Remembering Natalia Olshanskaya

Natalia Olshanskaya was one of the most influential people in my life.

I rewrote that sentence ten times because the phrase “Natalia Olshanskaya was” does not make sense to me. The idea that she’s gone, that I cannot say “Natalia Olshanskaya is” anymore, makes me a little dizzy, and after talking to other students who took her classes, I know I’m not the only one.

When I first came to Kenyon, I was anxious and had little to no self confidence, especially after a language placement test showed that despite four years of high school Spanish, I still didn’t know enough to study at the 200 level here. I stumbled into an academic fair meeting for the MLL department, and Professor Olshanskaya was the only professor who showed up. Disgruntled with her colleagues, Olshanskaya answered questions for a while before announcing,

“Listen, people say that languages like Russian are hard, but I could teach Russian to this table if it wanted to learn.”

It sounded good to me, and apparently it did to everyone else in the room, too. Before drop/add was over, she’d signed in at least five students over the registration limit for Intro Russian. Even today, several of my classmates site this interaction as the reason why they signed up for the class.

Clearly, she knew what she was doing.

“She [Olshanskaya] was the first professor I ever met at Kenyon,” said Emily Nason, ‘16.  “I was standing outside of Ascension, eating a Ritz cracker, thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing in Ohio? I should have stayed down South where there’s sweet tea and people who say ‘y’all.’’ And she walked out of the building, looked at the group of first years I was standing with and said, ‘Who here is going to take Russian?’ I raised my hand timidly. She immediately hugged me and said, “Good. We’re going to have fun.” And she was so right. Listen, I’m not sure if I believe in love at first sight, but I loved her from that moment on.”

Stronger than Professor Olshanskaya’s desire to have students sign up for Russian was her determination that we would all learn the language before we had a moment to doubt ourselves. She promised to have her first-year class reading in the Cyrillic alphabet in three days, and damn it, we were. Her expectations were high, but her encouragement and compassion made us determined not to disappoint her, or “shame the family,” as she characteristically put it.

“She created this very safe classroom, even though it was very intense,” said Michelle Schulte, ‘15. “And I’m very shy, so it was really great to have this teacher who was always so encouraging and positive.”

“There was no greater feeling than when she was proud of you,” Nason said. “I never wanted to shame her. And I probably did at some point, but she loved you anyway, you know? It’s like how I had a really bad day in Russian, butchered every word and sentence she gave me, and she looked at me and said, ‘That’s enough from you for today.’ And I was embarrassed at the time. But the next day she called on me again. And I did better. Just like she knew I would.”

But, truly, Olshanskaya’s influence went way beyond the classroom. She constantly told me to “be proactive!” until I no longer hesitated to ask for or try things on my own. She also constantly volunteered me for things like essay contests and sussing out new Russian professors because such things were “good for your CV.” Once, she insisted our class go to a “Taste of Kenyon” event, only for us to find out (too late) that she had secretly signed us up to sing a folk song we’d been learning. It might seem overbearing, but she did it because she was proud of us and wanted us to be proud, too. I can honestly say that my ability to stay at Kenyon and the confidence that I have in myself today are the product of my time under Olshanskaya’s wing.

“That was the way Olshanskaya worked. she only ever handed you things she knew you could accomplish, even before you did,” said Alicia Wright, ‘16. “When you refused to believe in yourself–over a test, an essay, your ability to plan a foreign poetry night–she just stubbornly did it for you while you humored her, until you realized you’d been tricked into success and she’d been humoring you all along.”

More than anything, Olshanskaya gave me, and all of her students, an informal family that we could rely on and commiserate with when school got to be too much and learning the verbs of motion was more than could be tolerated. Others have called her their “Russian mother” or “Russian grandmother,” they never knew they needed, and I have to agree.

“I don’t know who I would be as a person or what my life would be like at all if she hadn’t been in it for 4 years,” said Anna Sophia Ziton, ‘14. “I don’t know of one student of hers who feels differently. We loved her and she made all of us a family.”

The family will obviously not be the same without Olshanskaya acting as matriarch, but I’d like to think it’ll manage to go on.

“She gave us all the chance to really get close to each other, through Kroger runs and cussing and awkwardly crabwalking burning hot fondue across a parking lot [while organizing Foreign Poetry Night],” said Wright. “You don’t really know someone until you spend an hour in the lower Peirce bathrooms cleaning a fondue fountain with them, getting chocolate all over yourself in the process. I don’t think I felt as accomplished my entire first year as I did when I collapsed, still smelling like chocolate, into my bed after we’d finally cleaned everything up. Because despite it all, we had gotten it done. And grown closer in the process.”

Occasionally, Olshanskaya’s feelings toward her students became openly maternal, from the time she made me go home to change because I wasn’t dressed warmly enough to her occasional attempts at matchmaking.

“At Fandango, I remember talking with her when a girl from our class came up and started talking with us as well.  Immediately, Olshanskaya turned to me and said, ‘Ryan, doesn’t she look beautiful?’ and whispered to me ‘you should ask her to dance!,’” said Ryan Eick, ‘13.  “When I laughed it off, she became even more insistent, turning to my classmate and saying ‘You and Ryan should go dance!  I will watch!  Go!.’”

I still have the last email Professor Olshanskaya sent to me. She had just left campus last semester, but because I didn’t know how sick she was yet, I wanted her opinion on which Russian class I should take in the fall. I told her I missed seeing her, and I never heard from her again. Looking back on it, I wish I had thanked her for being the reason I stayed at Kenyon, for my Russian-department family, for homemade pirozhki and Russian club and being the kind of professor whose absence makes me feel dizzy.

But then again, if I had, she probably would have told me to get a hold of myself. That’s just the kind of person she was. And of course, she would be right.
Спасибо большое, профессор. Here’s to not shaming the family.

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