I Once Was A Child: School

Between September 15 and June 15, every child's life was hijacked by school. School was the children's only officially-sanctioned pursuit. Their only obligation. None of us got any thrill out of getting up early, eyes heavy with sleep, and trudging all the way to the learning facilities towed along by a mother intent on not being late for work, nor did we get any thrill out of the prospect of shivering with the cold and with the fear of being quizzed or asked to come to the blackboard in our sordid classrooms reeking of Petrosin (author's note: a petroleum derivative used for the treatment of parquet in classrooms), with the picture of Nicolae Ceauşescu having pride of place on the wall. Still, day after day after day, having attained various degrees of instruction, identically dressed in their uniforms, the children of the 80's were readying themselves for the challenges of life.I shed many a tear on the days of September 14. I was simply thrown out of kilter by the imminence of having the routine of classes re-inflicted upon me. However, for the space of a few days, I would derive certain comfort from the thought that things were not as black as they were painted: our timetable was still in the making, so that on many occasions we were sent home much earlier; school books were generally slow in arriving, and thus many of our classes were nothing more than social gatherings allowing us to get used to some of our new teachers.On September 15 we'd be all mustered in the inner court of the school building. The courtyard was dominated by a green flagpole fighting a losing battle with the rust throughout the years, which sometimes flew our beloved national flag, though the nature of the events seems to escape me. The muster, therefore… it was an immense waste of time. Looking back, I think I was suffering from a bad case of agoraphobia, as I was always experiencing a fear of sorts at finding myself in that mass of children, noisy to the point of hysteria, and teachers of all grades, mutilated by domestic problems.The headmistress would bellow into a malfunctioning mike the names of the pupils and the classes they'd been assigned to. You'd get to hear about the odd kid who'd died during the holidays, yet not even then did the pandemonium abate as a sign of at least token decency. Children believe themselves to be immortal.For this idiotic ceremony we were routinely forced into our pioneer outfits. It was a procedure I used to derive great pleasure from, truth to tell. From the first moment of the morning when I slipped on the white plastic shirt giving off an enticing fragrance, always the same, as a result of ironing, I had the feeling I was a different person. That pioneer outfit just made you stronger. You'd feel like Superman encased in his vaudevillean ballet-dancer outfit. Like Spiderman. The shit-brown belt was my absolute favourite. It was fitted with a clasp you could fasten by means of an ingenious twist. The shoes were patent leather. I've never figured out why, but these shoes, so shiny you could have checked your parting in them, constantly pinched my feet. I seem to have never been fortunate or patient enough to pick an even remotely comfortable pair, so even today my memory of them is grim. Come to think of it, what I said about being able to check your parting in their mirror-like surface is a gross exaggeration, as we all had school-standard haircuts. I'm still wondering why, when a child was dragged to the barber's and had a length of plank fitted under his bum (the plank in question spanning the gulf between the two arm rests of the barber chair) for the purpose of making it easier for uncle barber to disfigure him; I'm still wondering why, I was saying, the barber would still bother to ask the attending parent What kind of haircut shall we give him? when the answer was invariably the same: School-standard. The standard in question was a matter of having one's tresses nearly shorn off with the exception of a pathetic fringe coming half-way down the forehead, giving even top pupils a bovine look.I was myself among their number. For years on end I was at the top of class C in comprehensive school number 197. There's school records to prove it. I thus secured the favour of my primary school teacher, Boţoagă, and of some other teachers later on. Getting prizes also secured me the fierce hatred of some of the girls who were simply unable to pit their wits against my native intelligence, in spite of sitting for hours in front of open text books, fingers thrust all the way into their ears. I can still remember one of them, Popescu Ioana. She was having fits whenever she as much as saw me. She was just incapable of containing the antipathy I inspired in her. In the eighth grade, when I failed to be voted in command of the pioneer detachment, this obsequious headband wearer had the time of her life.The dress code was a procedure of howling proportions. When we were little – I'm talking first and second grade here – we'd have our ears inspected at the very first hour of the morning, so