The Muscovites play chess at Denny’s until 1 am. The Siberians wait for the bus in the snow without jackets. The Georgians – they aren’t really Russian. They never were. They like to remind people of that. Years ago, Russia let out a bunch of Jews. All of them seem to have jobs at the university and play musical instruments. At the pre-school their children bring latkes for snack time. During the open house the new Russians and the old Russians talk for three minutes and then sit at opposite ends of the room. When nearly everyone has left, the old Russians shake their heads and whisper to our vice-principal: these new Russians – they’re not like us.
These new Russians are missing teeth. They barely smile. We’d hate to say it about anyone but they smell strange. Their children are not like the other children. Take Anika, for instance, in the fourth grade. She has a collection of hats. We let her wear them during the pledge of allegiance. She is obsessed with her hats. She’ll bring three to school hidden in her backpack and when no one is looking she’ll put a different hat on. When she gets off the bus it’s a floppy hat. During lunch and recess it’s a hat with a feather in it, and during dismissal it’s a hat made of wool. Today her floppy hat has a giant silk rose pinned to the front. The weight of the rose pulls the hat over her eyes. No one ever says, Anika, I like your hat. No one really likes Anika.
You see, Anika has a cruel sense of humor. We think it might be a cultural difference. When Laura gets in trouble for putting pencil leads in the Venus Fly Trap, Anika giggles. When Tasha falls during hopscotch and skins a knee she laughs in her face.
Anika, we tell her gently, it’s not nice to laugh at people when they’re hurt. She grins back at us with her grey old lady teeth. It’s difficult to say how much English she knows. Some days she’ll say a fancy word. Like “pernicious.” Other days she forgets the word for scissors. We can’t figure out where she gets her fancy words. Maybe from her brother. He’s at the high school and supposedly he’s a genius. Or at least he’s very good at chess. He came to the open house with Anika and her parents and his business cards. Peter Kharitonov: Former Communist and Chess Player.
A joke, yes? Says his mother, embarrassed. She hurries back to the group of Russian parents who are frowning around the punch bowl.
So when Ben is gushing blood from his nose where someone has hit him with a basketball and Anika starts laughing, we remember it must be hard to be Anika. To be Russian, with a genius older brother.
Anika forgets the words “faucet” and “wrist” but writes a story about an “odious” bear who has a “nefarious” plan to kill his neighbor, the squirrel, by poisoning his acorns with “laudanum.” We decide to put her with an English partner. Her name is Opal, she’s in the fifth-grade, and she’s good at spelling and soccer. All the boys are in love with her. She needs to start wearing a bra. We started to talk to her mother about this, but realized her mother wasn’t wearing a bra either.
Next to Opal, Anika looks like a pale stick of celery, like she needs more calcium. On the first day of their meeting she brings six hats to school and tries them all on before meeting with Opal. She settles for a man’s eggplant colored fedora. Opal looks at Anika and taps the felt brim. I like your hat, she tells her. Anika beams.
Everything is going well. Together they sit at the desk by the iguana’s tank and practice vocabulary cards. But mostly they talk and practice drawing horses in their notebooks. We think that it’s probably ok, that it’s good for Anika. Anika starts writing stories about talking sunflowers. She’s improving! We write enthusiastic notes on her report card and add smiley face stickers.
Then one day Margarita is playing in her chair and slips and cracks her head open on the desk. Blood is everywhere. Anika covers her mouth with her hand but she can’t stop it. As soon as the girl leaves to go to the nurse Anika starts cackling. Everyone is looking at her. There is still blood on the linoleum.
Opal scowls. Anika! That’s not funny. We hold our breaths and hope for a change. We learned at staff training that the best way to modify unwanted behavior is through the use of peer-pressure.
Anika shakes her head then whispers something in Opal’s ear. We can’t for the life of us guess what she tells Opal, but Opal starts laughing too. Actually it’s more like howling. They start howling and then they start laughing that kind of suffocating, breathless laughter. We have to take them out to the hallway. Then we have to separate them in two different corners and give them sheets of busy work. Every few minutes they giggle to themselves.
We decide that maybe an English partner isn’t the best idea, at least not this week. We decide to hold a short meeting with Anika’s mother. We look up “Russia” in the encyclopedia. The set is from three years ago and it says “see U.S.S.R.” The article doesn’t have anything about the sense of humor in Russia. It has a picture of a matryoshka doll, a map of the Soviet Union, and a photograph of an old lady with a kerchief tied under her chin.
We continue to wonder what it was that Anika whispered into Opal’s ear.
Anika turns so white she begins to look green. She changes her hats. She writes stories about sunflowers with teeth. We are concerned. We write a list of things to tell her mother when she comes to visit: laughter, cruelty, an uneven vocabulary.
During recess Anika’s brother comes to the school. Has he been drinking? He carries an envelope. Inside the envelope is a note from Anika’s mother. She’s very sorry she couldn’t make it and would like to reschedule. Until then please relay any important information about Anika to her brother. He shuffles his feet and hiccups. Shouldn’t you be in school? He shrugs. We gather around and think about what we should do. Call the mother. Refuse to meet with Peter. He’s only a boy. Maybe this is how they do things in Russia. Go inside and wait, we tell him.
Meanwhile, Anika is playing four-square and talking very loudly to her classmates. For some reason, she calls Vishal “black.” We’re not quite sure how this has come up in conversation.
But I’m not black, says Vishal. I’m Indian.
She seems not to hear him. You’re black.
No, I’m not.
Black like you got burned.
I’m not black!
What’s wrong with being black? Says Tasha, who is black.
Vishal is black like you, adds Anika.
No, I’m not! screams Vishal, his mouth full of spit. I’m not a blackie!
Tasha pushes Vishal. Vishal pushes Tasha. Tasha then trips and starts to cry. Anika lets out a giggle. Everyone stops playing four-square and is silent. Anika keeps on laughing. Vishal and Tasha both wipe their noses and stop crying. They help each other to their feet. Slowly the children move in around Anika. She’s in the middle of the four-square, holding her stomach with one hand, covering her mouth with the other. The children surround her. There is Ben, who she laughed at when he broke his nose. Laura, who got in trouble for the Venus Fly Trap. Margarita, who received three stitches after falling from her chair. We say nothing. We are transfixed. It’s not like we decide to let it happen; it just does. The children draw a tighter circle around Anika. One of them holds a stone inside his fist. All we can see of Anika is the top of her hat, the crushed red velvet.
Then suddenly a word flies through the air: AH-ne-kah! Like an Egyptian curse, like a password, like “nefarious” and “pernicious.” It takes us a moment to realize that her brother has called her name. He stands outside the doorway, his arms crossed. Look at how tall he is. The children scatter. Anika runs to her brother and hides her face in his coat. He glares. We shrug. He straightens the sagging felt rose on Anika’s hat. He whispers in her ear. She grins and climbs onto his shoulders. We can hear them laughing as they leave through the parking lot.