I came back from my second summer on the sugar beetroot kolkhoz tanned, dirty, full of lice, and looking forward to the rest of my summer vacation at home. I spent the first fortnight practically alone, bathing in the Ob, fishing from the rafts, borrowing a new book from the library almost every day, and generally recovering from having almost never been alone on the kolkhoz for the past month and realising how much I needed a little solitude from time to time. Then I went to see Shurka Okolyelov. He had been excused from the kolkhoz duty because of his bad leg, hump, and tuberculosis, and had promised to let me paint something with his oil colours when I came back. His mother opened the door and when I asked whether he was at home she said "What, you haven't heard?", and tears came into her eyes. Shura had died a week before, of tuberculosis. His condition had worsened while we were in the kolkhoz; he took to his bed, seemed to be recovering, and then a sudden haemorrhage ended his life.
I returned home in a shock. There had been my grandfather from Ustrzyki Dolne and then old Paluchowski, but this was the first time a close friend of my own age had died, and life suddenly seemed less guarantied and secure, and, because of it, more precious and to be enjoyed.
It was my last year in the uptown, "seven-year" school, less than half an hour's walk from where we lived. Classes in Russia are numbered from one to ten. You start school at six or seven, and obligatory schooling lasts till thirteen or fourteen. You can then go to a trade school, becoming a lathe or milling machine operator or a mechanic.After seven years you are qualified to enroll at a technicians school, for three years, emerging as a highly skilled diplomed technician, and many young people took this path. Finishing all ten classes gave you the higher school certificate required for entering university or technical college. (There was only one standard higher school certificate irrespective of whether you planned to study engineering or music afterwards, with main stress on maths, physics, and chemistry.) Schools with seven classes were thus more numerous than the full ten-year schools, and the closest ten-year school was downtown, almost an hour's walk from our house. Actually it only had the three last classes, with all the pupils in their later teens.
The school - an all-male one, probably to reduce distractions during this important period -was badly overcrowded and worked in two shifts, morning and afternoon. I found myself in the afternoon one. There were some advantages to it: one could sleep late in the morning, do one's homework with a fresh mind, and squeeze some outdoor activities into the daylight hours. Afterwards, however, one sat in a crowded classroom lighted by a weak electric bulb, and, being more tired, found it more difficult to concentrate. The long quarter-hour "mid-morning" break took place late in the afternoon, and if the weather - rain or, later, snow, kept us indoors, the pupils milled in a crowded dark corridor, and it was more difficult to smoke a cigarette without getting caught.
It was a well-established tradition that the first day with the new eighth grades were murder on the teachers and the weaker pupils. The newcomers were a jungle of strangers from the various seven-year schools in town, and some persistent but not very bright ones who had had to repeat a class or two in the past were almost of army age now, some of them hooligans. If a teacher did not establish his or - even more difficult - her authority in class on the first day (or night; the semi-darkness of the second shift doing nothing to help the situation) he or she would lead a very difficult life for the rest of the year.
On the first afternoon, we arrived almost an hour early and crowded into the long corridor lined with benches on both sides; it was raining outside; we were all damp in varying degrees and the corridor was almost dark. The school building was a large two-storey one of grim grey stone with a lot of classrooms and a basement where a janitor with his family lived in a small room. Our uptown school leaders - Karabanov, Sysov, and Okolyelov - huddled together on a bench, smoking makhorka cigarettes and casting cold glances at potential competitors, occasionally getting into a probing conversation with likely future associates. A skinny blind boy of about our age, the janitor's son as it later transpired, was making his way along the corridor, tapping the floor with a stick. Someone put out his foot to trip him. The blind boy sensed the extended foot with his stick, and, suddenly, without a warning and with a nasty swish, swung his heavy stick over his shoulder like a golfer, with the thick handle poised and aimed at roughly the spot where the offender sat, and said, in a dreadful ice-cold voice: "Someone here is trying to trip me." There was dead silence in the corridor. The weight of the stick, the force with which it had been swung, and the cold determination of the voice made it clear that whoever tried anything of the sort was risking his life. The boy stood like that with his stick raised for what seemed a very long time, with us wondering whether he was going to smash the offender's - or his neighbour's - skull. Then he lowered his stick and, without another word, went on tapping his way along the corridor. Nobody ever interfered with him again.
