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The Class

Author: Hermann Ungar

Translator: Mike Mitchell  

Chapter One

He knew the boys were watching his every move; the slightest chink in his armour could expose him to disaster. In that year he was faced with eighteen boys. They sat in front of him at their desks, two by two, and looked at him. He knew disaster would come. He had to resign himself to appearing to be cruel. He knew that he was not. He was fighting for his livelihood, he fought for every day of reprieve. His severity was one element in a system designed to put off the end. He had to gain time. Any day might prove to be his salvation, for on that very day he had gained he, the teacher Josef Blau, might perhaps, by summoning up all his strength, be able to obtain a mitigation of what he had brought down on himself.
He fought with all the means at his disposal to maintain discipline. Once it was relaxed, everything was lost. Once the first stone was loosened, the whole building would collapse. He knew he would be buried beneath the debris. There were examples he had heard of from which he had learnt that leniency and indulgence were not the way to keep boys in check. That had led to the downfall of other teachers. Goodness and compassion, so people said, were characteristics of the human race; if that was so, then fourteen-year-old boys did not belong to the human race. They were cruel at heart. He knew that once the restraint of discipline had gone, everything would be in vain, whether the reminder of the threat to the teacher’s position or a plea for mercy. There would be no respite once they sensed, even for a moment, that their mocking laughter would pursue him when he was forced to flee, humiliated, head bowed, deprived of his livelihood.
The school was in a district of the town where the well-to-do part of the population lived. He himself came from a poor family. The boys were well-fed and well-dressed. He was aware of the freedom of movement and self-confidence a well-to-do background gave a person, if they enjoyed it from birth, and that it could not be replaced by education, not even by the acquisition of culture and wisdom. He was afraid this was where the first chinks in his armour might appear. He could feel the boys’ eyes scrutinising his movements and his clothes.
He stood facing the class, unmoving, his back against the wall. His eye held them, individually and as a whole. He knew that he must not miss the least flicker of a smile, however secretive, on one of the faces turned towards him. It could be a smile of arrogance and the beginning of the revolt. If he saw it in time, he could extinguish it with a look. He could also find some excuse to punish it. The most important thing was to keep concentrating for every moment of the lesson on the goal of not letting discipline slacken under any circumstances. That was why Blau avoided the habit other teachers had of walking up and down the classroom. It broke the tension, transformed motionlessness into motion, it was a release and released forces he could not control. It blurred the boundary between authority and the uniform block of those subject to it, the system was not rigid any more, movement made it flexible. The two weights could not shift spatially without endangering the balance. He knew that at his very first step the whole class would let out its breath, their taut bodies would relax. In addition to that, his own fixed position offered less chance of exposing his movements to the boys’ scrutiny than would be the case if he were walking up and down. Despite the danger of another pupil whispering the answer, he made the boys answer from their desks instead of making them come up to the blackboard, as was usual. That change, as with movement on his own part, would have created a new, disruptive grouping. The bipartite order would have become tripartite and the straight line of sight from them to him and from him to them would have been diverted by the third point, the third weight.
The classroom door was level with the first row of desks, facing the wall with the windows. The windows looked out onto the playground. Three paces from the desks, in front of the wall to which the blackboard was fixed, was the dais with Josef Blau’s desk. His desk was positioned at the edge of the dais closest to the windows. If Josef Blau, like other teachers, had gone across the room, through the narrow passageway between the podium and the boys’ desks, to hang his hat on the coat-stand intended for the teacher in the corner between his desk and the wall, he would have had his back to the eyes of some of the boys all the time. He avoided this by going straight from the door up onto the dais and across it to his seat. In doing so, he described a semi-circle, not only in his forward movement, but at the same time on his own axis, so that he did not have to let the boys out of his sight. He signed the class register, then positioned himself by the first window in such a way that the wall shielded his back from being seen from outside. He stayed there, facing the boys, until the end of the lesson. He left the room in the same manner in which he had entered it.
His clothes as well as his movements could give the boys just as much cause for mockery, if not more so. Nothing, Josef Blau felt, was more suspicious to well-to-do people than poverty. Even their compassion had an element of arrogance. He knew that good clothes were essential for him, even if it meant he had to make sacrifices to acquire them. At the beginning of each school year he had a new suit made. But despite the most painstaking care lavished on every article of clothing, he was aware — and ashamed — of how poorly dressed he was the moment he entered the classroom. He was so disturbed by the fear that the material on the seat of his trousers or his elbows might be shiny that he pulled his sleeves in towards his body a little and kept his arms pressed against his sides during the whole of the lesson.
Almost without exception the boys were dressed in blue sailor suits with wide open necks plunging to a point above their stomachs. The open neck revealed part of the chest and the white, hairless skin of their bodies. They wore tight-fitting trousers, which sometimes stopped well above the knee, and short socks, exposing even more flesh.
The way the boys were dressed filled Blau with revulsion. He felt it as a rejection of him, of his whole existence, it seemed to be directed against him, to be intended as a challenge to him. He was small and skinny. Since he found anything which flapped loose disturbing, and also from a sense of order, he wore his coat tightly buttoned up. His had thin legs, and he even concealed the skin of his neck with a high, starched collar. When awake he was visited by visions, as embarrassing as they were tormenting, of himself in a sailor suit being discovered by the boys, who mocked and shamed him, not least because of his hairy chest, till he wanted to crawl away and die.
In the boys’ eyes he saw the lustful desire to cross the barrier and come close to him. Since, as long as he did not lose hold of the reins, that was impossible by force, they tried it with cunning. They followed him in the street. In the long run it was impossible, whatever precautions he took, to prevent them from seeing Selma. They must know of her existence, and whilst they were looking at him, their teacher, with the taut expression of obedient attention, their minds might be indulging in lascivious thoughts about his marriage. They might be stripping him of the cover of his clothes, down to his gaunt flesh, and imagining him with Selma in those situations which brought him down to the level of a dog in the street. Once they knew Selma, once one of them had seen her in her close-fitting clothes which revealed her full, rounded shape, then these imaginings would have real flesh to feed on. They must not be allowed to see Selma. Like the commander of a besieged fortress, he must make the land all around, even fertile land, into a desert, using any means to render the enemy’s approach as difficult as possible.
There must be no other relationship between him and the boys than the professional one. The professional relationship had its norms, its fixed procedures. Once he had abandoned the ground on which these norms operated, a return was impossible. The impersonal relationship, independent of the individuals behind the roles of teacher and pupil, would have been replaced by a personal, individual one, and that for good. He had to be ruthless when the boys occasionally tried to entangle him, like a fish in the meshes of a net, in a private conversation. When they approached him, as he stood leaning against the wall in a corner of the long corridor during the break between lessons, he would turn them away with harsh words. He was not unaware of the articles people he had known as a student had published on the relationship between pupils and teachers. But there was no choice. The boys possessed the arrogance of the well-fed, the self-assurance of the well-dressed, their laughter would have destroyed him if they had been able to grasp the weakness they suspected within him.
There was one among them who did not wear a sailor suit. His name was Bohrer, Johann Bohrer. His father was a clerk in a lawyer’s office. Bohrer wore a brown jacket and long trousers. His sleeves had shiny patches at the elbows. His hands were not white like the other boys’, they were red, as if swollen by frost. Josef Blau avoided looking at this boy or addressing a question to him. He felt that Bohrer might suddenly get up from his seat, go up to Josef Blau, his teacher, and pat him familiarly on the shoulder, to roars of laughter from the rest of the class. He was afraid of the possibility that the boys might compare him, their teacher, with Bohrer, with whom they shared the food they brought for the break because they felt sorry for him. No one could understand his fear as well as Bohrer. Although he suspected what the answer would be, there was something stronger than him, something that brought him to the edge of the abyss, that made him ask Bohrer what he wanted to be when he left school. Bohrer did not raise his eyes as he replied in a low voice, as if he understood the shame it would bring Blau, that he wanted to be a teacher. For a moment Blau lost his composure. He felt for the wall behind him. He closed his eyes. But already a rustle of movement had arisen in the class and reached his ear. Was this the end? Did the boys now realise there was hardly any profession open to a clerk’s son who attended a high school than that of teacher? That Josef Blau’s profession was a profession for poor people? Would they see them together from now on, Josef Blau and Johann Bohrer with his hands swollen by frost? Would the shame remain with him for good?
He pulled himself together, his eye turned the restlessness back into rigidity. He realised he would have to resort to harsher measures in order to give his authority a firmer foundation. He thought of the means available to teachers of earlier generations, when they still had corporal punishment. They could have the punishment on one boy carried out by another, thus at the same time creating disunity among the boys, playing one off against the other, just as fate, to whom all humans are subject, plays one person off against another. Corporal punishment was more than other kinds of disciplinary action such as official reprimands, bad marks, detention or lines. They were punishments that did not hurt, that the boys’ arrogance could dismiss with a smile. Corporal punishment would have made the pupils’ physical subjection to the power of the teacher visibly apparent. Blau respected the principles that had led to the abolition of such punishments. He would nonetheless have employed them, had they been permitted, because the boys too would surely have used such means to destroy him. He would not have hesitated, since it was a matter of his livelihood. He had to suppress fits of leniency if he did not want to give up the fight for lost from the very outset. Josef Blau knew that the final catastrophe was inevitable but he fought for every hour of reprieve. He did not know where the horror would start. Danger loomed on many sides, in the world of the school and in the other world, which was not part of the school. Contact between these two worlds would have increased the danger, accelerated the catastrophe. He was aware he was grasping at straws in fighting against his fate. But straws were all there was to use against the law that was against him in all its cruel harshness.
He left the classroom with eighteen exercise books covered in blue paper under his arm. He heard the babble of voices that arose the moment the door closed behind him. Josef Blau could not see the boys any more, but he knew they had got up from their seats and were crowding round the desk where Karpel sat. At fifteen, Karpel was the oldest. Blau sensed that the enmity of the pupils towards him united and multiplied in Karpel. If the end were to come, and if it started here and not at home, the initial impulse would come from Karpel. Karpel’s face had lost the smooth, womanly look the other boys’ faces still had. It was pale and narrow, the nose was prominent and there were blue shadows under his eyes. The woolly black hairs sprouting from his cheeks made them seem grubby. The idea that this pupil’s body also already had male hair was disturbing, especially since Karpel wore the same low-cut suit as his classmates, as disturbing as the sight of a man dressed as a woman would be for a prudish person, since they would be afraid a part of the body with male hair might be exposed without warning.
Josef Blau felt the arrogance of this boy, who despised him, even if he had not yet expressed his contempt out loud. He was surely gathering his strength and his hatred of his teacher in order to let it break out when the time had come for him to give the others the sign to fall on their prey. The pupil had nothing to lose. If he was expelled from the school his rich father would find something else for him. But the teacher was armed. It was not going to be made easy for them under his gaze, which he never took off them, under his eye, which held and saw through them. Karpel lowered his head when Blau’s gaze met his. He hid his fingers under his desk when the teacher’s eye rested on him. Why did he not leave his hands, with their carefully manicured nails, lying there? What could the reason be for hiding them from the teacher’s view if not because he knew that Blau’s nails were not manicured, that the sight of his hands shamed the teacher and that the time to shame Blau had not yet come?
Josef Blau quickened his step. Already he could hear the noise of the boys approaching on the stairs above him. He went out into the street and stepped into the first entrance he came to. He wanted to let the boys pass him. Now they were coming out of the building. They did not see him, standing there in the dark archway. But he could see them, jumping down the steps from the school gate into the street, flexing and stretching their bodies. They swung their books fastened with a strap. They were standing opposite him, Karpel in the middle. Karpel said something and Blau, in the entrance on the other side of the street, heard the voices joined in laughter. Karpel stood there, his hands casually in his pockets, his books stuck carelessly under his left arm. That boy was experienced already. He had experienced forbidden lusts. Perhaps a woman even. Blau was ashamed of his pupil’s experience. Karpel was not ashamed. Karpel took a piece of paper out of his pocket. It went from hand to hand. The boys laughed. Without doubt it was an obscene drawing Karpel was showing them. Perhaps even one portraying him, Blau, their teacher drawn by the experienced Karpel, in a situation which exposed him to ridicule. Josef Blau could not step out, right in the middle of the boys, and confiscate the picture. He would have been crowded in from all sides. Scorn and arrogance in all of them. He would have been greeted with laughter, since for a moment they would still see him, the subject of the drawing, as Karpel had portrayed him. Out here there was no order to which the boys were subject, no order which kept the place facing the boys ready for him. Out here, among people, buildings, cars, in the noise of the street, he would have been forced to create that order. They were standing, their order was dissolved, they were in motion. Out here their victory over him was easy. He did not intend to let them achieve it like that.

Josef Blau waited. When the boys had gone he stepped out of the dark archway into the street.


RRP: £7.99

No. of pages: 180

Publication date: 25.03.2004

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 19 2
978 1 907650 80 2

World English language in this translation.