As the political crisis in Belarus continues to unfold, citizens across the country are expressing disappointment and anger -- not only for the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, but for the people they depended on to prepare them and their children for the future -- teachers.
"I fought for my school's honor and it spat in my face," reads one of the many messages being left at the gates of schools across the country as pupils return awards they earned for athletic and scholastic achievements.
Abandoned diplomas, certificates, and letters of congratulations hang from a gate outside School No. 17 in Babruysk -- 170 kilometers southeast of Minsk, the national capital and epicenter of mass protests against the August 9 vote that demonstrators say was falsified in favor of the strongman Lukashenka.
"We don't need your thanks, better to give us back our votes!" reads one handwritten poster competing for space alongside discarded graduation sashes.
"How much did our votes cost?" says another, making clear that many students and former students consider their teachers complicit in the alleged vote fraud and, by extension, the ensuing bloody crackdown against peaceful demonstrators.
Educators are on the defensive because, as in many post-Soviet countries, a large fraction of the country's polling stations were located at schools and were primarily staffed by teachers and school administrators. Many were members of the local election commissions that had to sign off on polling-station results and post them, putting these educators in the firing line of accusations that the vote was rigged.
A notorious video was filmed on August 9 at polling station No. 17 in Minsk, located in Middle School No. 66, which seemed to show poll workers leaving the school from the second floor via a ladder that is being held by a police officer. At least two of the people in the video appear to be wearing election-commission identification cards.
In addition to the campaign of angry messages being left by pupils, parents are writing on social media that they won't be presenting the traditional flowers to teachers this year on the first day of school, September 1. Others are saying they won't contribute money for toilet paper, soap, and other supplies needed by cash-strapped schools.
Lessons For Teachers
In an interview with Current Time on August 14, prominent teacher Hanna Sevyarynets said that some parents who are unable to forgive the country's Central Election Commission for officially naming Lukashenka the winner by a landslide were going to skip the first day of school and some are preparing to homeschool their kids.
Sevyarynets has made something of a career out of questioning the authorities, having supported numerous open letters calling on the Education Ministry to do better. She lost her job in June after authoring a mocking poem about Lukashenka's beloved son, Kolya.
Sevyarynets -- who is the sister of prominent opposition politician Paval Sevyarynets, who was jailed in June for calling on the public to participate in an unsanctioned rally -- has recently become the face of efforts by some teachers to get the authorities to annul the results of the election.
On August 18, she was included by opposition leaders among the members of a Coordinating Council tasked with organizing a transfer of power from Lukashenka's 26-year rule.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
She spoke to Current Time shortly after the publication on August 12 of an open letter she signed demanding that the authorities annul the election and "stop the violence against our citizens who take to the streets, exercising their constitutional right to peaceful protest."
The letter also sought to "save the professional dignity of the teaching community, some members of which were involved in large-scale falsifications during the election."
She also did not excuse the actions by some former pupils: "We have taught you all: those who are now shooting at civilians and those who are under bullets," the letter said. "We loved you equally, both. It hurts us to see that we have taught some to be brave, honest, desperate in the fight for their rights -- and others have been sent into the world without a proper vaccination against criminal orders."
The letter has been signed by hundreds of teachers of both private and public educational institutions.
Sevyarynets told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, on August 14 that not all the teachers serving at polling stations were willingly complicit in falsification. She said some "were crying and did not sign the protocols" authenticating results.
Nevertheless, she said, enough did participate that they had left "indelible shame" on their occupation.
Sevyarynets is not alone in the effort to salvage educators' reputations and to explain the pressure they were under to conform. One teacher, speaking to the Belarusian website Child on August 16 under the pseudonym Natalia out of fear of repercussions, explained that "many of us simply did not have a choice."
"We were all hooked," she said, listing various priorities one may have consider. "Some have children, some have loans, some have jobs, some a place to live," the teacher said, adding that she "wasn't Sevyarynets" and would find it difficult to find another job.
Commissions at polling stations were by no means uniform in falling into line with state authorities' apparent efforts to skew the results. "The commissions were all different; there were school directors in the commissions who considered everything honestly," Natalia said. "There were those who posted the correct protocols and handed over the incorrect one to the executive committee."
Dozens of teachers who claimed to have refused to work in election commissions took to the streets of Minsk on August 14 to voice their support for change.
"I am waiting for the pressure to end so that on September 1 the kids can come, and we can look them in the eye with pride and good conscience, that we will provide them with knowledge," one unidentified teacher told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.
"Forgive us," the teacher said.