Friday, April 30, 2010

Guest Blogger: "A Better Life"

This week's guest blogger is Ms. Lena from The Colors Magazine, and her fictional story, which was inspired by her own life growing up in Russia, is dear to my heart because it's about the importance of an education. If you don't know (because you are new to this blog), I am a high school English teacher, and many of my students are inner-city children. Please read, enjoy, and be inspired by this story about overcoming...


"A Better Life"
By: Lena Toporikova

We had never been rich. Or a middle class for that matter. One could tell we were poor, but my mother would never admit this. After all, we had a place to live in; clothes to wear; both kids, my brother and I, were going to school; and we had at least a piece of bread to eat each day. Some people, my mother used to repeat, do not have even this.

I agreed, but it did not make me feel any better about who we were.

Yes, we had a place to live in, a one-room apartment, for a mother with two kids and an always drunk stepfather. Unpaid bills and a constant fear to be thrown out…

Yes, we had clothes to wear. I still remember the old blue sweater I used to wear till it finally could tear at a touch. All clothes we wore were second hand, given to us by relatives who believed in good deeds that should be rewarded, which meant I was obliged to babysit their kids and tutor them when they failed in the exams. No pay, of course. After all I got to wear the old blue sweater, didn’t I?

And yes, we had a piece of bread to eat each day, on some days it was the only food we had. And then that blue sweater hung loosely so that my little brother could fit in.

It was true also that my brother and I were going to school. Different ones though. And maybe that was my problem. I went to a school for rich kids. That school had a quota for gifted children. And unfortunately, I got into it. I was smart, I could count, and I knew multiplication. I began reading when I was four. By the time I had to go to school I had read more books than most of my schoolmates would ever read in their entire life.

My mom was working twelve hours a day; the stepfather came home at around 2:00 p.m. drunk and angry. The best I could do was to take my brother and to go somewhere just to avoid being in one room with that man. Of course, I knew he would fall asleep right after an hour or so, but I still preferred to stay away from our apartment (I couldn’t call that place home) when my mother was not there. There always had been something dangerous about that man, something dark. I never heard a sweet word from him, he always reeked of alcohol, and I had intensely ill feelings for him. At that time I didn’t even know he was not my biological father, but I guess kids understand easily when adults don’t love them and act accordingly. So did I. I just took my brother and fled that place once the man appeared.

Sometimes we would go to our neighbors’ place, and if we were lucky, we got a bowl of soup, and I was allowed to read the books in their library. Our neighbors were nice people, and I believe they had sympathy for us, but sometimes they acted differently. They wouldn’t let us in, just saying they were busy and giving us a piece of cake. Not that it was bad; now, I think they probably had their problems too. They had divorced by the time I was ten. Though when I was six, I didn’t care much about their problems but would sit somewhere on the bench in the park and cry about not being allowed to read anything and call the neighbors names that were used often by my parents.

On one of such days, I was crying in the park, my brother was playing with his toys nearby when a woman approached us.

“Are you two alone here?” she asked.

“Yes, M’am.”

“Where are your parents?”

“My mom is working; dad is sleeping,” I replied.

“How old are you?”

“I am six, M’am,”

“Six year old and alone here in the park? Should I take you home?”

“No, thank you.” I began wondering if the woman would really bring us home, and since I didn’t want it, I added hastily, “Our mom will pick us up when she finishes.”

“Okay. You know what? For a girl of your age you speak too well. Does your mom read for you a lot?”

“No, M’am, she does not. I read myself.”

The woman should have seemed surprised, but I don’t really remember. I was six after all; I can’t remember all the details.

“Do you read? And what do you read, Sweetheart?”

“Books,” I replied searching with eyes for my brother. He was nowhere near the bench, and I began worrying. Of course he was only four, and he wouldn’t go anywhere far, but I panicked.

Finally, I located him twenty feet away and ran towards him. The woman followed me. I took my brother’s hand and apologized to the woman.

“I am sorry; usually we stay at our neighbors’ place, and he plays with his toys, and I read books. But today they didn’t let us.” I began crying again, sobbing, trying to say something, to explain, but words failed me. That my mom was working too hard to make the ends meet? That my stepfather was an alcoholic? That our neighbors are sorting out their own problems and don’t need paupers’ kids like us getting under their feet?

I can say it now, now that I am a twenty-six-year-old, and an independent and a self-sufficient woman. But back then, I was just a six years old, practically abandoned kid who made it her responsibility to look after her younger brother. I was the girl that didn’t know that kids were supposed to have fun and eat sweets and be loved by their parents. I didn’t know these things, didn’t know life could be any different. I just cried because I was not allowed to read books on that day.

