The reflecting pool trapped, in order of distance, apple trees, a single silvery-blue spruce, three spikes of the obelisk commemorating students and faculty fallen in the war, and in its very depth, the tower of Lomonosov University, with its red five-point star in a half-circle of laurel. Students often jumped across the pool on their way to class. They lowered bags and textbooks, stepped back and in one swift motion clipped the corner. Some mornings I stopped and watched them.
I taught English at Gumanitarniy korpus, GUM-1, on the corner of Vernadsky prospect, only a few blocks from the famous tower. One of the later additions to the 400-year-old school, Hall of Humanities housed Lomonosov University’s newer departments. GUM-1 had none of the neighboring skyscraper’s elegance or scope. Built in the 70s, it sat square and simple, a concrete box with a heavy bas-relief over the entrance. Inside, guards in military uniform checked IDs. Sullen coat check women received parkas and rain jackets and, in return, pressed numbered plastic tokens into impatient hands.
The students laughed and kissed in the hallways during breaks. They packed tight in the building’s few elevators, enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke, sweat, and perfume. Their clothes were tailored, leather bags too small to hold textbooks. When they skipped class, it was because their parents took them skiing or skydiving. Other teachers, I noticed, reconciled with that. Some, like me, were young, barely out of school. They scanned the class for the weakest students and offered private lessons. Others dived into work, collected teaching certificates, took out loans for expensive Moscow apartments hours from the city center.
The English department was on the eleventh floor, one long hallway with rooms on either side. As I walked towards my classroom a few minutes after nine, the heavy doors swung open and shut. I lingered in the doorway, waiting for the last of my first-year students, the smokers who went down to their enclosed sanctuary on the ground floor and were always late. A few girls emerged from the restroom shaking their hands, sending droplets of water over the linoleum. Driers always ran at half power, paper towels an unheard-of luxury. Most days the restrooms missed toilet paper and the girls made a show of collecting sheets of Kleenex before a break. I watched the students make their way towards classrooms, the girls lean and tall, always in high heels, even in winter, the boys fashionably scruffy, their fingers clutched around cans of energy drinks gulped during class. None of them slept more than four hours a night.
“Good morning, Lida.”
“Good morning, Elena Vitalievna,” I nodded at the department chair who walked by every morning to scold the late students.
Elena headed the small English department that serviced a new program for economists and international commerce. She hired me on a colleague’s word, another English teacher who knew me from high school. At the interview, she flipped through my passport, ignoring the resume I pushed across the table.
“That,” she pointed to a registration page still listing an address in my hometown, “should not be a problem. But just in case, carry a train ticket with you. The police won’t give you trouble as long as it looks like you just arrived.
“We have strong and weak groups. I’ll give you one in the middle. If a student doesn’t show up to class, let me know. If they’re ‘budget’ and don’t show up, let me know sooner. Lomonosov is free for veterans’ children, but just because someone’s name is on that obelisk,” she waved at the window where, eleven floors below, the granite cast a stern geometric shadow in the pool, “just because someone earned that, doesn’t mean his grandchild will bother getting up at 6 for a 9 a.m. class. Some students you won’t see for months. Give them zeros. You can’t fail too many, but they don’t know that.”
The first weeks I followed the textbook to the letter. At a kiosk tucked inside a subway station pavilion, I bought a pair of simple glasses without prescription and wore them to class to look older. I piled my hair in a bun and shaded my lips with mauve lipstick. The group was small—14 students—and as Elena predicted, some didn’t come to class for weeks at a time. The most fluent spoke with the British RP, residue of summer schools in London or Malta. Even so, they knew little of conversational English. “Teacher,” they addressed me. “Guys,” I called them, and the girls giggled, unaccustomed. Their phrasing was stiff, cautious. In compositions, they mistrusted the easy flow of English and weighed it down with deep Russian thoughts expressed without articles: parents are main teachers of our lives, they raise us and control behavior, they are first people who helps us to divide things on white and black. When I asked a question, they answered in Russian, knowing it wasn’t allowed. Gamely, I said every Russian word would cost them a chocolate and they went down to the cafeteria and bought the entire candy row.
