– Could you please tell me about your remotest memory?
– I remember myself at the age of, I don't know, probably three, and I remember a song that my dad was listening to. He had ф very antique tape recorder and my parents would listen to some kind of pop music all day round. And I remember that melody, I liked it very much then. Whenever I hear it, I have very nice memories of that room that was filled with the sounds of music. I guess it was 'Oh Mommy Blue'. Oh, mommy, mommy, mommy blue oh my, my blue. This is the only thing I remember, but I definitely know that it wasn't English.
– What were toys like in your childhood?
– I think that we had a lot of toys, but they were not always toys. We had wonderful games. I think we invented a lot of stuff. One of my favorites was to draw dolls and to draw clothes for them and to cut them from paper, and these dolls would wear different clothes. And I was the designer of my dolls and their dresses, and then my sister and I would compete for whose dresses were more beautiful.
We used to build out of furniture in our flat too. I was very lucky. I was allowed to play a lot and to crash things and to just, you know, change things in the flat. So I think that we were more creative than kids nowadays. We didn't need these Lego boxes. We had lots of fantastic games. One of my favorite ones was to play war, and I would steal a component of a car and pretend that it was a walkie-talkie. And I was the radio operator transmitting information to the center – I have no idea where particularly – and then we played war and it was great. There were multiple fantastic games. And it was always a large group of kids. I never played alone – I used to live in an Italian-style yard. My sister was always with me, we called in the yard, and we would play a lot together – kids of different ages. And there were a lot of team games.
– Could you please tell me how well did you do in school? What were the school years like, and what subjects did you enjoy the most?
– To be honest, I was never the best student in the class. I did pretty well, but I was not the best student. My favorite subjects were History, Literature, and English. I liked almost every subject. I was privileged to study in a specialized English school where we had Literature in English, and we had translation from English into Russian. The only problem was military preparation – I hated it. And my teacher would always yell at me because I didn't like to wear a gas respirator. I thought I looked ugly in it and always protested, refusing to put it on. The goal of that subject was to prepare students to fight, and we were taught how to save people in case they were wounded – that was my favorite part. I liked the medical aspect of the subject. But then we had to deal with guns, know how they work, and how to react if there is poisoning by gas – in this case, you had to wear gas respirators. But when I protested, the teacher punished me: he yelled at me and made me wear it for more minutes than all of them. And I was very embarrassed because the boy that I liked was sitting next to me and I didn't want to wear a gas respirator in front of him. It was a tragedy, the drama of my school life. I was in grade nine, which is grade ten now because we used to have a ten-year system.
– Did you ever need that knowledge in real life?
– No. I don't think that I needed all the knowledge I acquired at school. I think that the only subject I needed after school was probably English Literature. I loved it. For instance, Russian History was not true because it was about the communist party. I don't think I used the knowledge I had from there.
– Did your school have any traditions or customs?
– We had wonderful traditions. I was very lucky to attend that school. First of all, we had a lot of cultural nights. We had the Robert Burns night, we performed in front of other students, recited a lot of poetry, cooked pies, then we had Shakespeare nights. So literature nights were the ones that I loved. And then we also had lots of concerts where we performed. My favorite one was the Beatles because we all sang the songs and I was the presenter, and I was very happy because they used to believe that my English was very good, and that is why I was chosen there. Another tradition was that, because my school was in Georgia, in Tbilisi, when there was snow, the school was canceled because we all wanted to play snowballs. And there we would all run out of the school and play snowballs that melted in one hour. There were many traditions, and they were wonderful. There were a lot of team activities and all kinds of trips. We went to museums for excursions, similar to what you're doing now.
However, I wouldn't say that Letovo reminds me of my school. I think that Letovo respects students and the attitude to students is completely different because adults treat students as equals and they have discussions. We were not as smart as you are, we didn't have that many subjects. But I think that we were a bit happier because there was a wonderful sense of togetherness. I think that students nowadays are more individualistic and self-centered rather than group-centered. Back then it was not common to think about yourself and your personal goals and targets. We were more integrated into the community.
My favorite tradition was to collect scrap metal and waste paper. We would go from house to house, collecting all the stuff that was rusty and made of iron. Why I liked it – because we all did it together and it was fun. We did it with boys, and every time a boy helped you, you felt special that you didn't need to carry all this heavy stuff. It was very childish and fun.
– You mentioned personal goals. Talking about them – did you have a childhood dream job?
