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Kotlas Rivers Students Come to Waterville

The following is a shortened version of "River Exchange Program Offers Russian Culture To Area High School Students," an article that originally appeared in the 3/29/99 issue of the Panther Press, the student newspaper at Waterville High School. It appears here with the kind permission of faculty adviser Kay Grindall. It was written in collaboration with host students and families. Greg Smith added the italicized remarks and the photographs, which were taken by members of the Kotlas Connection.

Twelve high school students from Kotlas, Russia, ages 14 through 19, and two chaperones recently spent a week with students from Waterville, Winslow, Lawrence, and Messalonskee High Schools to participate in the Regional Gifted and Talented "River Exchange" program.

Paired with students from the four schools, the Russian students joined with ours to study the health of the Kennebec River, Messalonskee Stream, and Sebasticook River.

Under the coordination of Michael Waters, a chemistry and physics teacher at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, [our] students conducted numerous tests of the area rivers — pH, dissolved oxygen, total alkalinity, phosphorous, and temperature. Multiple samples of benthic macroinvertebrates from the rivers were also studied.

Meanwhile, the Russians have studied the Northern Dvina and have written research papers which they will share with our students. (Rather than meeting as a class, the Kotlas students worked independently on research papers on the Northern Dvina River or the environment of the Kotlas area. Their topics included the history of the river, the river today, the Northern Dvina watershed, and medicinal herbs. They did library research and sought guidance from biology teachers and local environmental organizations, but did not conduct actual field tests of river water or aquatic microorganisms. They started work in the fall of 1997 and finished in the fall of 1998.)

The group of 12 students from Kotlas began their lengthy trip with a 24-hour train ride from Kotlas to Moscow. Following a tiring layover in Helsinki, Finland, and a series of flights up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States, the students arrived in Bangor on Wednesday, February 24.

Colby lab

From left to right,Vera Zinovkina (Kotlas), Jessica Deane (Winslow H.S.), Ivan Baksheyev (Kotlas), Fyodor Shumilov (Russian language assistant at Colby, who was helping with translation), and Prof. Whitney King (Colby Chemistry Dept.) in a lab at Colby College. Photo by Phil Gonyar.

Thursday was spent in labs at Colby College studying phosphorous and total alkalinity. Though communication was a problem and they did not understand the significance of the laboratory work, they did enjoy using the lab equipment and the graphing capabilities of our TI-82's. (The IT-82 and the IT-85, mentioned later, are both Texas Instruments calculators with screens for displaying graphs of mathematical functions.)

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That day included a memorable lunch at Big's G's Deli in Winslow and an afternoon of rest and making acquaintances. In the evening students were treated to a traditional American potluck dinner at St. Mark's Church — at which time introductions of students and project donors were made.

Burt Helm noted, "The evening was completed with Sasha's virtuoso accordion playing and some Russian singing and dancing." (Burt Helm hosted Aleksandr "Sasha" Sinitsyn.)

The Russians spent Friday with their host students in their respective schools. It seemed that Waterville [High School] gained high marks for its color, energy, and open discourse between students and teachers.


Some of the Rivers Project Students pose with a Ben Franklin impersonator in Boston. Chaperones Lyuba Zinovkina and Yelena Chirkova are standing on the right. Photo by Pauline Mayhew.

They visited Boston on Saturday, touring the Museum of Science, Hancock Tower, Quincy Market, Trinity Church, and Boston Public Library where they saw a computerized card catalog for the first time. They were thoroughly awed by the visit to F.A.O. Schwartz.

Sunday was spent with host families. Some visited Freeport outlets and the Maine Mall in Portland. They went off to Augusta on Monday to tour the capitol, meet some legislators and governmental officials, and see surrounding sites — the Maine State Museum, etc.

Tuesday was a regular school day; they were hosted to a tour of Mid-Maine Technical Center and lunch in the Mid-Day Cafe. They also visited the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan.

Wednesday was another day at school; our three students were invited to lunch in the conference room with Principal Mr. Haley, Assistant Principals Mr. Pooler and Mr. Perry when we discussed everything from food to cars to school.

They left to return to Russia on Thursday, March 4, arriving home in Kotlas on Saturday night, leaving behind a myriad of memories with everyone who was privileged to spend time with them.

All of the host families experienced a language barrier; however, the two Russian students who live here in Waterville were great translators and were excited to be with fellow Russians during the week.

Dining out

From left to right, Yevgeny Semyonov (Kotlas), Melissa Clark (Lawrence H.S.), Kevin Paul (Waterville H.S.), and Ivan Baksheyev (Kotlas) dine at Big G's in Winslow. Photo by Phil Gonyar.

[Although] freshman John Tuthill from Vassalboro is not in the program and will not be going to Russia, his family was asked to host one of the Russian students, Ivan Baksheyev. John lives in Vassalboro with his parents, Jay and Susan, and thought it was a lot of fun hosting the Russian student. "He seemed very accepting of everything and was polite all the time. What surprised me most about Vanya [Ivan's nickname] was how much he enjoyed some of the things we view as simple, everyday parts of our lifestyle.

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"For example, he told me that one of his favorite experiences in America was going to the grocery store. He said that he had never seen such a vast surplus of food in his life, even in Moscow. He thoroughly enjoyed any large stores and was awestruck when we took him to the Portland Mall.