They checked each other’s answers during tests and tucked elaborate cheat sheets into the pages of their books. If I asked one of the weak students, his neighbors spoke the answers in a loud whisper until he repeated. They brought two phones to class; if I took one they continued texting on the other. Switching to Russian, they dropped Moscow street names to gauge how little I knew. Still, by the end of the first semester their mocking grew soft, almost indulgent, as they sprinkled their compositions with vocabulary from the home reading: Even if you are as strong as an ox while you are young, only money will provide you with good health as you age .
Of all the teachers, they respected only Elena. Her goal for them was easiest to convey: work hard, get some sleep when you can. She taught the weakest groups and her students placed 2 a.m. video calls asking to go over homework. Her power extended beyond the textbook. When the men’s restroom door broke, the boys came to Elena asking for a new lock. Students who got stuck in the elevator, which happened about once a week, dialed Elena’s number before anyone else. She was their first responder. I watched her berate flimsy girls with Burberry pendants, disheveled boys who didn’t dare raise their eyes to this small, taut woman, and I thought Elena had mastered that unique combination of blunt disdain and familiarity without which nothing here was accomplished.
About once a month I walked into an empty classroom. Instead of a few smokers running late, the entire class was gone. I cracked the windows to the cold Moscow air that smelled of dust and benzene and sat in the last row, studying long, two-seat desks—history dates scribbled in blue ink, names of French presidents, the English words we’d memorized the week before, errand, feasible, sagacious. Back in my school, they made us come on Sundays with buckets of soapy water and dish rags. We scrubbed and scrubbed until the tables turned pale, rough with cuts, enduring.
On such days, when my students came in, they spilled through the door together, full of stories. They told of a terror attack on the red Sokolniki line—two subway cars gone, darkness and panic, passengers running over each other to get to the surface. Or the roads were blocked around the university because Steve Jobs came for a lecture. Or the Dean pulled them out to rehearse wartime songs for the Victory Day celebration. And in surprising unison they would launch into Our Tenth Battalion or Across the Field Tanks Thundered. Their stories reminded me they were 18-year-olds, living in one of the world’s largest, most famous, and most dangerous cities.
“Lida, do you have a minute before class?” I followed Elena into the teachers’ office and waited for her to shut the door.
“Ghamlet Mirzoyan is transferring to your group.” She waited. The name supposedly meant something, but not to me. “He spent half of the last academic year in Switzerland, helping his father run a family business. His parents want him to graduate, even if it means hanging back a year. He will be older than your other students.”
“Hamlet?” I said.
“Ghamlet. An Armenian.”
I marveled at the name, its hard sound at the back of my throat.
“Is there anything I need to know about him?”
“No,” Elena said. “Not academically at least. A few years ago, Ghamlet’s father was shot. He lived. Made it out of the car, hid behind a building, driver called for help…You’ve never heard of him? Arno Mirzoyan?” She hummed a jingle that sounded vaguely familiar. A brand of yogurt? One-hour photo?
I told her I had not heard of Arno Mirzoyan.
“Ghamlet’s father was—is—of that first wave of businessmen. Brash, reckless, new companies spring like mushrooms. None of that was ever proven illegal but people don’t get shot in the face for nothing. I thought I should mention it.”
The next day the temperature dropped to record lows. As I walked, my eyelashes turned white with frost, each breath burned my throat. Students came in wearing heavy winter coats they refused to trade for a plastic token at the coat check. The radiators hummed, fighting the cold. The students unspooled their scarves, but kept gloves on, clutching their pens awkwardly, like bear cubs taught a trick. When Ghamlet came in, followed by Elena, they were pumping the air out of their lungs, exhaling in loud, rapid bursts to warm the room. The group grew quiet and I knew the real story of what Ghamlet’s father did for a living was no secret to anyone.
The boy lingered by my table, as if unsure on which side he belonged. His eyes were such a deep shade of brown the pupil blended with the iris. He wore a three-piece business suit, but even with the added layers of his shirt, the vest, and the thick gabardine jacket he was thin as air. When he shifted his weight, the deep crease at the bottom of his trousers revealed how skinny his legs were. He placed one hand on the edge of my desk and flexed it, the fingers bending backwards impossibly at the wrong joints. His other hand he extended to me. “Mirzoyan, Ghamlet.” I shook his hand. Despite the cold outside it was warm and dry.
