As their Soviet visitors looked on, the seventh-graders in Merrell Frankel's social studies class raised hands to indicate what world problems they considered important. With all 29 voting, it was AIDS, 29; terrorism, 27; disease, 17; nuclear war, 15; and teen pregnancy, 14. Apartheid and racism, poor economy, gangs and world hunger did not score as high.
When 29 hands went up for AIDS, the eight Soviet women exchanged silent glances. It would be the first of many in a day of encounters with grass-roots America, encounters that would reveal time and again just how diverse, complex and open American society can be.
Described as "women of achievement," the visitors included a psychologist, a demographer, an actress, a journalist, a lawyer, a government official from Moldavia, a staff member from the Soviet Women's Committee and an associate from the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies.
They were here last week on a tour sponsored by the Women's Dialogue U.S./U.S.S.R., an ongoing exchange between the two countries, and hosted locally by USC through Vice Provost Judith Stiehm, who directs the university's research program on the study of men and women in society.
They packed much of Los Angeles into their four days, engaging in discussions on women and the media, feminism, Baby M; meeting writers Betty Friedan and Marilyn Bergman and actress Lily Tomlin; lunching at Warner Bros.; visiting the Santa Monica offices of American peace and anti-nuclear groups and a downtown center for Central American refugees; and of course, making the obligatory and popular side trip to Disneyland.
The Soviets had come to Berendo Junior High School with an entourage of guides, translators and school administrators that almost outnumbered Frankel's students. After the initial stir as people positioned themselves around the room, however, Frankel's unregimented order prevailed.
The women watched in fascination as the students split into small groups to work on position papers on world peace.
As the students hunkered and talked in low voices, Frankel told the visitors that as part of the L.A. Unified School District's new curriculum on Nuclear Age issues, they had studied "what would happen statistically if a one-megaton nuclear bomb hit Berendo Junior High School."
School's Ethnic Makeup
Earlier, school board member Jackie Goldberg, in welcoming the Soviets, had told them Frankel helped write the new curriculum. She and principal Cecilia Duran had also told them that the school's students body of 2,800 was 87% Latino, 11% Asian, 2% other, and that 99% of them spoke something other than English as their primary language.
Time up, the work groups announced their solutions, the best writer having recorded the group's position, the best reader reporting it to the class. The students managed to be vague but on target:
"All presidents of all countries should meet at some place and talk about their problems."
"People should realize peace is the only way to have more peace. We're not talking about killing and fighting."
"There should be a children's summit. Then they could relay the message to the parents. Children of both countries should try to be friends."
Approval From Guests
The latter brought approving gestures from the Soviets. Later, Nellia Kiriyak, deputy chairwoman of the Council of Ministers of the Moldavian Republic, suggested the students become pen pals with a class in Moldavia.
When it came time for the women and the students to talk, tact, manners and language difficulties put a strain on visitors and students alike. Essentially, it turned out, each wanted to know what the other thought of them. The students expressed keen interest in the women's opinion of the class and wanted to know whether Soviets used such methods.
"I think it's quite a new form of teaching. I rarely have seen such a lot of discussion," said Ludimilla Yenyutina, a journalist with Novesti Press and one of the more fluent English speakers. Clearly moved by the students, she beamed at them and said of their team approach, "It is something new, and I like it very much indeed."
The women wanted to know whether the students studied the Soviet Union, and Frankel told them that would come next year.
'What Do You Think?'
"What do you think of the Soviet Union?" Yenyutina asked them.
A few made a awkward tries at an answer. Struggling with diplomatic niceties, one boy named Diem stumbled along until he finally concluded, to everyone's surprised amusement, "We think of you as comrades."
After the bell, Sam Tran, who came from Vietnam, clarified what embarrassment had prevented him from articulating: "Sometimes we think of them as enemies, but then, when they come to us, we don't think that way."
The Soviets headed for the school library, where girls in royal blue sweater vests, parliamentarians from the student government, were waiting to serve tea and Russian meat pastries, \o7 piroshkis.\f7
Nuclear Age Curriculum