This is a story begun in hardship, difficulty and poverty but through perseverance, fortitude and belief, grew into a story of success, joy and accomplishment. This is the story of a young boy from the city of Chita (Чита́), Russia, located in the far eastern region of Central Russia, where the nation dips its belly along the northern border of China (Mongolia), who dreamed of living in the West though most of the people around him thought it simply impossible. And while I have been to Russia a few times and know much about the nation and its history and culture, Chita had been a city unknown to me until the day Dima entered my life. I remember it as if it were yesterday.
Dima grew up Chita without a father and raised primarily by his grandmother. His mother, to earn money as a single-father, worked long hours in a casino in Chita, first as a waitress and then a dealer. Eventually, through years of hard work and saving money, she opened her own small Casino hoping that the money she earned would on day allow Dima to be educated in the West. This was her dream for her son and as Dima grew up it became his as well. Since Dima’s mother worked long hours at the casino while he was growing up (as many as 16 hours a day), Dima as essentially raised by his grandmother. She taught him to read and how to place chess. She taught him the names and capitals of the countries outside of Russia and she shared with him her own love of math, even though she had not been formally educated past the age of 16. As Dima was growing up, he was often teased and ridiculed by classmates and children his age. He was larger than most children his age. He didn’t have a father (or in their eyes a mother, since he was raised by his grandmother) and he loved math and to spend time alone reading. He wasn’t very good at sports and he rarely went out to play with the other children. Even when sometimes bullied by his classmates, his grandmother reminded him that he was “already a man to two women” (his mother and grandmother) and that the other children would some day regret the way they treated him. When Dima was 14, his grandmother gave him a novel about Toronto and after finishing the book, he told her that he wanted to come to Toronto to study English and then to go to university.
Eventually, he arrived in Toronto at the age of 15 and enrolled in ILAC Toronto to begin studying English. He didn’t speak any English and was enrolled as an Intro Student. He spent nearly 14 or 16 months at ILAC. I met him when he walked into my Pre-Advanced class, walked right up to me and said, “Hi, my name is Dima.” What struck me at that moment was the strength of his character and the fearlessness of his smile. I asked him his age and he said 16. At that time of the year, we never at Teen students enrolled in the school and this was also prior to our Teen Camp for English program at ILAC. I asked him how long he had been studying at ILAC and he said since the Intro level. Dima quickly became my favourite student. The progress with which his language grew was remarkable but he always remained incredibly humble and kind. He seemed overjoyed to be in a class with adult learners and really thrived. In the second month with me, I introduced my son to him, who was three years younger than Dima and they liked one another instantly. After Dima finished the High Advanced level at ILAC he switched to the TOEFL program at ILAC where he also impressed his teacher Josh. Josh, who also speaks Russian, and I used to talk about Dima and both his remarkable abilities for learning but his extraordinarily kind and humble personality. He quickly became Josh’s favourite as well. After a few months in the TOEFL program, Dima switched to the Pre-Degree program to prepare himself for university as he had decided he was going to try to enter the University of Toronto. After successfully completing the Pre-Degree program (the only teenager to ever to that at the time), he finished his time with us, or so it seemed.
Dima spent the next six months taking High School equivalency courses and tests (he’d graduated from High School in Russia two and half years early, winning scholastic medals and scholarships). After completing the necessary course work, Dima and I went out for lunch and he told me that he had applied to the University of Toronto and that he would come see me the day he found out. I asked him: “Will I be the first to know?” His face turned red, and he turned shyly away as if embarrassed and yes, ‘well, yea, but only after babushka (grandmother) and mama know.”
That day came. Dima was accepted into the University of Toronto where he studied Economics and Math. After his first two years there, he came back to ILAC in the summer as a Russian counsellor for the teen program. When I saw him last summer, I asked him how were things. He was excited about graduating from university, about helping other teens from Russia come and about the day when his grandmother would be able to visit and live in Toronto.
You see, he once told me, all of this was for his grandmother and for his mother. He didn’t want his grandmother, who’d had a difficult life as a child during World War II, or his mother (who worked endlessly her entire life) to live such difficult lives any more and that is what motivated him to learn English, move to Canada and work with extraordinary determination and belief. Next year, he will be a University graduate. I asked him, once when he and I first became friends beyond teacher-student, if he ever thought about the father he’d never known. He looked at me, thought for a moment, and then said:
“No. I am my own father.”
I wish you to remember this story.