©Translation Christopher Buxton 2012
Nothing was going right for schoolmaster Minko Libadeto , that was the long and the short of it. True, you could say that he was a strong pedagogue; and he sang in the church choir, he scraped at the fiddle, but if a guy has no luck, toss for it shake for it, the result is a big fat nothing. Two Sundays in a row, he’d prepared lessons, the Inspector was coming: he’d learnt three new songs, he’d nailed R.E. and Bulgarian History word for word, he’d washed his hair and put on a clean shirt, but when nothing goes your way, brethren, what’s the point!
The bloody Inspector turned up without warning one morning, got out of his carriage, pushed straight into his section and caught him in the middle of not a Bulgarian History lesson but a natural object lesson – and the object? A hen, can you imagine?
Is it my job to know whether the hen is a fit object for study but Minko had grabbed a big black hen, was holding it by its legs, and was ready to declaim in front of the kids.
That very morning, when he’d brought it in, the head teacher had told him: “Minko, you’ve descended into the absurd,” he said. “Bringing such a well known creature for the kids to look at. It would have been different,” he said. “If you’d brought them in let’s say a rhinoceros, a bison or a hippopotamus, but hens are commonplace and your scallywags have all plucked their feathers and watched how their mothers feel up their arses for eggs.”
But he’d shaken his head, he wanted to deliver his sermon point by point, he gripped the hen; in short, on this question he was quite unshakable. And anyway he knew the lesson, and he was going to nail the kids’ attention And he would start with the egg, that’s why his pockets were full of eggs, and his aim was clear, it involved, deepening understanding with aesthetic and ethical conclusions and so on, but with this idiot inspector appearing out of nowhere, Minko tensed up, lost his head, rushed to meet and greet the inspector, and the hen flapped out of his hand and landed on Dagger Tenya ‘s head. It banged into the window, crashed into Chekov’s milksop’s lap ; he tried to catch it, grabbed a couple of feathers and lost it again. And this Natural object was so terrified , it crashed from wall to wall, knocking the map and the picture of the Chinaman off the wall, and all the chalk off the blackboard, and two or three inkpots off the desks; it flew like mad and had no intention of stopping. Schoolmaster Minko ran, the kids jumped up and down, even the inspector stretched out a hand – but could this winged creature be caught? It landed once on the top of the window sill. The school teacher climbed on to a chair and reached out to catch it – cluck, cluck cluck! …cluck, cluck, cluck! it flew onto the cupboard.
Pandemonium reigned, and that meant a lapse of discipline in the section.
“Leave it,” the Inspector shouted. “Leave it in peace; and you,” he commanded, “teacher carry on teaching!”
The children resumed their places, the schoolteacher resumed his position, but you know his throat was dry and he saw nothing in front of him.
He wiped his moustaches first of all, fastened the three buttons on his coat, thrust his right hand into his pocket, and immediately withdrew it and – he ummed and a-ahed, until, just as he’d calmed down a little, sorted out his thoughts and the children started to listen, someone outside started shouting:
“Minko-o, darling! Minko-o darling, well, well, well! Are you in there?”
And without knocking, Pena Mitina, with a baby wrapped in a sling on her back, a mattock in one hand and a bucket of gruel in the other put her long face round the door and yelled as if she were trying to reach three valleys.
“God bless you, dearie! Are you learning, are you learning? Well where’s our beauty – is she here? Ha, there she is! Stoika, Stoika, my baby! Mummy’s going to Kopachov ridge for beans. I left you a full bowl of gruel in the lean to under a plate and I put a stone on it so the dog won’t upset it. And don’t gobble it all up in one go, as soon as they let you out of school, you leave it till the afternoon, because I might be late. And don’t go wandering down to the river, girl, I’ll kill you when I get back this evening. You stay at home and keep an eye on the bees on the left; if they swarm , you run and get your Auntie Doichina! Pick some lemon balm from the church yard and rub the hive with it. It’s standing behind the stove by the trough. And look out for the hens, my pretty! Keep your eyes wide open, if they grub up the parsley I’ll have your guts on toast. Ey you ragamuffin! Wipe your nose on your frock!”
The nature study object lesson was over. The school bell clanged urgently. The inspector left the section and the kids crowded out in his wake. Only School-master Minko Libadeto remained as though melted to the blackboard. There were damp patches down the sides of his thighs. During the chase, the focus of his lesson, or in other words the eggs, had smashed and thin streams of egg white were seeping through his ripped coat pockets down his quivering trousers.
