She had heard that a team from Moscow came periodically to Ulan Ude, the area capital, to choose small children, eight to ten, who were then trained at government expense. She borrowed money and bought train tickets for both. Misha wasn’t keen on education, so she told him about a selection for gymnastics. In Ulan Ude, in the two large halls of a public school, there were about sixty kids with their expectant parents and three somber-looking male judges.
When Misha met the judges in a separate room, his mother waiting outside, they wasted little time. Strip and show your body. Sing a song and show you can hold a tune. Bend forward as far as you, then bend backward. Sit on the ground and spread your legs as far as you can. When a judge spread his legs further and it ached, Misha didn’t complain, for he wanted to be a good gymnast. When the judge tried his arms next, roughly pushing them backward, he still kept his cool. The judges gave his mother the good news. He was one of the seven selected for training in Moscow.
This continued day after day, week after week. Within two months, half the students dropped off, and in six months, the number halved again. Misha thought of leaving sometimes, but he knew of no better alternative. Truth to speak, he found a new instinct sprouting in him. He felt he could take the pain, perhaps a lot better than many others. He almost felt a little proud of the amount of physical pain and mental humiliation he could take and survive. I can do it, he said to himself, whatever you say to me and however hard you make my life. I will do it, became his mantra, I will do it to the end.
“Twelve years had passed since I left Buriyatia and my mother’s home, for perhaps the cruelest internship one can imagine for a kid. Finally I was now sensing the first inkling of approval and success,” said Misha, as he poured me a glass of beer.
I had met him through common friends and Misha had graciously invited me for dinner. I loved his warm hospitality, but I loved his story even more.
Luckily, he found that Buriyatia’s ballet troupe had the opening for the principal dancer. He called and expressed his interest. There was some hesitation, for among the local dancers some had waited five to seven years for such an opening. But Misha was a star, and the troupe could not let him go.
“I came back to my mother’s modest home. I returned to the same tiny room I had lived in years earlier. I had left the klieg lights of the big city, in order to build something worthwhile in my home town. I was still a star, but a star of a very different kind.
“I was once again a son, the son of an aging mother. She could not work as hard as she had worked earlier. Now it was my turn to work harder and be the dutiful son.
“I felt happy. I also felt at peace with myself.”
The beer in his glass sparkled. His face seemed lit up.