An English Teacher in Siberia
By Dorothy Davis
As soon as I saw the attractive, energetic Vivian Leskes striding toward us in the “middle of the Metro,” the place in the station where subway-riding Muscovites meet, I told my friends who were introducing us that she looked as though she could be in my Barnard alum film group, and sure enough when we all sat down for dinner at Tiflis, an ethnic Georgian restaurant in the Kropotkinskaya area of Moscow, it turned out that she’s Barnard ‘68. An English Major, now an English as a Second Language Teacher, Vivian is on a 6-month Fulbright in Irkutsk, Siberia. She was in Moscow for a week of meetings with other U. S. Fulbrighters in Russia, among them one of my friends.
When not country-hopping—she has also taught English in the Ukraine and Indonesia—Vivian teaches at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In Russia she is working with faculty and students at the Irkutsk State Linguistic University. Irkutsk is one of the largest cities in Siberia (pop. ca. 600,000). “It’s about an hour from Lake Baikal,” she told us, “the biggest and deepest fresh water lake in the world, home to fish found nowhere else. It’s considered holy by all cultures and religions.” Her husband Frank Ward, a photography instructor also at Holyoke Community College came with her to Russia on January 8, and was able to do some touring with her before he had to return home to his job. She showed us the lovely photographs they’d taken of the scenic area around Irkutsk, and of Lake Baikal, including some of a communal baptism in which people were totally immersed through a hole in its ice.
She’s interested in the way people teach English abroad. “I’m impressed by the way people speak English in Russia,” she said, “even if they’ve never been out of Russia. They may be doing something right that we should know about. In the first year at university they study all the tenses, that’s twelve tenses. We don’t teach them all at once. What they’re doing is impressive, though it could be confusing to some students.”
Two of her passions are Slavic culture and the Russian language. Since 2001 she has studied it at Smith, Mt. Holyoke and Amherst, and recently wrote a paper on the role of animals vs. the role of humans in Russian fairy tales—in Russian. While in Irkutsk she is continuing her Russian studies, and is observing the way people there teach Russian as a Second Language. “Learning Russian is one of the hardest things that I’ve ever tried to do. English is totally obsessed with time and has those twelve verb tenses. Russian has three. Russian is totally obsessed with nouns!”
Would she encourage others to apply for a Fulbright to teach abroad? “Do it!” she enthused. “Definitely! I suggested to my daughter that she apply as an ETA (English Teaching Assistant) and she did. I think it’s a wonderful program. It’s like a gift. It’s like a dream! It’s amazing!”#