His Life

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By Gita L. Vygodskaya

Translated from the Russian language by Ilya Gindis

Published in School Psychology International, Vol.16

Nobody in our family studied or took up religion. I only knew from the nanny, who took care of us, that there was a God, whom she, according to her words, feared and respected. On several occasions, unknown to my parents, she even took me to a church. When my father found out, he, to much to nanny’s surprise, did not get angry. Upon finding from me that I liked church, and from the nanny that I did not disturb anyone there, he decided that in the future we could go to church whenever we wanted. I remember well how proud I was when we walked openly to church, wearing our best bonnets.

Later the nanny told me that every girl should know a prayer, and I learned one from her by ear, without understanding a single word. To all my questions she always answered: “I am illiterate, when you get educated you will understand everything”. But I did not want to wait until I grew up and was educated, and so I went to my father to clear things up. He seemed to be surprised when I recited the prayer from memory, and asked where I learned it. He did not express any feelings towards the whole matter, but simply explained that the prayer thanked the Virgin Mary for giving birth to the Lord Jesus Christ. This however did not yet mean anything to me, and I went about my business as before. One day Leonid, my older cousin, who lived with us, did something that was strictly forbidden. The nanny then warned him to never do it again or “God will punish you”. To this the boy quickly replied: “God does not exist”. The nanny was horrified, and began to tell him how you can’t say things like that. Leonid was unimpressed and stubbornly stuck by his comment.

Meanwhile I was completely confused by the whole matter and had no idea where the truth lay. I began to get upset and to get a straight answer I went to my father, as I always did in difficult situations. I remember well how he was sitting at the table working. I could not hold back the worrying question, and so I came up close, so he would notice me, a favorite tactic of mine. He put down the pen, turned and hugged me by the shoulders, asking what happened. “Dad, is there a God?” – I burst out. “Why do you ask me?” – he replied. I told him of the “discussion” between the nanny and Leonid. He suddenly become very serious. “You see,” – he said, “some people, like our nanny, believe that God exists while others reject the idea. Everyone must decide this for themselves, when you grow up you too will decide”.

He never forced his opinions on us, unless of course we were doing something really wrong. In most cases he preferred for us to work things out on our own. Often when we asked a question, he did not give a complete answer but rather drew us into discussions that resulted in a commonly agreed on answer or decision.

A few years before his death, my father began to smoke. No one was really bothered by this as he did not smoke often, and it seemed to make him happy. I liked to watch him as he smoked, he had a special sort of smile at these times. One day Leonid told me how unfair he thought it was that we weren’t allowed to smoke. He said he tried it himself but only succeeded in burning his eyebrow, therefore we should do it together. He even found a perfect place: between bookshelves, and suggested we go and try it immediately. But I was not used to doing things secretly, and I was always sure of my father’s understanding and support in this. I asked Leonid to wait until the night, when he came home. Leonid agreed, but only until the night. I impatiently waited my father came home and, barely letting him take his coat off, came up to him under pretense of injustice: “You smoke, but don’t let us!” He paused for a moment and asked: “Have you tried already?” I said no, but that Leonid had. Father said: “You are right, we’ll smoke together tonight, just wait until I finish dinner”. He went to eat in my grandmother’s room, where by now the whole family gathered, and I ran with the shocking news to Leonid. When the two of us burst into the room, my father was drinking tea, while everyone else was sitting by the table or stove, discussing, as usual, the days events. Me and Leonid sat down on either side of Lev Semenovich, and began to wait. He soon finished his tea, and took out the cigarettes giving one to me and one to Leonid. Suddenly everyone in the room went quiet and began to watch us intensely.

He was in no hurry, packing the cigarettes, all the while showing how its done and why its necessary. He then demonstrated how to hold the cigarette in the hand and in the mouth. Finally he lit his, took a drag and brought the lighter to ours. Everyone around us was watching his actions, but not interfere with what was going on. “And now, take a deep breath” – said father. I don’t remember much of what happened then, as I almost passed out and got sick. I think Leonid experienced the same reaction. I guess I should add that I never tried smoking again, and Leonid did not try again until he was over 18.

There is one more thing that happened that I will recount. It’s still unpleasant to talk about it, but it happened and it taught me a lesson for life. By now I was in school. I remember it was late May. In class we had an important final coming up. I had a very serious attitude toward it, and was rather anxious. It so happened that I did well on the exam and got a high mark. I returned home in high spirit and was doubly over joyed: my father was home! When he asked me what was new in school, I proudly told him of my success, and added with ill-concealed pleasure that the girl sitting next to me could not copy from me as I had turned the page of the notebook, and because of this got a poorer grade than me. I was beaming and expecting praise, looked at father. I was surprised at the expression on his face: he looked very disappointed. I could not understand what was wrong. May be he did not realize I passed? After a short silence he began to speak, slowly and deliberately so I would remember everything he said. He told me that it was not nice to be happy of others misfortunes, that only selfish people enjoyed it. He went on saying that I should always try to help those who need it, and its only for those who help others that the life is rewarding and brings true joy. I remember I was very upset from his words and asked what I should do now. As always in these situations he offered me a solution: he did not want me to feel like once I did something wrong I was now incapable of doing good. He suggested to me that I go and ask my classmate about what she didn’t understand, and try to patiently explain it to her, and if I couldn’t do it so she would understand perfectly, then he would be glad to help me. “But here is the most important thing”, he added, “you must do all this so your friend be sure you really want to help her, and really mean her well, and so it would not be unpleasant for her to accept your help”. More than 60 years have passed since this incident and I still remember all of his words and try to follow them as best I can in life.

* * *

I don’t believe that “after death there is nothing else”. After his death, the person continues his life in memories of those who loved him and in his works. And so Lev S. Vygotsky lives in the memories of those few, still alive, who know him, and most of all, in his writings that, thanks God, are finally available to everyone. As far as his students go…, well, many of them became famous scientists. Luckily, many were granted a long life. But despite their graying heads and elevated scientific status each has reached, they all still consider the 37 year old researcher their teacher. This was something they never got tired of talking about, and always with great love. Now many are gone, but their students, and now even their students’ students go on. And so science develops. Even though so many years have passed, Vygotsky’s thoughts, ideas, and works not only belong to history, but they still interest people. In one of his articles, A. Leontiev wrote of Vygotsky as a man decades ahead of his time. Probably that is why that he is for us not a historic figure but a living contemporary.

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