Cismigiu & Co.

excerpt  Among our scholarly workmates three or four quickly distinguished themselves, and they would compete against each other for first place in our class. Our former prize winning classmate, Motas Constantin, had moved to a science class. Now two pupils, Ciurea Constantin and Marinescu Nicolae, competed for this title while we, the other regular pupils couldn't care less about their prize.The latter prize-winning pupil, who was a very good classmate and not at all envious, had won the first prize by mere chance, because he never used to cram!Nevertheless, he was very intelligent and I think he was one of the smartest pupils in our class. He was short and lively like a leprechaun, he never stood still, and that is why the teachers got the impression that he knew everything perfectly, that no one could outsmart him!The second prize winner, Ciurea Constantin, imposed himself ahead of us because he was the son of a university teacher, and he often confessed he wanted to embrace the same career path.He was a tall, slim boy, with a freckled face and carrot-like red hair.Big Cheese, our new class master, had made Ciurea class monitor, and he was extremely flattered when the rest of us, the regular pupils, fawned upon him, toadily calling him Master! The Master was of great importance in our class because many things depended upon him! The so-called class monitor had always had a say in front of the teachers, who listened to everything he had to say, because they were convinced that he was the best pupil in our class. We were especially interested in two things about the Master: Firstly: when we skipped classes we wanted him to make our absence unnoticeable to teachers and, if possible, even not to receive an absence without leave, because he was the one naming the absentees after the attendance list. Secondly: whenever we didn't study for a certain subject and we couldn't skip that particular class, the Master was supposed to make arrangements so that the teacher wouldn't linger on the page of the respective pupil, because most of the teachers used to test pupils whose names were on the class book page, where they usually noted down the last absentee. Ciurea was very nice to me in the four years of gymnasium when we were classmates… I can even remember that in the fifth grade, he drew me a map of France, in China ink and water colors, for our French class, after I had asked him as nicely as I could, and Aurel Dinu gave me an 8 for it. It is strange that with our admittance to the gymnasium our mental and spiritual structure underwent important transformations. We were bolder, less sensitive, and our inventive spirit, related to our little school tricks, meant "to fool our teachers," became more and more creative! As far as I was concerned, seeing that it was impossible to skip certain subjects, I tried an alternative method; being present without being tested by the teacher. I had become quite a virtuoso in making up reasons that prevented teachers from examining me until finally I decided to study, or when I thought I could get a good mark. I had got that bad habit from classes with teachers like Minciu, who taught boring classes and didn't deem us worthy of their consideration. I had certain tricks which I monopolized because I had invented them, and if one of my classmates was trying to use one of them in order to avoid being tested, he used to come and ask:"Hey you, Bajenaru, do you have anything available today, I really don't want to be tested in Trigonometry!"And if I felt like it, or if I liked the person I would let them use the respective trick. Naturally, the tricks varied according to the psyche and the acuteness of every teacher, because some were easier to trick, others more difficult, and others impossible to fool!The easiest to fool was Aurel Dinu, the French teacher: due to his kind, impressionable and compassionate nature, he was especially sensitive to illness and disease, and I managed to trick him many times. Then it was Fischer, the German teacher!One of the easiest tricks, because it demanded no particular effort, was the blood trick; I made the respective teacher believe that blood was gushing from my nose by sacrificing one of my handkerchiefs, I would spill plenty of red ink mixed with just a bit of black ink on it, then I would soil my nostrils a bit, put the reddened dirty handkerchief under my nose, and suddenly lift up my fingers without even saying a word, go up to the teacher and ask permission to go out; and he would hurry to say compassionately:"Go, go quickly and stay calm with your arms lifted up and with your head leaned to your back!"Then, while I was leaving the classroom:"The poor boy… he's a hemophiliac!"The hemophiliac, though, magically stopped bleeding as soon as he went into the hallway, and he would be careful to replace his spilt blood at the school cafeteria, then he would return back to the class room with hypocritical sadness, only five minutes before the class ended!Another trick, the most often used, was the toothache. I would stick a ball of paper on the left or on the right side of my mouth, according to the teacher's position at his lecturing desk and mine as well, I would tie a big handkerchief round my head and I would wait. If I got called to be tested I would stand up and snuffling say, obviously in pain and slobbering:"Please excuse me teacher, but I have an awful toothache!""Ah, sit down, sit down!" the teacher would say… "do you have a cavity or a neuralgia?""I don't know teacher… all I know is that the pain is driving me