About a hundred of us with children in the early grades of Moscow's Special School Number 5 gathered the other day beneath the "We are faithful to the works and party of Lenin" banner in the fifth-floor assembly hall for our first parent-teacher meeting of the new year.
It was a sober-minded session presided over by Margarita Nikolayevna Leonova, the school's longtime director. A woman with a strong personality who likes to do things strictly according to the book but who frequently manages a wide smile while doing so, she has run the school with great academic success during the years.
Leonova's school is known widely among Moscow's intelligentsia and upper-crust officialdom as one of the best in the city. So when she talks, we listen, take notes, and ask few questions.
She opened with an effusive welcome, then moved right to the point: The students must work very hard to excel and she fully expects the parents to preside over nightly homework assignments and monitor their offspring almost on a daily basis.
Among pupils in the first three grades, she said, there will be "special emphasis on forging a new collective attitude" that centers on this school. Since most of the incoming first graders have spent several years in Soviet kindergartens, the director expected little difficulty in their adjusting to the school routine.
Leonova then added this bit of very sound advice: "If you have any doubts or problems about the teacher, please don't talk it over with your child, as this creates problems between child and teacher. This attitude if begun in the first grade becomes more difficult to deal with in the upper grades."
She said this school year is of special significance for three reasons.
"This is the International Year of the Child, and there will be a special study of child upbringing and the relationship of family to school," Leonova said, although no more detail was offered on how the study will be carried out, who would conduct it and where the results would be published.
Secondly, she said, 1980 brings the summer Olympics to the Soviet capital, and therefore "Communist Party morals and ethics must be all the more firmly understood and studied" in the face of the expected influx of tens of thousands of foreigners.
Finally, she said, the year will be special because April 22, 1980, marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of V. I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, and all the school will collect special materials about his life, and the fifth grade will organize a library about his work.
Another special date that lurks in this year's calendar -- the 100th anniversary of the birth of Josef Stalin on Dec. 21 -- was not mentioned by the director. This was an omission quite in keeping with the official silence about Stalin that descended some years after Nikita Khrushchev made his "secret speech" denouncing Stalin's crimes to the 20th Party Congress in 1956.
At the invitation of Ludmila Mikhailovna Zaitseva, teacher of our youngest son, Chandler, and 32 other first graders, we jammed into his small, two-place desk "to see where he sits and how it feels there." She said she will change the seating several times in the year to adjust for unequal lighting or acoustics.
To us, her high-ceilinged domain looked reassuringly pleasant throughout, with its large windows and wall scenes of children playing and studying. The ever-present Lenin portrait and informal drawings of him in kindly poses lends an unfamiliar theme for a Western parent. But then, nobody said this was the D.C. school system.
In the friendly but firm manner that is the way of teachers in our school, Zaitseva made perfectly clear that she will concentrate on the three R's -- Russian, writing, arithmetic -- and that her students are to be prodded to excellence. Her lists of do's and don't's for the parents ranged from bedtimes to a promise of failure for any homework -- all to be done in ink -- that shows erasures.
She then declared proudly that this year she has a "truly international class. There are Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Jews, Ukrainians, a Peruvian, an American and Bulgarians." Her careful notation of our differences reflects fundamental attitudes in the Soviet Union, whose citizens at age 16 declare their "nationality" for internal passports they will carry for life.
To parental applause, Zaitseva then presented two Bulgarian parents with bouquets of red carnations, celebrating the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian People's Republic.
In the fourth grade taught by Tamara Ivanovna Sergeyeva, which our two older children attend, the emphasis is on the new independence of the children and the demands this will make on them. They will move from room to room, carrying their books and materials with them.
Sergeyeva, who will function as a home-room teacher for her pupils, remarked that "I am someone they don't know yet," and said the children had shown "nostalgia" for their first teacher. "But a specific relationship will grow," she concluded.
As if underscoring the new independence of these 10-year-olds, the parents of nearly half of the 36 pupils in the class skipped the semester's first parent-teacher meeting.
To those of us who were there, the teacher raised a small but irksome problem. Displaying a plate of half-eaten buns and rolls, she complained that many of the children were spurning the daily midmorning breakfast snack.
"Bread is important," she said, "and they must be taught not to waste it."
In all, the various parent-teacher meetings took up 4 1/2 hours on a recent Saturday afternoon. When it comes to their children, Soviet parents are expected to find the extra time. Most of them do.