I sensed the anxiety of the other students. I looked at the girls, the pretty young girls who spent entire breaks in the restroom fixing their makeup. They flipped through their notes for the first time in weeks, hushed, serious.
Elena placed her hands around Ghamlet’s shoulders. “Mirzoyan, you don’t have the whole day.” She guided him to the first open seat. The girl at the other end of the desk began pulling her notes, pencils, textbook scattered around to free space for him. “This is group four,” Elena said. “This is your teacher, Lidia Pavlovna.” She hovered over him until it was clear Ghamlet brought nothing to class. “Where is your book?” she asked. He shook his head. The girl pushed her textbook across, carefully, until it rested halfway between them. Elena sighed and left the room.
We began each lesson with vocabulary practice. “Turn to your neighbor,” I said. There was a shuffle of winter coats. “Ghamlet, face Vika, please.”
“You remind me of someone,” Ghamlet said. He drummed his palms against the table. “That’s it! A concierge in my building. Do you moonlight, teacher?”
“Those on the right begin,” I instructed. “Pick a new word from your reading and your neighbor must provide a sentence with that word. Switch after five examples.” As the students spoke I moved up and down the rows, listening, correcting. Ghamlet whispered something I hoped was relevant English to his neighbor. He stretched his arm along the desk and rested his head on it, like a pillow. I tapped his shoulder as I passed.
“Sit up,” I said.
He straightened, brushing an invisible speck off his shoulder—dandruff or the trace of my touch.
From that day, whenever Ghamlet entered the room, my body temperature dropped. He turned in only two written assignments. His compositions veered wildly off subject, speckled with misspellings ( I didn’t knottiest that before), printed on thick paper watermarked with his last name and bearing a Swiss street address. Eventually, he befriended some boys and even brought a single long-stemmed rose to each girl and to me on Women’s Day in March. Still, most were afraid, as if they tried and failed to separate his charm, his open and relaxed smile, from the image of his father, bloodied, leaning against the chromed car and looking for shelter before the next bullet came.
I altered readings to remove anything about families or fathers. Instead, we talked about commerce, business plans—barely-guided classroom discussions. It was the only thing that interested Ghamlet. I handed out cards with the latest vocabulary, embarrassed for my handwriting. “Use those words,” I told him. “You’re wasting our time,” Ghamlet complained. “I could be working right now.”
He took phone calls in class and stepped out to finish them in the hall. One day I followed him. He was giving someone elaborate instructions for shipping crates of frozen chicken through customs.
“Turn that off.”
He hung up immediately but made no motion to return to class.
“Don’t you have any respect for your teacher, your classmates?” The words came out wrong, I knew it. Like whining. “For this university?” He must know, I thought. Everyone knew. This recognition, centuries of history, the fame of the “Russian Harvard” all came from a poor peasant boy, Mikhail Lomonosov, who once ran away from home. He tagged along with a group of fishermen and walked all the way to Moscow. It took him three weeks. All he wanted was to study at a real school.
“This university?” Ghamlet smirked. “Look, look here.” He knocked on the wall. The sound was hollow. “Cheap. Nothing but sheetrock. You think you’re doing good. You think you’re getting somewhere, going to Lomonosov, studying international relations, no less, but it’s the same old story. Cheap walls, restrooms without toilet paper. Next time you’re washing your hands, look under the sink. It’s rusted through. Everything here is corrupt.” He took my vocabulary card out of his pocket. “Do you think when my father is talking to his business partners he needs this? Rolling in money! Pay through the nose! You think a rival comes into his office and my father says, ‘Yeah, I bought that bankrupt watch factory from under you, but let’s look on the bright side of things?’”
“You need to trust me.” I said. “It’s a process.”
“Oh, please.” He crumpled the card, looking to toss it, but the hallway had never seen a trash can. “You’re about as old as my new stepmother.”