crazy.""Well, didn't you take something for the pain, some painkiller? Why don't you go see a dentist?""I didn't have time; I had to learn all afternoon!""Oh, poor boy… a toothache is indeed a terrible thing! I'll test you when you feel better!""Yes… thank you!"Another trick was the one with the falling ice, but it could only be used during winter… But it was the most successful one because three pupils were needed in order to put it into practice: beside me, the one who had fallen on the ice and terribly hurt myself, I needed two more classmates, who were supposed to bring me into the classroom, carefully carrying me by each side. The aim was to enter the class after the teacher had nominated the students he was about to test. We used to wait in the schoolyard, as long as we thought that it would have taken the teacher to write down the absentees in the class book, than we would put our plan into practice: I used to lie down on the ice we had just finished sliding on, and one of them would drag me by one hand until I got dirty with snow and mud on my pants. Then the two classmates then used to carry me all the way to the class door.At the door I would compose a long face filled with suffering while one of the boys slammed the door open – and we would make our entrance! Then the questions and the respective answers followed, the condolences, "are you in great pain," "go back to your seats" etc… and all ended well!A trick done only by two people: Copoiu Matei and I, because it required imitation skills, was the "hoarse speaking."We would sit very quiet in class, and if the teacher was to test us, we would stand up and speak huskily, as if we had the most genuine laryngopharyngitis:"Please excuse me, but I can't speak!" The most common trick that was used by so many of our classmates was the toothache trick. I remember that in the sixth grade I went to classes for a whole week with a handkerchief tied round my head, thus solving the difficult problem of being tested for six days!In the fifth grade our tricks didn't really excel. Nevertheless some events are worth mentioning even though they were not extraordinary. Amongst our primary school classmates who joined us in the modern humanities department was Constantinescu Teodor, nicknamed Bug-Eye, a very nice boy with really beautiful eyes, but his nickname was owed to the fact that every time he was tested he used to open his eyes so wide and roll them to the teacher in such a way that one could easily think that they were about to pop out from their sockets. The way in which the Bug-Eye used to goggle his eyes gave the entire class the impression that is was the first time in his scholarly life that the poor boy found out that such a school subject existed and that it could even raise such difficult problems!It was a pleasure to watch him being tested.Once in the fifth grade he was asked by the History teacher to answer a number of questions, with an entire series of C.We were supposed to prepare the Trojan War, and Marin Dumitrescu, the teacher, asked Bug-Eye:"Why don't you, Constantinescu, tell me, who was Achilles and who was Hector?!"Bug-Eye obviously had no idea about the Trojan War; he goggled his eyes as usual, rolling them like a genuine chameleon: to the teacher and to the class. He was waiting to hear at least a word that he would skillfully develop until he would be supplied with a new word. But the saving word would not come!Noticing the fact that Bug-Eye was anxious but giving the impression that he could answer the question but not knowing where to begin, and at the same time appearing to be surprised by the question, a very easy question no doubt, the teacher tried to help him, with his characteristic good will, that made us remember and treasure him:"Relax… don't get anxious… think carefully, you don't want to make any mistakes… we were talking about the Trojan War, weren't we? Did you pay attention to your classmates' answers?""Yes, teacher!" consented Bug-Eye, not at all convinced."Well… then? But let us assume that you haven't learnt your lesson from your History book, even though it would have been quite enough to pay attention to the explanations or at least to have read it once, because it's nothing more than a story… you should have known it from your Romanian class! This year you are studying the epic genre, right? "Yes, teacher!" answered the crammers."Well, I believe that the first epopee you studied was Homer's Iliad, am I right?""Yes, teacher!""Well, Constantinescu, how does The Iliad begin?" And without waiting for Bug-Eye's answer, who wouldn't have answered anyway, Marin Dumitrescu began reciting in a warm voice:"Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, That brought countless ills upon the Achaeans! And so on… am I right?""Yes teacher!" he admitted with strong conviction."So, now you remember who Achilles was?""Yes teacher!" said Bug-Eye with a gleam in his eyes, preparing to answer the question. But his talent of answering loud, clear and moving, even when he didn't know the answer was unsurpassed except by Ionas Moscu. He would build up his sentence without insisting on content, equivocally, until someone whispered the answer to him. Thus, if he was asked, let's say, about the year Stephan the Great became ruler of Moldavia, he would swoop down as if he knew the answer perfectly and say with his loud, clear voice:"Yes, Stephan the Great, Moldavia's famous ruler, ascended to the throne in…" and here, if nobody whispered "1457" to him he would stumble, and repeat a couple more times "in the year… the year" and the word year would get stuck in his throat, while the class would laugh out loud.This time though, the answer would be different."Yes!" he began, because he always used to begin with an affirmation… "Achilles was… I mean Achilles son of Peleus was part of… The Iliad!"Marin Dumitrescu smiled, tolerant, and said:"It is something… but do you mean by this, he was part of The Iliad? What was The Iliad?""Yes… The Iliad was… how, should I say… like a crusade!""Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the teacher wholeheartedly. "And what about Achilles?" "Yes… Achilles was part of this!""Good… but what about Hector?""Yes!" said Bug-Eye, then he shook his head and asked one more time, goggling his eyes, extremely surprised: "Hector?""Yes… Hector… why, haven't you heard about him before?" underlined the teacher.Bug-Eye brightened up, happy that he would once give a correct answer."Yes I've heard about him. Hector was Achilles' dog!"A loud burst of laughter broke out in the class. The boys were roaring with laughter and so was the teacher who eventually had to wipe out his tears! Some other time also in History, and again involving Bug-Eye, while the teacher was explaining about the Barbarian Invasions, he made us roll on the floor with laughter hearing his answer.Briefly examining the previous lesson, before staring the new one, the teacher asked the class:"The Ostrogoths invaded by themselves or were they accompanied by some other migrating people?"He was naturally thinking about the Visigoths.The class didn't know the answer to his question, but Bug-Eye raised his fingers, very serious."Do you know the answer, Mr. Constantinescu?""Yes teacher!""Well, let's hear it then!""Yes, the Ostrogoths did not invade by themselves…""Correct!" interrupted the teacher clearly satisfied."They," Bug-Eye continued, "invaded together with their wives!" One day in the sixth grade something really strange happened, but this time it wasn't Bug-Eye's fault. It was winter, but it hadn't yet snowed. The sky, though, and the temperature announced the falling of the first snow flakes that we so restlessly expected any minute… The boys had started wearing winter coats for a few days regardless of the sporty nature that they used to show off in a 'sort of musketeer style on every occasion. But the weather, moodier than a girl, after pricking us for a couple of days with its cold, had become nicer than ever before. Noica Dan was wearing a new winter coat, a beautiful one indeed, navy light blue with big black bone buttons.Being a handsome, well-built boy he looked great in his winter coat, and that is why he didn't miss a chance to show off to the other boys and beg for the most skillful compliments, together with the customary phrase under such circumstances:"Nice coat you have there Dan, it's a pity the fabric is a little too rough… you should moisten it otherwise it will wear out fast! You should stand a treat all round, I say!""All right," he answered, obviously pleased. "When we finish school we'll go to Zamfirescu's pastry shop! It's settled!"But things got so out of hand, that nobody felt like being treated anymore. The warm weather outside made Ionescu-Cioc, the physical education teacher, take the boys out in the school yard for a game of oina[1], where the old wild chestnut tree was basking in the sun. Ionescu-Cioc had a class with the seventh grade science students, who offered the high school the wildest inter-school oina champion, Dumitrescu Grigore, also known as Glagore all over Bucharest!Every time he trained with the seventh grade science students, Cioc was focusing on Glagore's practice session, who was actually the captain of Lazar's oina team for inter-school matches!Cioc's ambition was justifiable and civil at the same time: he demanded the pupils "to play without yelling and especially without clapping their hands in order to request the ball."He could not stand any noise during the game and he would not allow anything else to be heard except for his referee's whistle. Some of the boys obviously did not care much for his demands. But the seventh science grade, which was led by Glagore from the sporting point of view, played without even being heard, to Cioc's great satisfaction. On that beautiful, warm winter's day, as soon as the school bell announced the starting of a new class, the seventh science grade casually left the gym, and without being noticed went out the school yard and started playing oina. We, the sixth modern grade – having our class on the upper floor – were waiting for our teacher, restless as usual. All of a sudden, a terrible scream was heard in the classroom, and Noica Dan came out in front of the desks with his new winter coat in his hands, foaming at the mouth."Who dared to cut off the buttons of my coat, for I will kill him?!"As by magic, everyone fell silent. We had this stupid habit of cutting off coat buttons, but cutting off the buttons of a new coat was really too much!"You guys, tell me, who cut off my buttons, you guys, who mocked me, I will kill him?!"The buttons had been cut off by Dragu Henry; but he would have never dared to confess this to Noica!Seeing that he couldn't find the wrongdoer, mad furious, and in all reason, Noica opened the window and, crumpling his coat, threw it out, to our amazement, shouting:"The hell with this coat and the hell with you! I'll show you, you'll see!"But in the exact same second, a nervous stifled whistling noise was heard in the schoolyard, and rounds and rounds of laughter burst out spontaneously!What had happened? The