I had always hated school; I had loathed it, just loathed it — it was that simple. There was nothing, literally nothing, that I could think of that might have instilled in me so much as an ounce of interest in all the great victories, in all the even greater debacles, and in all the supposedly great things that littered the pages of our history textbooks, let alone in all the dreadfully stale and moldy novels that they had bored us with and even expected us to read.
But of all the school-time ordeals and torments I still recoiled — as a grown and serious man — at the recollection of my physics teacher. He was the worst, absolutely the worst thing that had ever happened to me. He was like a combination of a job loss, chronic bad luck, and a terminal illness that befall someone on one and the same day. I still flinched at the mere mention of that particularly vile and spiteful creature. I still flinched at the thought of him, who had ruined more of my days and nights than the menace of acne. I flinched at the memory of him, who had seemed to derive enormous and perverse pleasure from making our still young lives as complicated as possible. It was his cup of venom; it was his mean forte.
He seemed to have been putting far more work and thought and effort into making our lives miserable than in the actual teaching process, like a cunning shopkeeper raising the prices whenever you manage to memorize the latest ones. What he adored — and he adored it the most — was the silence of a terrorized classroom; he was a master of it; he was a virtuoso of it. He mastered it even to soothingly silent perfection. Whenever someone opened their mouth unasked, he would hit that person with his cold glare from behind his desk. He would hit that person with it like a marksman only waiting for the slightest sound, for the faintest murmur, of the enemy troops to take them down — one by one. And that was precisely what he would do. He would snap out of his meditative trance, point at this or that poor wretch, and ask them a question, and if they didn’t know the answer — and he would make sure that you didn’t know an answer to that question, or that you didn’t even know that such a question was possible — he would take up his pen and scribble some mark in a grade book. He would do it without glancing up, without a word, like a judge and jury and executioner and gravedigger in one jotting down the verdict. And then you knew that it was pretty much over for you, for your family, for your future kids, and for countless generations of your offspring to come — another one shot down; clear away the corpse.
I remember one boy whom he caught zipping up a pencil case tentatively a second after the school bell had rung. He swiftly turned around to the boy, pierced him with his freezing gaze, like a soldier catching a deserter off guard, and declared that school bells were for teachers and not for students, and that he should remember his words when, having failed to graduate, he would, in the end, take up the job of a cleaner in this very school. It was only a matter of time — he claimed — but it would be a good thing because the school corridor had long been in need of a good scrub. Needless to say, we were more than appalled, but none of us so much as winced or dared to look up from the impeccably white pages of our papery comfort zones, perfectly mirroring the whiteness of our petrified faces, like a doctor’s pale apron reflecting her godlike power over one’s life and death. Then, naturally, he asked the boy one of his already infamous and formidable questions, which would have left even a textbook’s author perplexed; the boy sat in silence, and the teacher went over to his own desk to put that ominous little mark in the grade book next to the kid’s name.
He was a true master tormentor of physics.
As for me, I tried to maintain a low profile; I tried to get by, like a mouse on a catwalk. And I made it; I survived — barely, I should add — but I made it nevertheless. Later on, we used to joke for years that those lessons, that handful of hours which amounted to pretty much nothing compared to the length of our out-of-school existence, had left us scarred and traumatized for life, as if we were the former prisoners of war.
That was why I was proud that I had made it in life; I had made it by using my brains and not too much schooling; I had attained considerable success and financial stability without having spent years and years poring over books. I had learned a few big words, and a mouthful of smaller ones, too — just enough to get along.
I had become a car salesman — and a good one at that. I could afford a wonderful house; a set of good clothes; a pair of sunglasses that perpetually lodged on top of my head, as if I had an additional pair of eyes buried somewhere in my slicked-back hair; and, obviously, I could afford a wife who, consequently, could thus also afford all those things. I was the best salesman on the lot; I was the best salesman to have ever leaned against a car’s bodywork in the whole history of the automotive industry, or, at least, since fenders had ceased to stick out shamelessly, like the ears of an ever-prying neighbor — I could sell anything to anybody. Sweet-talking an old and half-broke guy into buying an expensive car was nothing; it was nothing for me — if I spun my tale right, they would buy anything from me and come back wailing and whining for more, like a drug addict during a tough withdrawal. I knew every old trick in the book — I had even invented a few new ones myself and put them on the flaps of its dust jacket. I was a gasoline-propelled equivalent of Magellan and Columbus and Copernicus rolled into one. “For every man or woman there’s a car,” I used to intone merrily. “And if not, I’ll find one that you don’t like and sell it to you anyway.”