Our first - anatomy - lesson that evening showed us a teacher taking control of this new class with nothing less than genius. When he walked in he did not strike us as particularly impressive: elderly, of slightly more than medium height, slim, with a balding head and spectacles. The class, with the quieter and smaller boys on the front benches and the big bullies at the back, was humming like a beehive. There was a smell of makhorka in the air; a couple of the big ones at the back were smoking, keeping their cigarettes out of sight. They were also humming "Galya" under their breaths. ("The Cossaks were riding from their military service home; they talked Galya into coming with them and took her away. Ekh, you Galya, young Galya, they talked Galya into coming with them and took her away." The story ends badly, with mass rape and murder.)
The teacher stood there for a while, taking in the situation. The noise showed no signs of abating. Then he took out a book which looked like a novel, sat down at his table, opened the book, and started reading it. The noise went on. After a while he sniffed the air, lit a cigarette, and went on reading. This was interesting because teachers were not supposed to smoke in class. After a few more minutes he got up, wrote on the blackboard: "For the next lesson, read the introduction in the textbook", and returned to his novel.
"What textbook?" someone shouted, without getting up.
The teacher cupped his hand to his ear.
"Sorry, I can't hear you," he said in a quiet voice.
This was interesting. The level of the noise grew a little lower.
"What textbook?" the same voice said.
"Sorry, still can't hear you. Your friends are making a lot of noise."
The classroom grew silent.
"What...?" Then the pupil hesitatingly stood up. "Mazyarov, Vladimir. What textbook, er..."
"Vladimir Trofimovich is the name. Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mazyarov. Our anatomy textbook is going to be" and he wrote the title and the author's name on the blackboard. Then he looked at his cigarette, and then at the back benches.
"Comrades," he said, "there's a rather strict rule against smoking in class during the lessons, applying to both pupils and teachers; as a matter of fact it's even worse for a teacher to get caught than for a pupil. What do you say about a gentleman's agreement about giving up smoking in class for the duration of the school year? All those in favour please raise their hands." And he raised his. There was no choice but to raise ours. We were beginning to like this teacher.
"Concerning human anatomy", he went on, "this is the only year you'll be studying it; in the ninth and tenth classes you will have more of maths, physics, and chemistry instead. Those of you who are thinking of becoming doctors will need no incentive to study anatomy, but it is also of importance to anyone interested in remaining healthy and understanding how his body works. By the way, I'd like to offer you another deal. Any literate idiot can read and understand a chapter from a textbook at home, and I have grown rather bored repeating the same text in class year after year. If you agree, I'll let you study the text at home, ask questions to make sure you've understood it, and then tell you all sorts of stories which you won't find in the textbook. For example the introduction which you are to study for our next lesson gives the first rough outline of the human body: the skeleton, the muscles, and so on. Now there was this young lady taking her medical exams and the professor asks her to describe the structure of the male organ, and she says "It is built around the central bone" and the professor says "I'll give you top marks for experience and zero for theory." The class roared. "Or take the nose", he said. "Pass your finger along it, from top to bottom. Feels like a single bone, doesn't it? Well, it isn't; the top half is bone, and the lower, cartilage, which collapses in the advanced stages of syphilis; you must have seen it in the street. This business of venereal disease is so serious, and topical at your age, that we'll talk about it within the next few days, and in much more detail than there is in the book."
The bulb over the table slowly began to go out, as if dimmed with a rheostat. Vladimir Trofimovich looked at it and nodded.
"In case there any of you still unfamiliar with this trick, it goes like this. A bulb goes out in the middle of a lesson. It is not a power cut because, as you can see, the other classes are brightly lit, or as brightly as a classroom can be lit with a forty or sixty watt bulb, so the bulb must have burned out. The teacher sends a pupil to the secretary for a new bulb. The new bulb is screwed in and it still doesn't work. The situation obviously calls for an electrician but long before he arrives the lesson is over and the pupils happily adjourn for a break and a quiet smoke behind the lavatories."
The classroom was now dark. Vladimir Trofimovich took a candle out of his briefcase and lit it. He went to the switch on the wall and turned it off. Then he got up on the table and screwed out the bulb.
"Upon closer examination," he said, "it transpires that, lodged between the bulb and the bottom of the socket there is a piece of newspaper, either "Izvyestya" or "Pravda", folded several times into a small square." Using his pencil, he extracted such a wad from the bulb socket and showed it to us. "The wad had been moistened with water, in which condition it conducts electricity beautifully. But while the bulb is lighting our classroom it also heats up, and the water in the paper slowly evaporates, increasing the resistance, until the paper is dry and stops conducting electricity altogether. Without the paper..." He screwed the bulb back in, got off the table, and turned the switch, "the bulb, as you can see, performs as before."