– I don't know why, but I have never thought that I would be a teacher. I thought that I would be an interpreter. And my dream job was somehow connected with language – my idol was an interpreter. He translated Gorbachev's speeches from Russian to English, and it was very hard because he couldn't understand what he was saying and there was no logic, but he always came up with very beautiful substances in English. I admired him for being so smart, quick, and witty. I think that I liked everything related to language and literature. I am a happy person to be honest because I have always done what I want to.
If back in childhood I was told that I would become a teacher, I would not believe it. One of my professors in my teachers' training college told me: 'Shaginyan, you will never be a teacher', and when I asked her why, she said that I had a very good sense of humor for a teacher, and because I did not respect Yan Amos Komenskiy. Once she was delivering a lecture on him, I cracked some jokes and my peer students laughed, and she was insulted that I had no respect for Yan Amos Komenskiy and I questioned the socialist attitude toward education. That's why she told me that I would be anything in the world, but not a teacher. And then I said: 'I respect your opinion, I'm not planning to become a teacher', and she said: 'I am relieved now'. l was very fun to be with in a class. I was never a very obedient student. I was a very unpredictable student. Yan Amos Komenskiy was the one who introduced the 45-minute lesson standart, and I questioned whether that was enough. I thought some people can do things quicker and they get bored, but back then they did not speak about differentiation. I questioned the theory that you only need 45 minutes per day to cover a subject. I said that this is not true because different people need different time. I do respect everybody to be honest, but most of all I respect people who want to explore the world. And I think that 45 minutes is not enough for anybody – you cannot limit people, neither in space nor in time.
– Can you tell me what was doing household chores like?
– I absolutely adored doing house work. Probably this is not natural, but compared to my sister, I adored order from the very beginning, even from the time I remember myself as a child because I believed that beauty should be everywhere, at home as well. I was a very neat and a good child in terms of having to order everything. I liked to wash the dishes, to dust the furniture – that was probably my favorite one. I did everything. I still like doing chores, and I think that all my friends know that I cannot stay in an apartment if it is not clean. I like the fresh air in the flat. I like some kind of beauty. I prefer to open my eyes in a nice room.
I will disclose a secret. All my family says that I'm a maniac because if you open my cardboard, all my sweaters are sorted very beautifully, according to the colors, like in a shop. And my sister says that I am insane and that only insane people keep order in the cardboard.
– Did your family have any customs?
– We had a lot of traditions, and they were just, you know, family events, traveling, going outside the city, and celebrating New Year and Easter. We had the tradition to clean the house before Christmas and New Year to the extent that it's very clean. Getting together, having dinners together, traveling together. There were days when we would give away stuff to neighbors, and feed people with meals. We had all kinds of traditions related to festivals. My favorite one probably was when me and my mom and my sister would do some crafts, and every time these crafts were different. Another one was when we had our birthday and we woke up, we could see a special kind of poster with our photographs and funny drawings. My mom would draw very funny things about us. I remember what my shoe size was when we were 10, for example, because it was always written there. There were my jokes written, there were funny stories about me. For example, my friend's name was Nona, and my mom would draw me and Nona together. If I look at these posters now, I can have a flashback of what was happening to me when I was 10, 11, and 12. My sister and I were waiting for this poster on the wall because every time it was brand new. Then guests would come and write some very nice wishes there. It's also interesting to see now because there were people whose names you can see every year, and there were some random people. So therefore I could just track my friends.
Of all the celebrations my favorite one probably was Easter – but the most interesting thing was that it was not a Christian Easter. I grew up in an international community, and we had a lot of Jewish and Muslim kids, and we adored their Pesach and Paδrām because they would bring a lot of stuff, and we would treat each other. I adored Jewish Pesach because they would bring something in a jar, something very sweet that you had to spread – it was called Kharazot, and eating this, we adored each other's Easters and Pesach. These very important religious festivals were my most favorite ones. When it was Christian Easter, I would bring eggs and a lot of food. My favorite part was when we had the battle of eggs, and we'd sit together, and the funniest thing was that the Jewish kids, because they came from very Orthodox families, would say: "Can you please stand so that my mom doesn't see me because we don't eat eggs", and they would secretly eat those eggs and they would say "Madlena, will you please bring those eggs". It was so good. I adored this secret religious food that we shared.
– How did your life change at the brink of the 90s?