that the comrade schoolmistress could assess whether we had washed properly, in keeping with the current standards of hygiene. I was in constant terror at the prospect of her spotting the tiniest speck of earwax and holding me up to ridicule in front of the whole class. My concern was verging on the psychotic. I would flush my ears with such vast amounts of water that my head could have easily doubled as a fish bowl, and an overflowing fish bowl at that.Next, they'd inspect our nails and handkerchiefs. We were supposed to be carrying around two of the said handkerchiefs on a regular basis – for crying out loud. We were allowed to use one of them in compliance with its original destination, while the other one was meant for the control routine.As we grew up, the teachers' obsession moved out of the rigorously academic sphere of hygiene and started manifesting itself in the area of costume. The dress code was arousing their interest to an alarming degree. In winter the temperature in the classrooms would drop to as little as fourteen degrees centigrade. Maybe lower. It was so beastly cold that you could hardly bring yourself to go to the toilet. For this reason, Sârbu Ionel would be frequently wetting his pants. We'd try to fend off the cold by slipping on the odd jumper. But that was against regulations. The dress code, you see… most teachers would react the same way. They wouldn't start their class unless we peeled off our jumpers. We were too colourfully dressed, they'd say. So in the end we'd be left colourfully undressed while our teachers were parading their blubber and their woollen coats up and down the aisles.Some of our mentors, however, would still hold on to their true vocation – being teachers, that is. They'd allow us to dress extra warm, but insisted – a note of anxiety discernable in their voices – our jumpers had to be dark blue. Or alternately black. They were probably drilled during their communist party meetings that it should by no means transpire that Romanian schools were freezing caves, sort of. We were supposed to show the whole world that we were a normal modern society, bent on taking due care of our children, the future of the motherland.If boys were reprimanded on account of their haircuts (and there was no shortage of methods employed towards assessing the length of their luscious glory: from the thrusting of hands into the hair of discord with a view to checking whether the hair in question was complying with its statutory length, which was stipulated not to exceed the thickness of the teachers' fingers, to the more scientific approach involving the use of a slide rule, or alternately pulling viciously at any tell-tale growth of emergent whiskers; unless they'd been scrupulously adjusted, the pain experienced on such occasions was beyond the comprehension of anyone who had not benefited from similar treatment), girls were pestered on the issue of headbands. Many of those who were supposed to educate us into becoming normal human beings were genuinely obsessed with the said headbands, their obsession verging on the pathological. Female teachers appeared to be more sensitive to that aspect. Just look at yourselves, girls, and see how beautiful you are with your headbands on! I must have heard that statement, that encouragement towards decorous conduct, for hundreds if not thousands of times. During the moments when the teachers' attention was focused upon the other gender, I would take the opportunity to peer short-sightedly at my classmates of the opposite sex. Still, I was patently unable to discern the beauty causing teachers to wax lyrical from their desk. The teacher's desk is a piece of furniture which bears an awe-inspiring name in Romanian: catedra, as in ex-cathedra… it was the scaffold where heads used to roll. It was the shrine where our mumbo-jumbo used to lie in state – the logbook bearing record of our progress. For years I would share the sandwiches Mom had given me with my class mistress on a fifty-fifty basis. We would queue before the catedra and proffer our titbits, lying in a pristine bed of tissue-paper, to our goddess: Do have a try, comrade, a slice of sponge cake, here… would you care for an apple? The ritual occurred during the long break, I can't remember now just how many minutes it was supposed to last. The catedra was brimming with choice morsels, while we were brimming with the pride of having lain an offering upon the altar of our future.The catedra was also the place where they'd weigh our contributions to the old paper salvage campaigns and – quite inanely, since weight is of no consequence in this case, pharmaceutical plants. The economic quota was part of our obligations as school children. We'd collect like crazy yoghurt pots, horse chestnuts from the Botanic Gardens (and many a child suffered fractures by falling from the trees), scrap iron, cardboard and paper, camomile and whatnot (which, spread out to dry all over the flat, would give off the stench of stale urine all homes were redolent with, where children pledged to fulfil their economic