What "final bell" meant for Katia: no
place to go, and no plans for the future...
The "Final Bell": a Russian orphan's graduation story
The “final bell”. “Final bell” is how Russians label their last day of school
and graduation day. The final bell often rings in somber, worrisome tones
for the orphans of Russia. Most of us think of graduation as a joyous
occasion: the beginning of a journey into the future to live out childhood
For Russian orphans, the final bell begins the world’s most cruel surprise
party. Orphans have lived all or most of their lives in an institution:
following strict schedules, making no decisions, being told what to do and
how to do it, learning no life skills. Then…final bell. They graduate and are
thrown into the world, like birds who are set free but have never learned to
fly. Easy prey for the villains of the world. Nine out of 10 Russian orphans
face a future of drugs, alcohol, prison, prostitution, or suicide.
I will never forget that day on a muddy playground in northeast
Russia, three weeks before final bell. We were visiting one of the internat
orphanage schools where our Russian church team has been ministering to
orphans for several years. We enjoyed a lunch of soup and bread with the
children, and migrated outside to the still-recovering-from-winter
playground. It was a bright and warm spring day, a rarity for early May in
this part of Russia. Skies cloudless. Gentle breeze. Coat-quickly-coming-
off weather. Within minutes, the playground was alive with running,
laughing, tagging, yelling, and games. Children showing off on the one
piece of antiquated playground equipment. A soccer ball being kicked back
and forth on the gray-brown field.
We sat with a group of the older children on a broken-down bench at one
side of the playground. As we watched the amazing show of energy and
life, I wanted to freeze-frame the afternoon. It was like a patch of timeless
joy in lives headed to an almost certain dead-end. I wanted to keep
these children from ever having to hear the final bell.
“Final bell…it’s only three weeks away,” I thought to myself. “I wonder if any
of the children sitting with us are graduating.”
I turned and asked: “Are any of you graduating this year?”
Katia smiled and then raised her hand: “Yes….”
“Congratulations Katia! Where will you be living when you leave the
school?” (I knew that many of the children who graduate from this internat
have to move at least three hours away.)
Katia’s smile melted. She looked down, staring at the stubble of spring
grass pushing up through the patch of mud between her feet. Silence. She
continued to stare at the ground. The children who sat with us waited
politely. Quietness. We waited. And waited.
Finally Katia had to answer: “I don’t know….”
At that point, I should have been wise enough to change the subject, but I
really wanted to know what she would be studying in vo-tech school, which
is supposed to be the next grade for Russian orphanage internat graduates.
So I asked, “What will you be doing when you graduate?”
Katia continued to stare into the ground… arms folded… bent over in a
stomach-ache-kind-of position. Her entire posture and countenance said
that she wanted to cry, but she held back the tears with the toughness she
had acquired from her lifetime within the gray walls of the orphanage.
Again, a long wait until she decided on her answer that came slowly in an
apologetic voice: “I don’t know.”
I held back the tears that I wanted to shed with Katia. Quickly, we changed
the subject back to the playground, the impromptu soccer match, the
beauty of the day, and the excitement and joy of being together and
sharing our love with the children that we had grown to know and love.
Unfortunately, Katia’s dilemma is normal. The majority of orphans who
graduate from the internat schools of Russia have no hopes and dreams
for their future. If there is anything worse than living in a Russian
orphanage, it’s living in an internat orphanage. Children whose
parents have any kind of social problem are likely to end up in the internat
school, where they are routinely diagnosed as slow learners and children
with problems. Based on our ministry to children in the internat
orphanages, these schools are full of beautiful, talented, kind, and smart
children who will never have a chance to develop what God has placed
within them. Those who go on to vocation school often have to relocate to
a far away community. They usually give up after a month of two in
strange and lonely surroundings. They drop out, somehow get back to
their town and familiar faces, and try to find their way in an unfamiliar world.
Many will live on the streets; some find shelter with other children their age.
Most will somehow find enough money for cheap vodka or grain alcohol.
They seek temporary solace in the arms of another. Babies are
conceived. Babies are born and are given up to the orphanage baby
houses. The vicious cycle continues.
When we first started working with Russian orphans, we thought what
orphans need is clothing, showers, computers, games, fruit, and ice cream.
Time and experience has taught us the only solid answer for orphans is to
get them into families. We still minister to children where they are in the
orphanages, but we focus on encouraging foster homes, transitional
homes, and adoption.
Much prayer is needed. Only God can make the changes necessary to set
the orphanage children of Russia into families.
When we think about Katia, we rejoice in knowing that, through our faithful
volunteers at the church nearby, she has heard the good news of Jesus
Christ. Not just once but on many occasions. Someday the real final bell
will sound for Katia and all of us. We pray that on that day Katia will
finally know where she is going and what she will be doing: living forever in
God’s big family.
Ken Dockery, co-founder,
Big Family Mission