One morning, waiting for the elevator on the ground floor, I looked into the smoking room and saw Ghamlet remove a cigarette from another boy’s mouth. The gesture was slow, almost paternal. I smiled, cocked my head a little as Ghamlet dropped the cigarette to the ground and put the fine tip of his shoe to it. Then, without breaking stride, he locked his arms around the boy’s waist and threw him against the wall.
The boy scraped the floor, looking for support, trying to get up, but Ghamlet was on him, pushing all his weight on the boy’s shoulders as if willing him to stay underwater. He punched aimlessly, without method—stomach, cheeks, nose. He hit and drew his skinny arm back, hit again. Finally, he lost balance and fell backward, but continued to kick, the tip of his shoe now digging into the boy’s thighs and shins.
The walls in the smoking room were glass. Paralyzed, I watched the other student slide to the floor, cradling his head, deep gashes on his arms.
“That is enough.” Elena walked by without acknowledging me. She was white, her hands shaking. At her feet, the boy breathed heavily, trying to suppress a cough. “Lidia Pavlovna, please see your student to the teacher’s office. I will be in as soon as I can.”
Ghamlet broke through the small crowd that had gathered outside the smoking room and headed for the elevator. For the first time I saw other students look directly at him, drinking in the black of his eyes, the intensity that already began to subside. Then the elevator doors slid open and I followed.
I didn’t go to class. I did not even know when one period ended and another began. It took hours for Elena to see that the boy was safe, call for an ambulance, and make the sorts of decisions that followed when one student attacked another. In the teacher’s office on the eleventh floor I was exempt from it all. The news about Ghamlet’s father didn’t reach me until later, after I escorted my student to the restroom where he rinsed his hands and spent long minutes rubbing his knuckles, after I made us tea in paper cups. Later that night national channels ran a short feature from Montreux. This time, there had been no car and no corner to hide. Arno Mirzoyan was shopping with his second wife and youngest son when a motorcyclist drove down the ancient pavement and shot him three times in the chest. The news, that spread over the internet in minutes, missed Ghamlet that morning as he headed to class and caught up with him in the smoking room, brought by the hapless, unlucky boy who would wear a neck brace the rest of the school year.
As Ghamlet’s adrenalin wore out, his hands began to shake. I rummaged in the cupboards for the last of the holiday candy.
“Eat something.” I placed a box in front of him, a Women’s Day special, chocolate wafers and praline. His phone had been restless ever since we left the smoking room but for once he ignored it. When it wouldn’t stop, he walked over to the window and threw the phone in a wide arch. Eleven floors below, we heard it hit the water.
“How old are you?” Ghamlet said.
He picked a chocolate from the box.
“My father closed his first big deal when he was 24. Took his partners skiing to celebrate, not to Switzerland yet, not that kind of money, just outside of Moscow in Sorochany. He was coming down a mogul run when he heard a gunshot.” He picked another candy and let it rest in his palm, the chocolate melting. “All of his partners already gathered at the foot of the slope, he was slow. He didn’t grow up skiing and couldn’t do bumps. Then came another gunshot, and another. He told me later, that was the worst—not knowing where they came from, if he’d been hit. He felt no pain, but it was cold and he thought the body betrayed him. Finally he looked up and there it was. Fireworks. It was December and the country had just voted a constitution in. Sorochany was blowing a year’s budget on fireworks.”
I studied his face where new lines formed and old ones evaporated. As if someone pulled a plug and Ghamlet’s watermarked paper, gabardine suits, personal drivers, years of vacations under a more exotic sun, all of it went like water down the drain. The young man who sat in front of me was quiet, confused, absentmindedly rubbing chocolate spots from his fingers with a monogrammed handkerchief. I taught at Lomonosov for a few years after Ghamlet graduated, the incident in the smoking room never mentioned again. In time, elevators began to run like clockwork, no longer trapping students between floors, a loud janitor made rounds of the classrooms replacing the locks, and even restrooms received a modest daily allowance of toilet paper. Once every fall, a man in rubber overalls waded in the reflecting pool with a net that came up full of leaves and small coins. Still, sometimes on my way to class I stopped and rapped my knuckles on the wall. I put my ear to the cold surface and listened for the hollow sound within.