It was late at night. Most of the patients were sleeping, but one was not. He was tossing and turning, hovering between sanity and insanity. The pain from the shrapnel wound he had received fighting for the Ukrainian resistance had not subsided, but that was not what was troubling him. Only a few hours ago, he had learned of the death of his new wife and child. His wife had been the prettiest girl in the village, and they had looked forward to a long life together. She, too, had been a fighter for Ukrainian independence, but had been captured by the Germans. In a narrow prison with grimy walls, she had been tortured, and finally hanged, but not before she saw her baby’s skull shattered at the hands of the Nazis. One thought tormented Vasya: “How can mothers give birth to such monsters?” He continued to moan from pain and despair. Where was his future happiness now? He thought back to his first date, and the sparkle in his bride’s eyes. The Ukrainian steppe, which once seemed a boundless reach of possibilities, was now shrouded in gloom and uncertainty. The more he thought, the angrier he got, and gripped the bedsheets, clenching his teeth. Yet those actions assuaged some of his anger, and he thought of his dead child and the many helpless children that are subjected to man’s inhumanity. A new look shone in his eyes. This was a confident look, a look of determination. Vasya had made a decision: “I will give my heart to children.”
Suddenly, his mind spun out a series of ideas. He thought of his mentors: Anton Makarenko and Janusz Korczak. Makarenko had transformed would-be delinquents into future lawyers, doctors, architects, builders, teachers. He had written his Pedagogical Poem in three parts after Dante, showing the progression from student hell to student heaven. However, to achieve his aims, he had to make use of corporal punishment, and sheer intimidation. Vasya would have none of that. He would build the pride and confidence of his pupils, but he would do so from trust and love, not from coercion. Korczak had been a hero to Vasya. He had marched with his students to the gas chambers at Treblinka, accompanying them as their teacher and friend to the very end. The “Old Doctor” had placed great emphasis on the health of his students. This was a concept Vasya could embrace, because he believed in beautiful, healthy children. He could not know that on the other side of the globe, in the despised imperialist U.S., another writer, the children’s writer, L. Frank Baum, had said the same thing many years before: ” In all this world there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child.” Vasya would see to it that the children had ample time for exercise, and he would expose them to the elements to strengthen their bodies.
The mind that had been immersed in gloomy thoughts, now spun out more and more positive, expansive thoughts. Vasya turned once again to his Ukrainian homeland with fruit trees, winding meadows, and the ripening fields of grain. Yes, he wanted children to experience nature in all its grandeur. He wanted children to experience the awe and mystery of their natural surroundings. And the thought came to him: “I will build a school of joy. I want students to feel beauty in all its manifestations. Nature will be a wellspring for reading, writing, and counting. Already he could see parts of future compositions floating about, lighting up the dreary hospital room: “The Little Sun has arisen. The little birds have wakened. A lark ascends into the sky. The sunflower has also awakened.” And I will teach the children fairy tales, and we will listen to the music of the streams…
Vasya had exhausted himself with his thoughts, and he fell asleep. However, he never lost his concentrated look, and his determination. From dawn until the evening he would work with students, teachers, parents, and other staff, to create his special school in Pavlysh. Despite attacks of angina and weakness, he would persevere, and fight for the dignity of children to the end. When the doctors opened him up at the last, they could not believe he had lived as long as he had, so damaged was his body. But Vasya had triumphed to become Vasilij Sukhomlinskij, one of the greatest educators of the twentieth century.