– I moved to Germany and I lived there and worked there. I lived there for almost two years. Interestingly, I used to speak German very well. On the one hand, it was a wonderful experience. On the other hand, it was probably the most difficult one, because I left alone there – all my family was in the former USSR. When I was asked whether I wanted to stay there or leave, I decided that I better go back to Russia. It was a very difficult time because the worst-hearted people became more aggressive, there were a lot of nationalists, and it was not safe. I lost everything. We, as a family, lost everything that we had, but we were a very happy and loving family. We decided never to look back, and I still do not. I don't like remembering those days because they were the worst years of my life.
– I understand. So back to your childhood – how did you obtain your spending money?
– This is not a very interesting story. I was lucky my father would give me enough pocket money. He even gave me enough money to take a taxi and not to go by bus. I started working only after my graduation from the university, so till then my family and my dad actually paid all the expenses and bought me everything I needed. There was a very wonderful antique bookshop. And I was very, again, lucky because I had enough money to buy an Oxford dictionary, and I spent a lot of time and money on books – I even have some of these books here with me. I remember I bought The Great Gatsby there and lots of English books so that I could read Somerset, Maugham, Hemingway. I spent that money on books, I spent on lots of stuff, everything I own – music, because it was not easy to get these records of Beatles or Rolling Stones or AC/DC or Pink Floyd or whatever, and the Iron Maiden and everything. They cost a lot.
– Right now, a lot of children in our school are facing the difficulties of choosing their major, and just the whole university application process, really. Can you please tell me what was choosing your university and major? Like what did it feel like while making this vital step?
– The thing is that I never stopped looking for opportunities. I was never sure that I would get a diploma and work only as a lawyer or whoever. Every time I didn't know what to do, I entered a college. That is why I have four diplomas. I studied business, I studied international law. My first diploma was in a teaching qualification. So I don't think that you choose your education for life. I chose colleges where I thought were the best professors and people that I could learn from. The most important thing was to choose the community of people who are better than me so that I would be able to look up to them and learn from them. My dream school was МГИМО – I thought their English was fantastic there, and I wanted to study there. When I went to my first teaching international, or what do we call it in the asset, international languages universities, I knew that the best professors were there, and that's why I did.
My first diploma was in foreign languages, English and German. That college was located in a village in Georgia. Then I graduated from there and got a job in Germany, and then I came back to Moscow and applied for a business MBA. I had a master's degree, so that was master's in business administration. Then I went to МГИМО and got a degree in international law. If you ask me why I did that – I have no idea. I just wanted to study. I was not planning to become a lawyer. I was very much interested. I don't know. I cannot explain.
My parents' reaction was that they were always happy. My father said that a person in the 20th century – that was the 20th century – needs multiple occupations, and it's not enough to be able to do one thing. He always paid for all my studies and private teachers, and he said that studying is the only thing that you can retain, and the money will be spent. Knowledge is retained and skills are. That's why he said that it's better to give you knowledge rather than money.
– What were the university years like?
– All my university years were amazing because I was a happy student – I studied areas that I absolutely was passionate about. I had wonderful friends and we would share all kinds of knowledge. If you asked me again whether I would go to one college or not, I would say no because I think that they all shaped my character. I think that I gained not only knowledge – it's not knowledge that I gained in all these colleges. It's character, skills, and character. For example, communication skills. Or I can read very quickly. I can read a book in one hour just because I was always in a hurry.
– Did you live with your parents or in a common boarding house?
– I never lived alone when I was a student. I always lived with my parents, but I had my own room, so I had pretty good living conditions. But in my time living in a boarding campus or some kind of dorm meant that you had nowhere to live.
– What was it like separating from your parents and beginning to live alone?
– I cannot say that I was too far from my parents because I would see them on a regular basis. I was very close and was always attached to them and my family. We would always see each other and call each other. And there was a very funny story about the answerphone – my father hated it. Every time he called me and I was not at home – before we had cell phones – I would come back and listen to the message and he would say 'This is your father' as if I never recognized his voice. And then he started cursing that machine because he wanted me to be available all the time. But then when we got cell phones, it became much easier. I will tell you one thing: wherever you go, if you love your family, this doesn't matter. You will always be together.
The only difficulty I faced was that I grew up in a very loving and safe environment. I was not afraid or scared of some kind of physical labor or whatever, but the most difficult thing was that there were people that would think differently and could hurt me, and I didn't know how to react because previously no one would hurt me. I learned how to protect myself, how to predict threats, and how to avoid the people that made me unhappy.
