I taught a class of Estonian kids today, all aged 11 and 12. The bulk of the lesson focused on presidents and politics.
I started with American presidents. They knew Barack Obama, and were aware there was a president before him, George W. Bush, who was "stupid." They unanimously used this one English word to describe him.
But who came before Bush? No one knew the answer. When I finally named Bill Clinton, a few went, "Oh yeah," but the name meant essentially nothing to them. They were alarmed when I told them that the president before Clinton was also named Bush.
"You mean George W. Bush's father was also president?" they said, astonished. When I said that he served only one term, someone asked, "But what happened to him? Was he shot?" "No," I said. "People blamed him for the poor economy." And so we learned the words "economy" and "economics."
The part of the lesson that covered Estonian presidents was just as fascinating. Everyone knows their president, Toomes Hendrik Ilves. I taught them that Ilves means "lynx" in English, and a few students claimed to have seen wild lynxes in the forests. But who was president before Ilves? No one knew. Finally, I put an 'R' on the board.
"Arnold Rüütel!" someone shouted. Then I translated Rüütel -- "knight." "What's a ka-nig-et?" a girl asked. "No, it's written that way, but it's pronounced differently." "Knight?" a boy said. "You mean like Knight Rider?" "No, you fool, that's Night Rider," another boy interrupted. "No, it's Knight Rider!" And so they went back and forth arguing until I had to weigh in and say it really was Knight Rider, because David Hasselhoff was like a knight riding around in his car.
The president before Rüütel was Lennart Meri, whose family name conveniently translates as "sea." And before Meri? "P Ä T S!" they shouted. All the kids knew of Konstantin Päts, the first leader of Estonia to hold the title of president. And one even knew what his surname means in English: "loaf."
"But who was before Päts?" one student wondered aloud. "Before there were presidents, there were state elders," I said. "The one before Päts was named Tõnisson."
"Tõnisson?" a boy said. "You mean that kid in Kevade was president*?" "No," I answered. "It was a different Tõnisson who served before Päts."
"But who was in charge of Estonia between Päts and Meri?" I asked. After all, it was 52 years between Päts departure and Meri's election. Not one of them knew the names of any Soviet Estonian officials, the most significant of whom was arguably Johannes Käbin, first secretary of the Estonian Communist Party from 1950 to 1978, a good chunk of the Soviet era.
I wondered how many Estonian students have ever heard his name. Or Vaino Väljas' name, or Karl Vaino's or Nikolai Karotamm's. It's as if they never existed. But why should a group of kids who can't remember Bill Clinton care about some dusty old Soviet official? What bearing does it have on their lives? Probably none at all. I thought about this lesson as I walked home from class. Maybe next time, I'll teach them something more important.
* Kevade is a book by Oskar Luts about Estonian students attending a rural school at the turn of the 20th century that was made into a popular movie, now considered a classic, in 1969.