fatality, that sometimes facetiously tricks us, made so that Noica's coat fall precisely onto Cioc's head, right when he was whistling for a scored point!No one dared to look out of the window, but in barely a minute the classroom door slammed open and Cioc entered, with his face bloodshot, boiling mad, with Noica's coat in his hand.We were standing stone-still."Who threw the coat on my head, God's creature?"There was a moment of silence that would have lasted forever, if only Cioc had the patience to assist to this prolongation!"I will ask you again, God's creature (this was Cioc's deprecatory phrase), who threw the coat on my head? If you don't answer right now, I will suspend all of you for two weeks and it will be a lot worse!"Then, Noica Dan leisurely stood up, and very amused by this unpredictable event – almost bursting into laughter – came out, swaying his hands along his body, in front of Cioc, and told him:"Let me tell you exactly what happened…""Tell me what? Do I look like I want to listen to your stories? I was orderly playing oina with the seventh science grade, and right when I was about to whistle for a point they scored, I found myself with a coat over my head, fallen from the sky… how do you call this, because I don't even know how to explain such a thing! What if it had wrung my head or it had suffocated me?"An imperceptible buzzing sound, accompanied by slight smile, appeared on Noica's lips, threatening to turn into a loud and uncontrollable laughter at any time. That was too much for Cioc. He couldn't stand seeing anyone smiling or laughing:"Why are you smiling about, God's creature? I really don't understand why you are smiling about! Have I made any joke?"In Cioc's case, smiling was acceptable only if he was making a joke, and this only happened once for every generation… so this meant that there was no smiling reason, except maybe for once every eight years!"I didn't smile, teacher… my lips were itchy so I scratched them with my teeth!""Did you now? Maybe your cheeks will become itchy and I will scratch them with my palm!""Let me tell you what happened… I had a new coat made for me, and today I wore it for the first time… and ten minutes ago, when I looked at it, I found it with all its buttons cut off…""Or better said, you found it without any buttons," Cioc corrected him."It's the same! The thing is that they messed with my coat and now I don't have any buttons to button myself…""And?""And then, extremely angry, I threw it out the window, not knowing that you were outside in the school yard playing oina.""All right, God's creature," – Cioc became quite angry – "it is only natural for you to have become upset, but why did you have to throw the coat out the window? This is a gesture that my mind refuses to understand! Why did you throw it out the window?""What was I supposed to do with it without any buttons?!""You would sew other buttons on, you creature!""Well… I know, but in those moments!""But, why did you have to throw it out the window?""Hmm…hmm!" Noica coughed, clearing his throat, "what was I supposed to do with it, I've already told you?!""You should have eaten it… trampled it, anything except throwing it out the window!"And, having said that, Cioc gave Noica the coat. He took it, barely containing himself so as not to burst into laughter in the presence of Cioc, and managed to say with false innocence:"Thank you for bringing it to me!"But if Cioc had finished with Noica, he hadn't finished with the rest of the class. He wanted to know who the author of the buttons "massacre" was:"Who in God's name cut off the buttons of your classmate's coat?"Harry Löbel stood up, and with a penitent face, that would have touched even the most unyielding man, said:"I… teacher…""What, you are the culprit?""Nooo!" he protested, "I was just trying to say that I think there were more accomplices, teacher, because it would have been quite difficult to cut six buttons so quickly!""Sit down, you creature!" Cioc huffed at him. "I'm asking you one last time, who cut off the buttons?"It is useless to say that the culprit did not stand up and he was neither betrayed by those who knew his identity. Even if Noica had known who had cut off his buttons, he wouldn't have denounced him, because any settling of accounts was a class business, and we would have never, under any circumstances, allow for one of our classmates to fall prey to the clutches of our vengeful "didactic gods." In the meantime, our French teacher, Aurel Dinu, arrived. Cioc told him the entire story and together they decided that an investigation should be made by Big Cheese, who would also have to decide the punishment for the guilty ones. However, upon our going home, after the last class, when we also had physical education with Cioc, when the boys went to the locker rooms to get dressed, they all found their coats with all the buttons cut off!Only then did we realize Noica's unfair play when excusing himself during our parallel bars exercises! Grigore BĂJENARU's 1942 book about being a schoolboy in the 1920s, named after the famous Bucharest park next to which an equally famous lyceum, Gheorghe Lazar, was built in the 19th century, remained a classic even under communist rule, despite its bourgeois setting. Among universal themes and feelings, like the competition among high schools and the pride of being the student of a renowned one – peculiarities such as the physical punishment applied by a headmaster father accustomed to do his son's homework.
[1] A Romanan game similar to baseball.

by Grigore Băjenaru (1907-1968)