Novel Of The Nearsighted Adolescent

excerpt  VI. MONDAY, 8 TO 9, GERMAN When I was in the first grade, I flunked French, German and Romanian. I used to spend my afternoons barefoot on the pitch, sweating, short-sighted, playing oina.[1] I had become famous for the lightning rapidity with which I would catch the ball and fling it at the guy in the box's knee. People were even talking about me making it into the school team. However, they were two things preventing that. First, I was the laziest, meanest and most indolent person in my class. And I was short-sighted. If I saw my opponent's knee too well, then I never had time to also see the ball when I was in the box. I would only be saved by the inability of the guy who hit it. Three flunked subjects almost certainly meant having to repeat the year. When I heard the news, I seriously considered suicide for a quarter of an hour. It's true that pain and death horrified me. But anyway, since the shame had to be compensated for by an act of courage, I was trying desperately to find a possibility for my friends to witness the exact moment when I would want to swallow the pill. I didn't actually know how to get those pills people used to kill themselves with, but this didn't upset my plans. I imagined myself despondent, holding the pill between my teeth, fighting off the friends that wanted to keep me alive. I could even hear myself tossing about and crying 'No, please, let me die!...' At this point emotion would overcome me. An inexplicable wish drove my thoughts even further. I imagined myself dead. I could see my friends in astonishment, my class mates secretly enjoying this original event, and I could hear my mom crying. Imagining all these things brought tears to my eyes, and I considered myself persecuted by Faradopol, a sturdy man, reserve major and German teacher. The boys would yell by my grave: 'He's a criminal, a criminal!...' And I regretted the fact that dead as I was, I could not express my contentment by smiling. A quarter of an hour later, however, I unexpectedly calmed down. I sat down at a desk and looked at the rows of happy people occupying the boulevard. "These people have not flunked German," I noted with sadness. German made me shiver. At first, I thought it a patriotic duty not to learn the language of my enemies. Then, my fear of the teacher became a priority. At that time, he was not yet headmaster. He had come from the frontline with an officer's tunic and he managed to make us forget the "lesson" with just one look. "Was haben sie heute?" This foreplay frightened me for six years. Since I was sitting in the first row of desks, I almost always had to answer: "Das Haus!" "You mule!... Is that how you answer?" "?..." "You answer in a full sentence. How many times must I tell you? Was haben sie heute?" "Haben sie heute: Das Haus!" "Is that how you answer?" "… a full sentence," I stammered. Under the German teacher's sentences, stare and size, I forgot everything. "Tell me the lesson for today. Where's the notebook?" In the notebook, there were dozens of words written with "German" letters, that we had to learn. "Road?" "Weg!" "Which article…?" "Der Weg?" "Das! You mule." "Jewelry?" "Shsh...raf?" "What do you mean Schraf? Jewelry!" "I know that it starts with sh," I tried to pacify him. Then he would help me: "Sh… shm… shm…" "Schumpf?" I ventured. "Der Schmuck, you mule!" "To know!" "Wissen." "Say it in full." "Wissen, wust, gewusten." "What's the passive subjunctive in the 3rd person plural?" "?" "Back to your seat. Three…[2]" I stood up from my desk and went home. My mother knew. Five friends had let her know, assuring her I would pass my exam in the autumn. The storm took a while to calm down. I defended myself saying that I was being "persecuted." "But why are you the only one being persecuted?" "I don't know. They just want to… persecute me." We made an agreement that I would split my holidays in two: I would be free until August, and then I would study with a private tutor. My private tutor was a Jewish tailor's son. He was called Sami. He was only sixteen, still played buttons and read Nick Winter. He went to the evangelical school and studied violin at the conservatory. "How's it going, little one?" "Listen to me, Sami: we're not going to study today. Mother's going to granny's. Why don't we have some ice-cream." "You have money?" "Tell my mother I need a notebook." "There'll be 20 bani[3] left for me…" "No, it's better if