I think that adult life is also when you take on responsibility for someone else. And when I had my own family, I had to grow up immediately in a day because when you have kids, you are responsible for their life and nothing else matters.
– And what about more technical difficulties? Maybe like cooking on your own or buying groceries?
– I will tell you one thing. For example, what's your favorite food that your mom cooks?
– Okay, so trust me, one day you will just start cooking draniki and you will know how to cook them. This is because if you like something and you saw how your mom cooked it, it's not difficult. Everybody does the same, trust me. When you cook on your own for the first time, you will not be able to do it as your mom cooks it, and you will call her and you will definitely ask her: 'Mom, how many eggs do you put in draniki? Do I need to put salt there?' You ask a couple of times and then you will be an expert in it.
– So the next question is, how did you become a teacher?
– Oh, that was a very funny story. I became a teacher by chance. My friend owned a small private school and she asked me to come and see what was happening there because she was not sure that the level of English was good, and I wanted to help her. And when I entered the school, there was a girl, she was pretty plump, with curly hair, and very funny. She refused to go to her English class. And when I kneeled and asked her 'Lola, – her name was Lola – why aren't you in class? Why do you protest?', she said: 'The teacher is not beautiful'. And that's why she didn't want to sit in her class. I got interested. I wanted to see the teacher that she believed was not beautiful. I cannot say whether she was beautiful or not beautiful, but I remember that she had a very harsh, loud voice. I think Lola was in grade one, and she didn't like her voice – I think that she was scared, very scared. And then when I started talking to her, she asked me 'will you come tomorrow?' and I said 'I don't know' – I was not planning. I had time then, and I started visiting that school. Then I decided to give a class myself to Lola and she liked it very much. And I even remember the book – my first lesson was on Verishagin's English Language Reading, reading the words 'Sam, Pam' with 'a'. And I liked it so much, you know why? Because she was so excited, and she was so happy. And in this case, what I found out was that kids were fun to be with. They were very sincere, and if they didn't like something, they would tell, and there was no pretense. They were very honest, like Lola, who said that she didn't like the teacher. And gradually, gradually, then another private school opened, and I decided to go there because I was bored with international law – there was little creativity. That's it. It was by accident.
– And do you still keep in touch with that girl, Lola?
– I used to. Lola is now almost an adult young lady. I haven't seen her for two years. I used to be a very good friend of her family and they were a very good friend of mine, but they had a very sad event, something happened, a tragedy struck their family and they just somehow disappeared – the whole family. But still yes, I did. And her mom and her dad were all my very good friends as well.
– So there wasn't any particular reason for which you chose your subject?
– There was a reason because it was clear that I wanted a job that was somehow connected with the English language. Then it was very difficult to find a job. I mean, I couldn't live without the language, and I think that was the main reason.
– How did you end up teaching at Letovo?
– I met Mr. Mokrinskiy in Rome. That's a very funny story. I was attending a conference and he approached me there and said: 'Are you Madlena? I was told that you are an expert in international education and we are opening a new school, are you interested?' I said: 'Yes, probably'. Then we met several months later, and that's how we started. I was probably the third person on the team. We started the whole thing.
One reason why I love Letovo is that Letovo gives you a lot of freedom in designing and finding your own way of teaching on the one hand, and on the other hand, incorporating best practices. I think that Letovo pushed me to explore best practices and try them out. And I think that that was the main reason why I stayed. Letovo always had very high targets, and I had to read a lot to find a way to achieve all of these goals, and it motivated me to grow.
I've worked with the IB Program before Letovo – I was an international trainer and a workshop leader. I provided a lot of professional development in Europe and Asia and traveled a lot, and I was very happy because I met international educators and I implemented the IB program in another school, the one where I used to work. By then I was, I would say, an expert in IB and in all three programs.
– What events of your life had the most significant effect on the formation of your individuality?
– I think… difficulties. It's not one event or several events. I think that first of all, my very happy childhood made me an optimistic person, then different difficulties developed persistence and perseverance. And the people I met. I am very lucky. I have met amazing people who made me an inquirer. Every time I encountered someone very interesting, I would be chanted and would be motivated to learn more. I think that I'm the type of person that uses every failure and every success to change. I hope for better, not for worse, but I like new things.
– Can you tell me something about your first love?
