First maths lessons

I was quite glad to finally enter secondary school. Primary school had been a bit hard on my nerves. It was my first weeks. I was very much looking forward to the maths lessons. I had a lot of admiration for the teacher who happened to be the headmaster too. He was always wearing a blue working smock on top of his suit. I was thinking of him as a teacher from the beginning of the twentieth century, a fountain of knowledge and wisdom. He had a lot of authority over the children.

I would be exaggerating if I were to say that the first lessons were pleasurable. We were mostly copying and underlining everything that he was writing on the board. But I appreciated that the children were fearing him so much that the classroom remained quiet. After the two hours of maths, the room was reeking of sweat of fear, and dirty sneakers. The kids definitely needed that break in the schoolyard. Aghast or maybe confused, they had that blank stare on their face. You could tell it had been an ordeal, they didn’t even try to play football.

After the two hours of maths lesson, the room was reeking of sweat of fear, and dirty sneakers

I very much enjoyed writing. I loved the smell of my fountain pen. I was always holding it a bit too low, and the ink would stain my thumb. Writing almost had a meditative quality. The pigeons would land on the window sill. I could hear them, but I wouldn’t turn my head. I was just listening to them, and to the pupils writing. The teacher would rub out the blackboard, it was getting a bit foggy with all that chalk in the air, and then he would start writing again. It was hard to catch up with him. The children had aching wrists. The skin on the side of my hand was shining – notebooks were magic, I thought.

But with all that writing, there wasn’t much else going on. By the time we had finished copying the lesson and homework was assigned, hardly any student had uttered a word.

But with all that writing, there wasn’t much else going on

It took a few lessons before the teacher broke the routine. We lined up, entered the classroom, settled down quickly, the register was taken, and then it happened. Do you remember that you had some homework to do, he said. The entirely room froze. I could feel the sword of Damocles hanging above everyone’s head. You had no exercises to do, he went on. I was getting very anxious. I had no idea what could happen to us. We had all seen that other maths teacher throwing the desk of a student through the window of his classroom. The voice of our teacher became weird.

Stand up, now recite the theorems I told you to learn

Did you learn the theorems, he asked. I was keeping my head low. Maybe he would not see me. I repeat, did you learn the theorems, he insisted. The tension was terrible. He then picked one kid. Stand up, now recite the theorems I told you to learn, he said excitedly in a high-piched voice. He had a smile on his face,  his teeth became scary, that wasn’t a nice smile. I couldn’t fathom out what was happening. I felt lost. The kid didn’t dare saying anything. The teacher insisted. The kid said, in a whisper that no, he had not done his homework.

Even the pigeons were silent.

The teacher picked a few other children. They all confessed, one after the other that they had not learnt.

I was still keeping my head low. I became invisible. Everything was fine.

The teacher then exploded, since nobody learnt those theorems, you are all punished.

My heart started beating very fast. I was offended. He had not checked everybody. I raised my hand. Yes, he said. I was shaking, my blood was rushing, my legs were going numb. Yes, he repeated. But sir, I said tentatively, I know those theorems.

But sir, I said tentatively, I know those theorems

Of course, he doubted me. He made me stand up and recite them. I was shaking. But I recited those theorems, the properties, everything. He then told me to sit down.

I didn’t get any praise, but at least I didn’t get punished.

And while the other pupils were doing whatever they were told to, that is to say some more writing, I got to read a book.