First grader at 21

Neglected by her parents and having slipped through the net of social services, Olga Sobur in Southern Russia is virtually illiterate at 21. Going to her school’s first grade she has a lot of catching up to do.

In Russia all citizens are entitled to a free school education, and getting a high school certificate is an obligation. But there are still many ways to avoid the law, especially for dysfunctional families.

Olga Sobur’s story was a shock for social workers. She said her mom was always a heavy drinker, and she rarely saw her dad. The family had to sell their apartment and they’ve been living in rented flats ever since. Olga never went to school or kindergarten. Instead, her mother forced her into hard labor.

“At the age of nine I used to work as a loader and as a cleaner,” she says.

Olga’s mom died when she was 15, leaving her virtually alone – a person with no passport and no place to go.

“I don’t want to blame anyone, but there is one person that I asked for help with the documents, a person that stopped seeing me and disappeared, and that is my father. His mom, my grandmother, says that I’m not part of their family and they don’t need me,” Sobur says.

Taking life into her own hands, Olga filled in application forms for a passport and medical insurance. She’s now studying hard to get her school certificate. Two weeks into the course and she’s already halfway through the first grade program.

Now Sobur is learning to read and write. In math, addition and subtraction are the only things she’s familiar with.

When Olga came to a nearby school and said she wanted to learn with the first-graders, the teachers were shocked.

“It’s a strange situation. I mean, it’s the 21st century, computer technology is everywhere. And here we have a 21-year-old who knows absolutely nothing,” first grade teacher Larisa Sklyarova says.

Testing has shown that Olga’s level of knowledge is less than that of an average preschooler.

“She doesn’t know obvious things, that any kid is already familiar with. She said multiplication and division signs are plain dots. She sees visual differences between a rectangle and square, but she cannot explain what they are,” Sklyarova adds.

In a couple of years, however, Olga is hoping to finish school and put her destroyed childhood behind her.

Alla Vasilyeva, Rostov-On-Don children’s Ombudsman, says in Olga’s case, besides parents, people’s indifference is to blame.

“I’m sure the neighbors saw that the girl’s mother was an alcoholic with antisocial behavior. But nobody reported her, no one notified social workers or local authorities,” Vasilyeva says.