“...Lieutenant Calley was sentenced to ten years in military prison...”
Krzystof Jonek yawned.
“...President Nixon reduced his sentence, and simply restricted Calley to the grounds of Fort Benning, Georgia, where he had his own private apartment.”
I scanned the rows of dead, resentful eyes, set hard like rows of barbed wire. If police herded the gypsies on the streets into closed vans, would these students wonder where they took them?
I shut my folder, and stuffed my notes into my backpack. “That’s it.”
Before I reached the door, Krzystof Jonek stepped in front of me and blocked my way. Beside him loomed Radek.
“Why you not pusspun eksam?” Jonek demanded. “Vee can not pazz.” His glare menaced me.
“Excuse me, I’d like to leave the room, please.” If he hit me, he’d be sure to break my glasses.
He stepped aside.
* * *
Feet slogged through the sleety puddle inside the Institute entrance. Wisps of fog clung in the darkness to the corners of the building.
Miss Woncior stood by the road in the milky-white fog. She wore a green ski jacket. She had sat placidly amidst the maelstrom of her classmates’ rage. “Hello,” I ventured.
A calm smile lit her pale face, her cheeks pink from from the cold. “Oh, Dr. Lawrence!”
We stood, wordless, a moment. “What’s your literature paper about?”
“Alice in Wonderland.”
“Oh!” I hadn’t expected that topic. “How did you pick that?”
“I am interested in nonesense.”
Well, this ought to be the right school for her. “How did you decide to come to this institute?” I asked.
A pensive scowl flitted across her face. “I was registered to write the university entrance exams, but I got sick. The school year started. My father arranged for me to come here.”
“Now that you’re here, how you like this institute?”
“If you live with cripples you learn to limp.”
* * *
“Good morning, Doctor Lawrence.” Ireneusz Szczpaniak wore his usual baggy brown trousers and green corduroy shirt. He was one of the few who always attended class. “Please,” he asked, “I want to talk to you about the book I have choose to write my paper.” He held out a tattered green paperback. “Norwid: A Biography.” His face glistened. “He was a great poet, but a very poor man. He was born as an aristocrat, but he was a common worker. He even lived once in New York City.”
“This course is English, about English writers.”
“Ah, you mean I should look for some book in English?”
“A story. A novel.”
Three wrinkles creased his forehead. “May I write my paper about a poem?”
“As long as it’s in English.”
“Yes,” he nodded pensively. “I understand. Thank you. Dr. Lawrence,”--he stared at me--”my father is very proud that I study in this institute.”
I managed a smile. “What does your father do?”
“He’s a coal miner.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “Where?”
“In Gliwice.” He paused. “Our Gliwice newspaper says this institute is one of the best institutes for study of English.” He raised his hand in emphasis, and I noticed the frayed cuff of his corduroy shirt.
“Well,” I pondered how to phrase this question. “Now that you study here, do you still think that this is a good institute?”
His face bloomed. “Dr. Lawrence, I think this is a very good institute.”
“If I do not study in this institute,” his eyes met mine, “I cannot have you as my teacher.”
His eyes met mine. I glanced away, embarrassed.
“Dr. Lawrence? You are interested in Polish literature, so I think you will like this book.” He handed me the book I’d refused to let him write about, gave a little bow, turned, and disappeared.
* * *
Miss Gelner marched past my lectern, and pulled off her wide-brimmed black fedora. Her short black hair hung straight around her broad, glum face.
I wiped my glasses, put them back on, and opened my notes.
Other students flocked round Miss Gelner, their voices a chorus of urgent whispers. Tense eyes looked up at me.
My hand tightened on the edges of the lectern. I opened the roll book. “Miss Adamczyk?”
But it was Miss Gelner’s husky voice that answered, “Here is letter!”
I looked up. She marched to my podium and thrust a sheet of notebook paper at me.
I looked at the letter, written on a sheet torn out of a notebook.
Miss Gelner held her ground beside the lectern. “From Dean Fularon!” she announced.
“Let’s start class.”
“You pisspun exam,” Gelner demanded. She half-turned to face the class.
“That is letter you want to pisspun exam.”
I scanned the big, open loops of writing. Had they forged it? I shoved the letter in my pocket and bent over the lectern to find my place in my notes.
“Harding’s administration,” I began, “was the most corrupt in American history.”
Miss Gelner stopped at her seat. “You pisspun exam now!”
“I’ll speak to the dean.”
Grim-eyed Jonek rose from his seat. “You say letter, then you pisspun! That is letter!”
“Harding’s mistake was appointing incompetent political allies,” I began.
“You have letter now!” Gelner called out. She stood doggedly, jaw thrust out.
“The dean can send me a letter on his letterhead, not on some scrap of notebook paper!”
Eyes blazing, she sat.
I took up my notes again, “The patronage cronies and personal friends Harding appointed to positions of authority were unqualified, innocent, or just dishonest.”
* * *
Puddles of stale tea pooled on the English department table. I pushed aside the cups of dead teabags.
As usual at this hour, the afternoon fog was closing in outside the window.
Kevin Rolfton, the English teacher from London sat in the corner of the office with Agnieszka Szymanek, the English teacher from Czestochowa. They mocked their students. “And Miss Zegarek!” