Before the dawn

She had liked watching the star-dotted sky as a child. The different luminosity – from faint greyish white to sparkling bluish light – and the different density – from barely discernible in what looked like a hazy cobweb to the neat shapes translated into wagons, maids, arrows or whatnot. She had also asked all possible questions to her father: why stars were sometimes sparkling, why some were small and others big, what was beneath the earth if that was what was above, how long it would take to get to one of those dots and what light-years meant. She confessed to him that she wanted to busy herself with stars and planets for the rest of her life – she was, with 11, past the stage when she had wanted to become an actress, ballerina, bus driver or, as everyone around her seemed to be making much of, a communist party member.

Her father told her that if so, she would have to study mathematics at university, and be very good at it. Then perhaps she could do one further year to specialise in astronomy and hope to get a job with the astronomical observatory. She set herself the goal and went on about it with no side-thoughts on the way. It was a handsome goal too, not everyone declared they were going to become an astronomer, and not everyone was going to study mathematics. Kids and parents were very much obsessed with a few trendy faculties, like medicine, law, or engineering. She was different – mathematics had something clever, stylish and pure about itself.

For four years she took extra private lessons in maths, which brought her to the point where she felt reasonably secure at it. In those four years she had distanced herself from her father and his books so she had come to resent what she called academic idealism and intellectualism and found that studying mathematics, therefore being anchored in science, would make her different. If she still couldn’t help finding language or literature easy to do well, she quickly dismissed that resemblance to her father as purely genetical but immaterial for her future life. She pronounced herself against ‘reading all day’ and escaping in a world of plots, characters of literary trends, and despised the subjective nature of such inclinations, which was making performance, talent or outcomes so hard to measure in the ‘real world’. In the domain of science, her talents would be objectively, therefore undeniably, acknowledged.

She was a good high-school student in one of the best classes. Their maths teacher was a ridiculously short guy, dark-haired and with a dark thick moustache crossing his face and matching his dark penetrating eyes. He was not just ridiculously short, but also sometimes ridiculously passionate, or maybe contaminatingly so? He got quickly mad when kids failed some easy maths problem, as if their failure was an insult to the beautiful but remote galaxy called Mathematics. He would be silent for a few seconds, then out of the blue he would swirl around and chuck the piece of chalk against the blackboard, or hit the nearest desk with his palm in sheer frustration, his eyes drilling holes in whoever dared to glance back. They would all freeze. Then came the worst – his words.

‘This was a maths and science school the last time I checked, not a vocational school for losers!’

‘Vocational school’ was a tough denomination. Vocational schools meant the kids with the most vicious tongues and the most violent behaviour, with dirty classrooms and long hours spent in the gloomy basement workshops busying themselves with hammers, files, nails or screw vices. And of course no eligibility for university. Your life was over. You didn’t need to worry about matching up the pieces of your future – it was all nailed down.

During the first two years of high-school, leading to the 10th-grade exams, her performance in maths was mixed. Sometimes the solution stood at the end of a red path. Other times however it hid behind tangled bushes; she trudged forward inch by inch only to get hopelessly stuck at a point where she could see nothing ahead. When the solution was presented in front of the class, she realized she had trudged past the junction where she should have taken another path but hadn’t seen it. The failure to see it annoyed her again and again. It was not the self-reproach that she had missed an obvious and trivial solution, rather the dissatisfaction finding that her orientation senses were not sharp enough; that where others found the resources to march ahead as across a flat plain, open to the sight and to the searches of the mind, she inevitably ended up in that dim tangle of bushes that left her no way out.

She knew that, for all that, she was good at it. She was good at maths and she was clever. But then such repeated midway failures were continually gnawing at this awareness, cornering it and demanding a definition of what exactly she was good at, or what exactly her ‘being good at it’ meant. She would have liked to see her capability confirmed and matched by palpable, measurable results, and instead what she produced was demonstrations left hanging and a bunch of average marks. It felt like she was still far from breaking through.

The maths teacher, whom she had made the mistake of telling she wanted to study mathematics at university, was all eyes on her. He teased those who were worth teasing and had a somehow curious tolerance for the others, which of course stemmed from his having no interest whatsoever in their performance, nor in themselves personally. With her the teasing tended to be bitter and – she sometimes found – unfair. The tests he administered were tough and even when nobody in the class had found the right solutions and got good marks, he seemed to single her out for his bitterness. Not always publicly and not always ruthlessly. But the amount of worry he showed as to her performance sometimes puzzled her and other times angered her. ‘Why doesn’t he get off my back?’ she would tell herself.

Once she was solving a problem at the blackboard and got stuck, with him standing next to her, and he half whispered ‘what’s the matter with you recently?’, his eyes no longer sarcastic, but terribly dark. She got tears in her eyes and an overwhelming feeling of being on the verge of breaking down. If anything was the matter with her, it was the perpetual blind alleys of her searches and his perpetual hammering her with reproaches, sarcasm or dissatisfaction. Whatever she did failed to come up to his standard, it seemed. To his standard for her, that is. If she liked a guy who happened to be in a poorer class, she ‘had no scale of values’. If she didn’t know the answer to a problem, ‘something was wrong with her’, she collected ‘mediocre’ marks or was ‘indulging herself’. But what was she supposed to do, for as far as she knew she did every home assignment he assigned them to do and had no teenage private life to interfere – like parties, dates and the rest. ‘Mediocrity’ would have meant that there were others much better than her, whereas the tests he administered produced no medal winners. Why was she, of all, ‘mediocre’?

Mediocrity was secretly one of her biggest fears as to her future life. Whatever she was going to do, it simply had to be better than that. She had to do something that would confirm her again and again and place her above partiality and safe from subjective judgment – that was why she despised human arts, wasn’t it? And now came this obnoxious teacher – whom she otherwise couldn’t help loving – and reinforced only her failures, making her performance look mediocre.

One day she attended a parents meeting with some of their teachers and he said a few words about each of the kids. When he got to her, he looked her straight in the eyes, as only he was capable of, and said,

‘Whoever can carry a grain of sand shall carry a grain of sand; whoever can carry a mountain shall carry a mountain’.

She had a short ‘wow’ privately – his by now familiar ability to handle words, ideas, parallelisms and contrasts proved so powerful again – but the next second she felt baffled and disappointed. Why had he said precisely that to her? Why, instead of telling her what was good in her performance, had he chosen to say something a) enigmatic, b) impersonal, c) seeming to imply that she was not carrying her mountain and therefore she was taking it easy, and d) still very, or too, personal. As if what he had to say to her was not just a reproach for unsatisfactory results, but also a reproach to her as a person.

The 10th grade exams were nearing every month. With these exams you either passed or you flew off to some ‘vocational school’ and then to the horrible socialist working sites. There was no accommodating in the next best category of classes according to your exam score. That is why the pressure was so high. Only about thirty per cent of them would make it to the senior years. She started getting weary of the pressure of doing the sometimes huge home assignments, of experiencing the failures to reach the end of the demonstrations and of facing the teacher’s sarcasm. She got home from school looking forward to the one hour or so that she hoped she would be still getting at the end of the day, after homework, only for herself. That hour was the air she needed to breathe. It was just that it was free from pressure, free from having to prove something, time for herself doing ‘things that she liked’ – reading, listening to Lennon and wishing she’d been born to be a teenager in the 60s, or clandestinely listening to the BBC and repeating words after the announcers in an as British accent as possible. She had taken up that hobby about Englishness since her great passion for the Beatles and Lennon and she would decipher their texts and jokes and also try hard to imitate their intonation or accents.

She often daydreamt of being an English girl in the 60s, meeting Paul, John, George and Ringo and being the pals that she didn’t have in her real life, and then falling in love with Paul – later replaced by John with his cleverness and his special intellectualism. She started thinking much of anything that was British, from football to green lawns and to BBC English. Her English teacher at school soon noticed her interest and gave her more materials to read, then asked her if she was willing to go to school contests. Of course she was, it was all piece of cake and part of her daydream. She was successful too, and with no effort at all, since all the preparation for such contests was done after the tiring home study tasks for physics, chemistry, biology or maths… in her ‘time for herself’, that is.

At school during the breaks a colleague would always ask her about what she had lately read about England, if she had seen the British film the night before, and how was this or that word pronounced correctly in English, adding he wanted to find out these things directly from ‘experts’ – she was the ‘expert’… She would laugh at his ceremonious manner but feel flattered nonetheless. Then one day, in their usual chattering, he asked her – or asserted,

‘You’re going to study languages, aren’t you’

She said ‘of course not, I’m going to study mathematics, but how did you come across this idea?’

‘Well, obviously you’re so good at English, I thought it would be piece of cake to you!’

She stood gaping for a second, then reassured him she had different plans, dismissed him but went on chewing it. She chewed it for days, until she realized he was right. The only opposition to the idea came from her old rejection of her father’s world. She still didn’t want to be one of ‘them’. But this career held more chances for her to do something above mediocrity than mathematics, and the spell it exerted on her made any effort in the language direction feel like an exciting occupation within the ‘time for herself’ and not a chore to be discarded in relief at the end of the day. In this profession she was sure to get the highest scores and appreciation that would acknowledge her abilities, despite the maybe somewhat subjective, non-scientific nature of the domain.

The coming months were spent in the exultation of certainty. Now she had the answer to her dilemmas, the resolution of her doubts and the liberation from her ordeal. Of course, she still had to cope with the maths teacher’s furious retaliation, but in time it abated with the awareness that he had lost her. She for one was left with her first great victory in finding her way out of the tangled bushes.

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