For God’s Grace
Strategies, methods, different pedagogical theories, let me tell you the truth! You teach the kids, you teach them, and then every one of them carries on as only they know how and think best. Take the Chemistry Teacher, Wildman, for example, even before he enters the classroom, the pupils are hammered into their seats like nails. And silence, silence, even half a sigh would be heard by everyone. When he opens the door, he stops, looks at the whole class over his spectacles, like an evil wizard, and then he steps up to the pupil on duty, slaps him round the head by way of greeting, bashes his register on the table, so that the glass beakers and test-tubes shake and immediately takes out his mark-book. He opens it, leafs through it, looks and the pupils stop breathing, dare not even cough. At last he stabs a spot on the page with his finger and roars like a bear: “ Idiot number 23 to come out for testing!”*
The recipient of this compliment, unlucky number 23, is ashen, he stands up, he staggers as if poisoned and trembling all over, he goes to the black board.
Wildman gives him a look filled with suspicion, he stares, he is silent, he drums his finger on the mark-book, then he roars once more: “Starch!”
The pupil makes every effort to say something about starch, but once he realizes his tongue is stuck to the roof of his mouth from terror, he takes the chalk and writes the formula on the blackboard with just one trivial mistake and then waits in agitation. Wildman looks at him out of one eye only, and again says not a word. After a painful silence, he growls again: “Add a little water so we see what happens!”
The pupil swallows dry saliva, looks helplessly about him and without wanting to tears the blackboard cloth to pieces. Finally he writes the formula for water somewhere on the side and again waits.
“E-e-ey what will happen!”
The pupil gazes piteously at the ceiling, and keeps trying to say something but with no success.
“And it won’t turn into porridge! Do you understand? Porridge! Off with you! Back to your seat! You get a one!”
This was Wildman’s pedagogical approach. Strictness, discipline, that was it …God forbid you question it. He rarely gave a four. Three, two, one. That was the sum total.
“I only give a five,” he says, “to myself, and a six only to God the Father Almighty! That’s it! Those who don’t like it can go to another High School.”
Look here, the woodwork teacher, Daddy Goodfather is quite a different case. You know, a velvet, cotton-wool, sweety. Happy, smiling, eager to help, never writes up an absence, or utters a critical comment or even slaps anyone. Democracy, pupil power and complete freedom in the classroom.
The pupils have a woodwork class for example and are making coat stands. OK, but pupil number one decides that coat stands are not for him and so he whittles toothpicks with his pen knife. Of course he can. He’s free-ee. Pupil number two fashions a spindle for his granny on the lathe. Pupil number three uses a file to smooth out a worn shoe heel and pupil number four simply rubs his friend’s ears with sandpaper. Schoolmaster Daddy Goodfather stays in the corner of the classroom, reads his “Count of Monte-Christo” and pretends that he can’t see. And most importantly, when it comes to the end of the term, he doesn’t need a presentation of finished objects, instead he writes out marks from memory. When he takes out his official mark-book and lines up everything: six, six, six, six, five, six, five six…You just want to kiss him on both cheeks. He doesn’t even look at what mark he’s giving to whom. He’s a golden chap. A diamond! A precious jewel!
Once at the end of the second term, the head teacher called him in, opened up the Class 5 mark-book and said: “Mr Goodfather, just a little check, of a sort, and one small point of explanation.”
“Please, of course, Headmaster, I’m at your service!”
“Here you’ve given Angel Crowfoot a five for the second term, and he, I mean look here, he was expelled even before the end of the first term.”
“Hmm, yes, yes! I remember Headmaster, I remember, but he was such a skilful, such a hard working lad, and he made so many things in such a short space of time, that I’d have no qualms about giving him a mark for a third term even ….”
“You’ve done the same, do you see, with the pupil Boris Cobbler. Well he’s got a medical certificate and the Teacher’s Council exempted him from your class on account of the three missing fingers on his right hand.”
“Missing, they’re missing, Headmaster, and he’s exempted, but he comes, the lad comes and works…works with his left hand, you see. He hammers saws and planes like the very devil.”
“Well let’s agree with all that , although you shouldn’t have given him marks, but will you look here What are you going to say about the six which you’ve awarded to Emil Blackman, who died of Typhus even before Christmas?
“Ah, yes, yes, You’re right, Headmaster, you’re right. It’s not correct, but there’s no overstepping the mark either. He, the lad, was so well behaved, so modest and obedient and so poor. When I heard, that he’d died, I was so sorry, that I hadn’t looked after him enough and I hadn’t helped him, that I said to myself: ‘He’s died the poor wretch, he’s passed on now, why not, just like this, instead of a flower over his grave, instead of a candle, why don’t I give this poor boy a six…’ For God’s Grace, in one way, Headmaster, I did it for God’s Grace and his everlasting memory, you know….”
*In the Bulgarian Education system, pupils are selected at random at the beginning of each lesson and are tested orally on the knowledge gained in the previous lesson. They are then given a mark from one to six