The class was now perfectly silent, enjoying itself enormously and loving Vladimir Trofimovich.
"All right", he said, opening the class journal. "After these preliminary delays, let's get acquainted. Mazyarov, Vladimir, I already know. Starting at the beginning, who is Aksakov?"
Aksakov stood up and Vladimir Trofimovich nodded to him.
Vladimir Trofimovich was marking the names as present or absent with the pen put out for him in an inkwell prior to the lesson, and after a while the ink on the nib ran out. He dipped the pen in the inkwell lightly, but there didn't seem to be more ink on it than before. He looked into the inkwell, smiled, and went to the blackboard.
"Here's another good one. Please note that I am teaching more physics than anatomy tonight. There is something called a percussion cup, familiar to hunters and military personnel. It sits at the bottom of the cartridge and, when struck by the firing pin, the little pinch of pyrotechnic stuff inside it explodes and lights the gunpowder. At school however, we use it as is, placing it upside down at the bottom of a dry inkwell" (he drew a scheme on the blackboard) "securing it in place with a little glue or chewed bread and put in a pen with a supply of ink on the nib drawn from another inkwell. When this runs out, the teacher dips his pen in the inkwell and it still doesn't write; he dips a little harder and the point penetrates the thin foil which covers the explosive on the inside, like this," he demonstrated, and there was a small sharp explosion from the inkwell "with the teacher jumping a metre into the air; very amusing and monotony-breaking."
From then on our class was a model one during anatomy lessons. Vladimir Trofimovich managed to make it the most interesting subject on the curriculum with his illustrative little stories. The promised lecture on venereal disease started the cycle, and I was shocked to hear that my beloved Maupassant died of it. Vitamin C provided us with the story of sailors losing their teeth to scurvy until compelled to take a ration of lemon juice every day. By the end of the year, even bad pupils had higher marks in anatomy than in other subjects.
This was not the case with geography. Our teacher was a short and slim young woman into whose eyes tears would come at the slightest provocation. She would then stride out of the class, sobbing, and bring in the headmaster to call us to order. The headmaster, a very strict elderly man of whom we were afraid, couldn't have liked the solution very much.
One afternoon, when an anatomy lesson was to follow the long break, the pupil on duty who reported to the teachers' room for any maps, charts, or equipment that might be needed, was given a real human skull by Vladimir Trofimovich; we were studying the skeleton. This was too good to sit idly on the desk for the next quarter of an hour. Vasiliev, one of the tallest pupils at school, wore a smart white knee-length sheepskin coat with a tall collar which, turned up, came to the top of his head.
(Winter was beginning and, with the school practically unheated in spite of a little iron stove in every class, we kept our coats on throughout the lessons and the breaks. The inkwells arrived frozen and, during the first lesson, would be sitting in a row in front of the little stove, thawing out. The frost, however, has solved the problem of the lavatories. They were a wooden barrack with a long bench-like seat built over a deep cesspool, with a dozen round holes side by side. It doesn't take long for for some pupils to piss over the boards. Sitting on them with your bare behind then becomes unhygienic, so you climb the seat and crouch on top, often missing the hole and leaving some stuff on the edge. The place then becomes dirty and smelly, with whoever was supposed to be cleaning it not making a very good job of it. You then regulate your bodily functions so as to defecate at home and only pee at school. But once the frost sets in, all problems are solved. The fresh excrement freezes within minutes, turning into solid hard ice of varying shades of brown, over which you can climb and manoeuvre into position without soiling your felt boots, and have a quiet leisurely shit inhaling pure winter air and smoke from your makhorka cigarette. The cleaning of the lavatory also becomes simpler, limited to removing piles of the frozen stuff with a crowbar. In the spring, when the snow in the streets turned to mud and the ice on the Ob moves on with sounds like a battery of heavy guns, the lavatory thaws out and nobody goes there any more, pissing behind the wall.)
Vasiliev now buttoned his coat over his head, turned up the collar, placed the skull on top of his head, and his fur hat on the skull. The whole was about two meters tall and very convincing. As Vasiliev couldn't see where he was going, Karabanov and Okolyelov slipped their arms through his and guided him along the crowded corridor. It was a great success. Then our geography teacher showed up, coming towards us, eyes on the floor, and carrying bundles of rolled-up maps under each arm. She bumped into Vasiliev, recognised his coat, said "Vasiliev, can't you be more careful?", looked up, and fainted. Two pupils caught her under the arms as she fell back so that she shouldn't hit her head on the floor while another went for a glass of water. Having done its best, the skull, still wearing Vasiliev's hat and with a cigarette between its teeth, sat on the desk when Vladimir Trofimovich walked in for the lesson. "Still smoking, is he?" he said.
