology. Our days were filled with outings, reports and writing poetry based on our impressions and the plants, bugs and birds we’d learned about. But perhaps the most important thing we learned that summer was about international friendship. We were taught to respect people, no matter the colour of their skin or the language they spoke. I loved the trip so much that I promised myself I would win the scholarship again the next year.
I was eleven when I fell in love for the first time. Roma, a tall blond with blue eyes, had just moved to our school and was a grade above me. Whenever I saw him, my heart beat faster. One day, during a break between classes, he ran past me and a pink ball of paper landed at my feet. Surprised, I picked it up – inside there was a message: Privet. Menya zovut Roma. Ya hochu s toboy druzhit. Ti soglasna? I was astonished; Roma wanted to be my boyfriend! My excitement was immediately clouded with anxiety. He didn’t know about my defect. What would happen when he found out? And he would, as soon as I said his name. In class, I couldn’t concentrate. My wish for love was just as strong as my fear of humiliation. I needed to make a decision. As I kept thinking of my answer, I remembered what we had recently learned in our literature class. Our teacher explained about synonyms, words that can be replaced by others with a similar meaning. I needed more words. The best way to expand my vocabulary was by reading. That day, I signed up with the school library and wrote a response to Roma. I agreed to be his girlfriend. From the beginning of my friendship with Roma, I made sure to learn lots of new words to replace those that contained the letter R. But in six months of friendship, we’d never had a proper conversation. The thought of Roma laughing at my mispronunciation simply didn’t allow me to relax. I insisted that we continue with written messages as our main method of communication. During one of the weekend visits home, I watched a film that included a little story about a girl who couldn’t pronounce the letter R. Her mother took her to a speech doctor, a logoped. I held my breath. I never knew there were doctors especially for speech defects. Would this girl get her miracle? But the moment the girl met the doctor, it was clear that he himself couldn’t pronounce R and D. My brother and sister thought this was hilarious. The doctor kept asking the girl to repeat words after him, which he couldn’t pronounce himself. Just like me, she used synonyms. The word ryba, which meant ‘fish’, she’d replace with seledka, which meant ‘a herring’. At the end, the doctor’s verdict was that the girl was perfectly fine. Her mother told him he was the one who needed a cure. I left the room to find my mother, my siblings’ laughter ringing in my ears. “Mum, why haven’t you ever taken me to a logoped?” I asked as I watched her peeling potatoes for our dinner. “You only get specialist doctors in the cities,” she replied. “Why would you need one? To me you are perfectly fine, my little pride.” “I am not fine at all!” I protested. How could I be? I couldn’t even talk to a boy I liked. But then I couldn’t say this aloud. Mum often praised me for my good marks at school, calling me her pride and joy. I didn’t think she’d be happy about me having a crush on a boy. “Why do we live in the village, where there isn’t a doctor who can help me?” I cried. “Cities are unhealthy places to live,” my mother said. “The air’s polluted; the food’s seldom fresh, never mind not being organic. Everyone lives in tiny, cramped apartments with no private yards or gardens for the kids to play in. They have to share their yard with fifty other families from the same building.” She scraped the potato peels into the bin. “Here in Volchanovka, we have a nice-size garden all to ourselves, a luxury for people from cities. Life in the village is purer, not poorer, my dear.” “Why don’t logopeds live in the village then?” I objected. “You don’t need a doctor.” Mum laughed. “When I was your age I used to stutter. But as I grew up, it just went away. You’ll also grow out of your R issue. No need to worry.” But I did worry. What if I never get better? It wasn’t long after this that my sister told me Roma had asked a girl from her class to be his girlfriend. Disappointed, I kept my pain to myself. What chance would I ever have had with Roma? I was a crow. I would be dumped anyway, straight after he heard my first word with R.
Soon after Roma broke up with me, I won the scholarship again. I was going to my favourite place, Gaidary, happy to mix with foreign students. That summer, I fell in love for the second time. I was twelve and he was a twenty-eight-year-old student from Nicaragua whose name was Saul. He’d just finished his biology studies and was going back to his country. Our teacher, Nina Alekseevna, had us make him farewell souvenirs by writing little poems and creating bookmarks from strips of postcards glued together. She also organised a little tea party for Saul, where he entertained us by singing songs. I wished he’d never stop, as I loved watching the muscles on his arms as he played the guitar. At the end of the party, I was asked by Nina Alekseevna to present Saul with all the gifts we’d made. When I did, Saul surprised me with a kiss on the cheek to say thank you. It felt so special. As far as I could remember, no one, not even my parents, had ever hugged or kissed me before. In my upbringing it was regarded as normal to not cuddle a child – the focus was to ensure the child was well behaved and disciplined. Saul gave our teacher his address in Nicaragua, and back at school, it became my responsibility to write him letters on behalf of our group. In one of his letters, he wrote me a personal message, which I skipped over when relaying his words to the class. The message to me read, “Let’s ensure that we never lose our connection.”