I give you German marks…" "How much shall we tell her a notebook costs?" "50 bani." "What if I don't get it?" Sami was cautious and smart. He would take all my buttons and force me to search the cartons of the German guy who was quartered in our house in order to pick up all the new marks. When our class would begin, Sami showed himself to be very stern, as mother was also present: "Cherman is difficult, little one. I was telling this to your mother, too…" By September, I hadn't learned anything. But the Germans left and the ministry didn't require German in the first class of the secondary course anymore. I was saved. Since then, German has obsessed me. Now the teacher is headmaster. His face has grown rougher, his voice resounds formidably every morning and when he gets mad, he slaps students. "Why are you late?" The boy with the knapsack freezes by the door. "Well, you see…" "Out of my sight, you cretin!" He only calls me "mule" and slapped me only once. I had forgotten my umbrella in the classroom and I had gone back to get it. But all the doors were locked. So I came in through the window. Then I heard the headmaster's painful steps. I hid behind the door. "What are you doing here?" "My umbrella…" "The bell has rung; why aren't you out?" "I was out. But I came back." The headmaster's eyes flared up. "And how did you come back?" To me, the question sounded like a trumpet. I had neither the courage nor the strength to answer him. I had forgotten who I was and what I was doing in the same classroom with a headmaster and an umbrella. Suddenly, I felt my head jerking three times to the right and three times to the left. My cheeks started burning with shame and pain. My eyes were full of tears. I was shaking, together with my umbrella. "Get out!... Mule!" But there was no way out. I went over by the oven. "You'll burn your clothes, you idiot!" I thanked him for this piece of advice with humble and watery eyes. Yet German I had still not learned. This year I exasperated my teacher. "Sir, please, I forgot my notebook at home…" "One…" I was happy that at least he would not torture me in front of the blackboard anymore. When he called me to lesson, I came all pale and rigid, notebook and textbook in hand. "Was haben sie heute?" Of course, I was the one who had to answer. Trying to stimulate the memory of the lesson I had learnt, I would rush right into it. "Lebens Gote." "It's not Gote, it's Goethe…" But I didn't know the lesson. Sooner or later, I always ended up with "unsatisfactory." Every Monday morning, I walk anxiously between the desks thinking about Ibsen's Brand. This gives me courage. I frown and imagine myself as Brand, fighting the storms. Brand was misunderstood and I am also misunderstood by the German teacher. We match. Maybe we have the same kind of soul. When I walk through the desks, I feel this very well. When the classroom is noisy, I can't think of Brand anymore. I'm trying hard with my fists to my temples, but I can't manage to call him forth. All I see are snow-covered mountains. Brand does not show himself. Then I start trembling, my heart grows weak and I fret the way Fanica frets in chemistry class. No one knows this, but I have a hard time when Brand doesn't show himself. Then I start learning the words for German. The headmaster is not a mean person, though. Before the end of the year, he calls us endangered students in the staff room, for "betterment." It's hot, and the headmaster is smoking. "What do you know?" "Schiller." "You know Schiller?" We smile, because everyone has to smile when the headmaster makes a joke. "Really, you know Schiller?" We understand that the smiling wasn't enough. One of us laughs. Others look to their handkerchiefs for help. The headmaster is satisfied. I cautiously nudge my mates. The laughter has to stop, as the headmaster is serious. If we laugh too hard, he darkens up. "Why don't we do a test…" This time he doesn't get mad. He's listening to us read and translate out of our rigged textbooks and he's thinking of his vineyard in Prahova county. An hour and fifteen cigarettes later, the headmaster grants all of us the grade "satisfactory." "You mules, ha?" 1924-1925
[1] Romanian game similar to baseball (tr. n.)[2] The Romanian marking system goes from 1 to 10, with 10 as the highest, and 5 as the minimal passing grade (tr. n.) [3] Ban, fractional monetary unit of Romania, equal to one hundredth of a leu (RON) (tr. n.)

by Mircea Eliade (1907-1986)