In spite of the overcrowding and the discipline problems, most of us took our studies seriously. We saw a lot of exhausted, overworked, underfed, and poorly dressed workers, living with their families in small crowded rooms, with the wives doing the cooking in cramped communal kitchens, while the doctors and engineers lived much better. A university or a technical college would make a difference for the rest of one's life. Another incentive for the older boys who had had to repeat a year or two at school was their approaching army age. The Germans were by now being pushed back everywhere, with their chance of winning the war gone, but the war might go on long enough to be called up, go through basic training, and get killed at the front. Education might get you into some technical unit a safe distance from the killing. Our military lessons continued. In addition to the rifle, the handgrenade, and bayonet practice, we were now learning the PPSh submachinegun and the squad machinegun with their round magazines and continuing target practice with .22" rifles, There were also night guard duties at school, armed with dummy rifles with real bayonets attached; there was a real possibility of some thiefs or hooligans trying to enter the school at night.
Once during target practice, through the absence of two pupils and a manipulation of figures, Karabanov managed to pocket two boxes of .22 cartridges, fifty to a box. Three nights later a team of him, Sysov, Mazyarov, and me were due for nightguard duty at school. On such occasions you remained at school after the lessons and reported to the voyenruk in the teachers' room. He would issue us with four dummy rifles, and two small buns each to get us through the night. Each of us would be on duty between the unlocked double entrance doors for an hour or two, while the three others slept on the sofa and chairs of the teachers' room. There was a locked iron cabinet there with the PPSh, the machinegun, and two or three small-caliber rifles , with the key hidden, as we soon discovered, under some books on a shelf. We knew that there were rats in the basement corridor.
We slept very little that night. While one of us was on duty at the entrance, the other three sat motionless on the last steps of the stairs descending to the basement corridor dimly lit by a single bulb, with a piece of bread on the floor for bait and the borrowed loaded target rifle at the shoulder of whoever's turn it was. A rat would show up, cautiously make his way towards the bread, and start on the last nibble of his life. The distance was short and the rifle accurate. The shot from a long-barrelled .22 rifle is not very loud and could not be heard outside. By dawn, we had a pile of twenty-three dead rats. We used a wet rag to erase traces of blood on the floor, buried the rats behind the lavatory, cleaned the rifle before replacing it in the cabinet, and reported for our first lesson sleepy and tired but happy.
Our second lesson was a geography one. The teacher came in and said: "Karabanov, Sysov, Frankel, and Mazyarov, the headmaster wants to see you in his office."
We went there very worried, racking our brains for some tell-tale clue we may have left in the basement corridor. We couldn't think of any.
The headmaster was seated behind his desk, with the voyenruk by his side. We stood in a row in front of the desk, more or less to attention.
"How was the nightwatch?" the headmaster asked kindly.
"All right, sir." (Actually we were addressing him by his name and patronymic, which I do not remember.)
We breathed a little easier. This seemed to be a simple check or something of the sort.
"Nothing special or unforeseen?"
"Did you sleep well when not on duty?"
"Yes, very well."
"Well, the janitor and his family didn't. They report constant rifle fire in the basement corridor from evening till early morning. The janitor's wife was so scared that she got diarrhoea but was afraid to leave the room to go to the lavatory and had to do it into a pot."
We had completely forgotten the janitor with his wife and two children, the blind boy with the stick and a younger daughter, or rather we hoped they wouldn't hear anything, their room being at the far end of another basement corridor around the corner.
"Where did you get the cartridges?" the voyenruk asked.
There was a long silence.
"You can tell me or you can tell the NKVD. It comes into the category of stealing and illegal possession of ammunition."
"I found them among my late brother's things," Okolyelov said. "He died of TB last summer.He may have saved them from last year's target practice at our seven-year school."
"And what did you use for target?"
"Rats, comrade voyenruk."
"Rats in our basement?" said the headmaster.
"Yes, sir. As is well known, they spread the bubonic plague and other diseases." (We had only recently heard about this, from Vladimir Trofimovich.)
"Rats in our basement? How many are there?"
"Twenty-three less today than there were last night, sir."
There was a short silence.
"All right, I'll let you off lightly this time - two extra tours of nightguard duty by the end of the term. If another single shot is ever fired in this school building I shall pass the matter to the NKVD."
"Very well, sir."
"We apologise, sir."
"Thank you, sir."
"We won't do it again, sir."
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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