For every kid in Russia, September 1st is the official first day of school. Every year, every school. First graders, going to school for the first time in their lives, are quiet and apprehensive. Dressed up, barely bigger than their backpacks, holding bouquets of flowers for their teachers, led to schools by proud parents. Flowers in one hand, their parent’s hand in the other. Big white bows on girls’ heads bobbing along the sidewalks. Even most senior students are well-groomed and many are carrying flowers.
On my last trip to Russia, a detour to my birth city of St. Petersburg happened to coincide with September 1st. I knew I couldn’t miss the festivities at my childhood school, School № 24 on Vasilyevsky Island. I haven’t been back to that school – or even Russia – for over 20 years. Now was my chance to relive this childhood memory as an adult, a guest and a foreigner.
Before collapse of the Soviet Union, there was just one uniform for all school kids across the 15 Soviet Republics. The uniforms were mandatory and students were penalized for not adhering to the strict dress code. Boys wore blue suits with plain shirts while girls had knee-long brown dresses and black aprons. During special occasions, boys would wear white shirts while girls would put on crisp, ironed, white aprons. In the third or fourth grade, after joining the mandatory Young Pioneers organization, students would also wear the famous polyester red neckties. Uniform rules were relaxed at the beginning of the 1990s and altogether abandoned in 1992.
All first-graders, and some senior students, attend the First of September celebrations held at every school across the country. At my school, parents crowded around the second-floor balcony as their kids were solemnly assembled in the gym below. During the official ceremony, teachers welcomed the new crop of students, advising and cautioning them of the highs and lows they would experience over the upcoming years at school. A few senior students read instructive excerpts and put on performances. The ceremony ended with the ringing of the first bell that signified the beginning of the school year.