"He also loved going to restaurants with lots of people because he said he had never been to such large restaurants in his whole life. He was amazed by how often we ate out and also by how busy we constantly were. He seemed glad for just a moment of rest, and I could tell that he was oftentimes very tired after a long day."

John's mother Susan is director of guidance at Waterville High School and still smiles when she speaks of their special visitor: "I remember when my husband and I met him at the parking lot at Shaw's, and he had the most terrified look I'd ever seen. He handed me a single rose but never really looked up.

"It was quite obvious that his English skills were very weak, and it was a long, quiet ride home to East Vassalboro. Many activities were planned for the kids, but we tried to use every free moment to expose him to the 'real America' of teenagers.

Tres amigas

Ali George (left), Lena Tarakanova, and Oksanna Chirkova at St. Mark's Church. Photo supplied by Jack & Pauline Mayhew.

"For example, one night we dropped him at Champion's Fitness Club with John. We put a tennis racket in his hand and gave him a pair of shorts and tennis shoes. He let us know that he had never played tennis, but we left him there anyway.

"We learned quickly that if you asked him if wanted to do something or wanted something to eat, he always said 'No' immediately. We stopped asking!

"When we returned to Champion's an hour later, he was still on the court with the other kids and was already playing tennis with considerable skill.

"You would have thought he was one of the American kids. He had so much fun that when I asked if he'd like to play again, he immediately said 'Yes' — the first time he had said 'Yes' to anything.

"On Sunday, we took him shopping; at L.L. Bean. He bought a pair of blue jeans which he modeled for us the night we came home from shopping. After that he wore them every day, and they were on him when he left on the bus to return home.

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"By the end of the week Ivan was very comfortable and really fit in with our family — especially enjoying our cats. He and John had a lot in common — both being athletes and enjoying the same activities. On the last night I asked him to pack — after his final game of tennis — and I went into his room to help him. You'd never seen such a mess, and I think he just didn't know where to begin. All I could [think] of was that he looked at John's room, thought that's how he had to be in America, and made his room look the same way.

Kevin Paul is a junior here at Waterville and is preparing for his April trip to Russia. He, too, was fascinated by the reations of the Russians to many things we take for granted here in America.

"To our Russian visitors seemingly everyday experiences were met with wonder and fascination. The normal occurrence of a student getting to where he needs to go by driving a car was a totally alien concept. As well they were also fascinated by the variety of products in stores such as K-Mart.

"The one part of American culture that did not impress them was the condition of our train system. They were accustomed to a far better developed system of railroads in their native country."

Junior Matt Reid, also a member of the Regional Gifted and Talented "River Exchange" program, and his family provided a home for Yelena Lobonova. "What a wonderful experience to learn the Russian firsthand."

Accordion player

Natalia Kempers listens appreciatively as Sasha Sinitsyn plays. Photo supplied by Jack & Pauline Mayhew.

They were impressed the talent of Sasha [Sinitsyn] to play the accordion and that he'd been studying for eight years. They commented, "Apparently, accordion players are very common in Russia, and Sasha was surprised there weren't more here."

Reid interacted with Sasha at school and found "he was surprised at how we take little pieces of technology for granted. He entertained himself with my TI-85 graphing calculator, calling it the 'little computer.' He had never seen one like this and was even more shocked that every student in my class used one."

Burt's brother Randy was amazed that "Sasha was so quiet and polite, but he always had a twinkle in his eye. His great smile and a Russian-English dictionary eventually bridged the communications gap most of the time."

His mother noticed that Sasha was very interested in music. He was the accordion player for his group and he played many folk songs to which they would dance and sing.

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"He was also very interested in my piano lessons, and I took him up to Colby College to hear Cheryl Tschanz prepare for her [piano] recital, and he was interested in that."

She summed up their special time with Sasha: "The three English words he used most often were 'Cool!' 'Wow!' and 'Beautiful!' That made him a really nice house guest."

Former WHS Social Studies Chairperson and teacher Philip Gonyar, who had been in education for more than 30 years before retiring in 1992, has been involved with Waterville's sister-city relationship with the Russian city of Kotlas since its formation about a decade ago.

He said, "The cultural aspect — the opportunity to share very different backgrounds and heritages — is what will be most remembered from the exchange program."

At the time of the departure of the students, Gonyar commented on his interactions with the teenagers: "I think there are a couple outstanding attributes: First, everyone discovered that Russian teenagers are not much different from Americans. They like the same things — food, music, clothes, etc., and act the same unpredictable way.

"We were extremely proud of both groups of students for the way the exchange was carried out so well. They are both great groups of kids and have made lifelong friends and memories."

WHS Principal Eric Haley was excited to have the students in our school. "We are pleased to be part of this cultural exchange and see so many advantages to all involved. Certainly, the Russian students enhanced dialogue in our classrooms and broadened the horizons of many of our students."

All of our host students agreed that at the outset, they assumed that they would primarily be teaching their guests about American society and enlightening the lives of the Russians.

"Though that certainly did happen, we were also surprised to find ourselves on the receiving end of a cultural education which we had not expected," remarked Kevin Paul.

He continued, "From being regaled by accordion music, to the simple joy of trying to carry on conversation, the students from Kotlas made a great impression on all those who were lucky enough to know them This was most evident in the heartfelt good-bye when their all-too-short visit came to a close."