I earned a lot; a lot more even than we needed. My wife loved it — and loved me, of course — all those new cars every few years; I had a new car coming before I had managed to wear out the tires on the old one. I had enough money to buy my way into various clubs and other high-profile places in which they would otherwise not have deigned to waste a second to sneer at me. I enjoyed all the bonuses, all the perks, and so many fringe benefits that they no longer occupied the fringes of my salary — they were like the ever-advancing front line from which I didn’t have to hide; no, I waited for them longingly, like a peasant from a village being liberated by the allied troops. I had more money than I knew how to spend — and that was the truly relevant thing that school had failed to teach me.
Early one morning, I was meant to pick up a new and shiny car for me. I was quite excited — after all, it was the latest model; it was the next big thing, the very one that I was supposed to start pushing the following month. The company decided to let us drive it before anyone else had had a chance so much as to touch it and see for ourselves how splendid it was — or, at least, to give us a taste of it so that we had time to devise the pretty-pretty hogwash we would then lavish on potential buyers: young, old, rich, or poor, it didn’t matter.
On my way to the showroom, I stopped at a sleazy fast-food restaurant. It mightn’t have been the finest or the fanciest in town, but I had a weakness for it; I had a rather greasy spot for it, like a crazed skinflint for everything that shines, even if it is a heap of glass candy. I made my order without glancing around, without saying too much, and without doing anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary to put a plate, if not a plastic tray, full of food on my table — it was still too early for that.
Over weak, watered-down coffee in a cheap paper cup, looking as if it had been lifted from some poor kid’s birthday party, I mused on the leather upholstery and high-tech car audio system that I would have an opportunity to relish in a little while. I pondered this, I contemplated that, taking the trouble to imagine that brand-new model — packed with all the features a human being might think of — come to life and drive out of a glossy brochure’s page straight into my driveway.
It was then, between a gulp of this coffee and a mouthful of my hardly imperial Caesar salad, that I saw him; I saw the man — I saw my physics teacher. However, this time he was deprived of his usual immaculately ironed clothes and a privileged position behind a high desk. I saw him: old, fatigued, constantly hunched over as if he were unable to straighten up anymore, and dressed in the restaurant uniform — a wet rag in his hand, akin to an inseparable attribute of an ancient god. I saw him maneuver awkwardly among the tables of the half-empty place, still well before the morning rush hour, waiting for the scarce customers to finish up their meals and walk away in order to pounce on the just-deserted tables and attack them with that dripping rag of his.
I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know how to react to this. I only watched him in disbelief, far stronger and thicker than this diluted coffee in my hand. I watched him over the rim of the cup, that paper-thin cover of mine, like a well-hidden soldier observing a tank rolling by.
It was an unusual sight to behold.
Then I felt the old irritation and indignation well up in me, like the reopened prehistoric wounds. I intended to tell him something; I intended to tell him everything I had always dreamed of telling him for all those years. I intended to give him more than just a single piece of my mind — I intended to give him so much of it, a hefty slice of it, that he would choke on it at once, like a fish striving to swallow a ship’s anchor. I intended to tell him what I had really thought of him and his “teaching methods”; I intended to tell him: “Look at you. Look at you now. I’m sitting here, behind the table, a respectable customer that I am, and you’re the one doing all the wiping. Who’d have thought? Who’d have thought that?”
I sat like that, choosing the words that I would use in a second or two, as if I were a duelist picking up his favorite weapon; I sat like that observing him make his way amid the congregation of tables, getting closer and closer to me — yet still without recognizing me, like a partisan heading straight toward a barely camouflaged tripwire.
Only now did I remember hearing about his having lost the teaching job because of his heavy drinking, about his having lost his family due to his even heavier drinking on unemployment, about his illness and other misfortunes that had befallen him in some cosmic repayment for all the sins and misdemeanors of his school past, as if he had hit the jackpot of utter misery more than once. It only proved that there was justice — a belated one, a long-overdue one, but still — in the universe. I couldn’t have been more satisfied.
Then he walked up to my table, even though I was still seating at it. I saw him grab a chair on the opposite end of it and tentatively push it back into its place, as if it cost him a lot of effort — all that without raising his eyes at me. I wasn’t sure that he recognized me — I felt that I needed to say something, like an actor whose cue comes earlier than usual. Someone had to say something.
“Good morning, sir,” I heard myself say involuntarily, lowering my gaze instantly, as if to sink it in the invisible notebook that should have been lying in front of me, opened on a page with my homework.
“Good morning,” my former teacher said, still without looking at me. He said it in the husky and weary voice, sodden with the undigested vapors of yesterday’s drinking, like a cloth with chloroform.
Then I saw him walk away unsteadily, an embarrassing rag in his hand, his body shaky and maltreated — the battlefield of a war he had lost decades ago. I saw him walk away like that, but even in that doddery gait of an elderly man, I could still discern the wrinkled shadows of his past haughtiness and conceit. I could still see them; I could see all that, as he strolled away — as if he had just heard the ringing of a distant school bell.