quota lived), rags and many other useless items of that ilk in search of which we'd scour waste grounds, rubbish heaps and skips. The avenue of knowledge routinely took us to such places as these.The first moment when school children's freedom appeared to take palpable shape coincided with the first impious act perpetrated to the sacred grove, the catedra. It thus became the ground for a board version of soccer, bambilici, played with coins during the break. Alternately we'd be using its surface for shooting craps, after a fashion, a game whose stakes consisted in the surprises that came with the Bi-Bib chewing gum.This Bi-Bib chewing gum came all the way from Turkey with the sailors of Constanţa. It was sold by Gypsy women outside the school building. Five lei was what it cost. An aluminium coin of no mean size. The gum had a slightly fruity flavour, which I have encountered after the revolution in several cosmetic articles. And in Red Bull, too. What drew us to it was not necessarily its flavour, which was quite short-lived, anyway, but the fact that it was wrapped in a tiny picture, the surprise, and it was prime stuff for making bubbles. A Turkish caption, balonlu ciklet, endeavoured, I suppose, to convey exactly that idea. We would amass impressive collections of such surprises. Their regular topics were cars, motorcycles, the Spiderman series. In our class we'd transact those tasteless, worthless paper slips quite earnestly. We had invented a sort of card game based upon them, where hands were won by those who'd slap on the table a surprise representing a car whose speed standard exceeded that of any of the cars which the other players could bid. The Gypsy women outside the school would also sell lollipops and sesame. And, of course, the sunflower seeds which, we were told both at home and at school, acquired their salty taste as a result of being peed on by the Gypsies. The lollipops were pink, and the sesame was not actually sesame. It was a confection, let's call it, obtained from sunflower seeds and burnt sugar.This ethnic minority also supplied the largest numbers of dropouts. For the regular kid, the dropout was a cause of great terror. They created a sort of panic. Like hangmen ostracized by the community. Mind you, it was real hard to drop out. Mere attendance was all it took to avoid this experience which I was to go through myself at university, and on that occasion the word echoed through my mind with the same frightening intensity it carried in my early school days. The dropout came from another age. Being enrolled in the same class over and over again, he was older than those who came to be his new classmates every year. Theoretically at least, he had already experienced the areas of knowledge which those embarking on the steep course of the new school year were only beginning to scent. Gheorghe Niculae was one of the dropouts. He stood one head taller than any of the sturdiest boys in our class. I never knew which one was his family name, which – his given name. What I do remember, though, is that he came to school one single time. I don't know how it came about. He stayed for some four classes during which our class mistress informed us at length that he was Gheorghe Niculae, our new classmate. And urged us to do our best to give him a hand with his studies, each of us according to our abilities."Gheorghe Niculae, d'you promise to get straight?," the schoolmarm added, and by way of reply, the strapping lad mumbled something which none of us could make out with any degree of accuracy."Right. Since you've made it to school today, I'm going to ask you a question or two, so as to give you at least one grade."The class mistress taught geography. She asked the fellow some questions on the plateaux and floodplains, to which Gheorghe or Niculae reacted by staring impassibly, frozen at attention."Now then. I'm going to ask you an easier question: what are the mountains of our motherland called?""Carpathians…"I reckon the teach was expecting something along the lines of the mountains of our motherland are called the Carpathian Mountains, but in the end she was satisfied with the pupil's condensed answer. And suddenly blushing, I mean the teacher, not the boy, with the thrill of having performed her act of kindness for the day, she burst out in a stream of outrageous praise:"Well done, Gheorghe Nicolae. Well done, my lad. See? You can do it…"He continued to stare in amazement at the things happening to him. He was taking note in decent consternation of Mrs Popa's antics, may God have mercy on her soul, for she's been dead for many years now."You're the right stuff in the wrong package. Just wait and see, we – who's we? – are going to straighten you up yet. Look, I'm going to give you seven points out of ten for now, by way of encouragement. Next time you come, bring a notebook along, like all the children in this class, and I'll give you another high grade if you do that for me."Gheorghe Niculae never turned up at school again. from The Book of Selfmulsifiers, Curtea veche, 2005

by Călin Torsan (b. 1970)