– My first love was my classmate, the one that I was very embarrassed about. Remember, I told you about the gas respirator? We were classmates and we were together from grade six till nine, and then we sat together – we used to have desks for two people, and for two years we sat together, and eventually, that classmate became my husband. We married and we had a wonderful girl whose name is Marianna. So my husband is in my childhood love story. He is amazing and I absolutely adore him. One of the best people I know. The most interesting thing is that he was ingenious in math and physics, and when we had math and physics, he did all problems for me, and I would read 'The Forsyte Saga' so that no one could distract me. And it's also interesting that when we had a test – when you sit together, you are given variant one and variant two – he would always solve two variants. And if there was not enough time, he took my variant first. I would always get fives. And when he did his problems, he never had enough time and he got threes in Math and Physics. And I did History and Literature for him because he hated reading school literature books. He preferred reading science fiction and detective stories, so I wrote written responses for him. That's how we graduated from our school.
– Keeping on with the romantic theme. What was dating in your days like? How did the dates go – if you wanted to go out, where did you go?
– We would walk. There were not many places. In the city, we would just walk, go to parks, go to cinemas and go to parties. We had a lot of parties at home. I organized those. We would go together to a certain friend's flat for kvartirniks and all these kinds of things.
– What was the political climate like when you were young?
– It was the Soviet Union and the communist party. There was no climate. There was only one weather for all days and seasons. And me and Lenin forever. Not forever, but still.
– Did this have any influence on your relationship with your family?
– It had to because my mom's dad was a military man and my father hated communists and my mother adored them, and we would always have political arguments at home. My father said, 'You have to immigrate and don't believe this communist party', and my mother said that he knew nothing about life. I think that I was very much affected by those political debates. My father's favorite station was Radio Freedom and my mother liked International Panorama. I had to become a critical thinker because I would listen to the same stories from different perspectives.
– Staying in the political field, what effect did 9/11 have on you?
– I saw it on TV. It was a disaster. And I think that I am experiencing the same thing now. I had the same feelings – fear, horror. And I was paralyzed – you know, when you understand nothing and can do nothing.
– Did the political ideology of your home country influence your daily life?
– No, it didn't. I have always had my own opinion on what was going on and I lived in harmony because I had some kind of immunity. I was a pioneer; however, I was not a member of the Komsomol organization because… I don't know. And I never applied to the communist party. I didn't care. I was not interested. I somehow avoided it – I don't know how – and then I just decided that I didn't want to learn all this stuff by heart. It was not interesting.
– Was it safe outside when you were young?
– Yes, it was safe. You could go out for a walk in the late evening. I was very afraid of the United States and nuclear war, but outside it was very safe.
– What was your reaction to the emergence of the internet, social media, and streaming services?
– I was extremely happy, and absolutely adored it. I couldn't believe it. I like social media. I like Instagram, and I can read a lot of interesting and fun stuff there, but sometimes I am bored. I don't like writing long posts because your thinking may change one day. You might think this way the other day, you might think that way, and I just don't like losing time on writing long posts. I am too busy and too happy with my own world.
– Do you have any role models or heroes?
That's a very good question. I used to have those when I was growing up. I think that you might have multiple role models. I have always admired people who have dignity, courage, and wisdom. There are so many that I admire. I am an admirer. I admire people for different reasons. I might admire people for cooking better than me, for working better than me, for being more beautiful, for being smarter. I cannot choose one person that I admire for everything, but there are different people that I respect and admire and want to learn from them. I would say it that way.
– Last but not least. Do you have a dream?
– Yes, I have a dream. My dream is a school – all my dreams are connected with education – a school with happy students, happy teachers, and a school that has no limits in terms of opportunities. My dream is to have a school, not to own it. I have always loved kids and I am happy when I am with kids. I am happier with the adults that are like kids. I hate people that are self-centered. Kids are fun – they're honest, they're sincere, they're amazing. All my dreams are linked somehow to education. So my motto is 'love, peace, and education'.
Letovo fulfills this dream in a way. I think that Letovo is an amazing school. Not only because of the facilities, but because it has very decent people. The tragedy of your life is when you have to socialize with people that you don't like. I like people here and I like kids here, I like the facilities here and the opportunities. I hope our school will flourish and grow because education is the only way to peace, and I'm sincere. I think that education is the only way to make our society better.
– I think that that's a great note to end on.
– Thank you very much.