On that day, the woman took me to a public library, and it changed my life. The woman’s name was Margaret Simpson, but I was allowed to call her Maggie.

When we entered the library that day I was amazed at the number of books they had there. Maggie asked me to take a sit and started to talk with one of the librarians. Take a seat? Was she kidding? I was so excited to be in that place that I would not stop walking around the bookshelves, taking every second book into my hands, turning over the pages, smiling at myself, wondering if they had books from all over the world. I could not imagine at that time that it was one of the smallest libraries I would ever be in. For me it was huge; it was the paradise. Every now and then I looked at Maggie who was still talking with the librarian, and couple of times I saw her pointing at me and my brother and gesticulating frantically. After a while, that seemed an eternity, she asked me to come closer.

I did.

“Mandy,” she said. Mandy is my name if you don’t know it yet. “This is Mrs. Anderson; she works here, and she was very kind to allow you to use the services of this library.”

I looked puzzled at Maggie. “Allow us to use services”? I didn’t know what that meant. And I was so scared that if they thought I were dumb, they would never let me in here so I didn’t dare to ask.

But Mrs. Anderson was a wise old lady who understood my confusion and helped me out.
“It means, dear, that you can come here anytime you wish and read the books you want to.”
I couldn’t believe my happiness.


That was like all dreams come true.

“Thank you. Thank you so much!” I couldn’t decide which of the two women I was more grateful to.

Since that time, I was a regular visitor in the library. That was a place where we were always welcome: the place that I called home. Nobody cared how poor or rich we were. Nobody bothered with what clothes we were wearing. They only knew I loved reading, and it was enough for them.

One of the regular visitors was an old man who we soon had become friends with. He used to tell me stories about his young age, and I told him all about mom and stepdad and their constant fights. He was always nice to me so when one day he asked me if he could walk us home I agreed. When we reached home he wanted to talk to my mom. They had stayed in the kitchen for nearly thirty minutes, and when they finished my mom called me.

“Mandy, this gentleman says you can read very well. Is it true?”

Surprised I looked at my mom and nodded. She gave me an old newspaper.


I began reading. It was an article about some political issues in the parliament.

“Do you understand what you are reading about?” she asked.

I again nodded hesitantly. All this while I was praying she would not put a veto on a library-thing.

“You see,” the man broke the silence. “Your daughter is very gifted. Don’t let her talents go to waste.”

Since that day my mother couldn’t stop talking about the better future for all of us.

“Mandy, you will go to a good school, get an education. You won’t have to work for twelve hours to have nothing but debts. It will be a new life.”

I didn’t bother about this new life much, though now I think I should have. But all I could think about at that time was how great my mom was to allow me to go to the library again.

A couple of months later my mom came home excited as never before.

“Tomorrow is our great day, Honey. The beginning of our future.” And tomorrow indeed was a beginning… a beginning of my life in hell. She brought me to this school. There already was a large crowd of people, parents with their offspring. Everyone was eager to get their kid into this school.

They called us one-by-one. And when someone disappeared behind the door, the rest of us were staring at it wondering when they would come out, but nobody did. Maybe because there was another door, a way out. Sometimes I wish I knew that way. Sometimes I’m glad I did not.
When they called out my name, I went in scared like any other little kid about what would happen now. It turned out there was nothing to be scared about. They just talked to me. I read for them, made some calculations, and answered a few questions. Then I went out where my mom was waiting for me, and we went home. Two days later we learned I made it to the second round. After the second round, there was the third, and finally, I and four more kids were accepted into this school.

But from all of us, five little kids from a poor district, there was only me who made it up to the graduation day. The other three boys and a girl had to quit because of constant persecution, offences and harassment we all had to go through every single day of our lives in that school.
Sometimes I wish I had quit too, but then I am glad I had not. It made me stronger, made me who I am, and all that while it made my mom happy to know that I am destined for a better future.

She had never managed to see this future though. She died shortly before my graduation. And she had never learned that I made it through all the obstacles to the place where I was now. The place where I was happy…

Now I had something my mother always missed: happiness.


About the Author:

Lena is a Russian blogger who writes in English. She is passionate about writing and hopes to finish a novel of her own one day. While it takes time to put all her thoughts down on paper, she writes about anything she likes in her online home - The Colors Magazine. This is the place she created in hope that it could be a platform for her to exercise and improve her writing skills, as well as as platform for other bloggers to communicate and share views.


  1. Thank you, Lena, for sharing. I have to say, this is a very important message. So many American kids take their education for granted. They don't care and have complete disregard for their books and teachers. This story is so touching; I love seeing a story where the love of learning is so dearly prized!


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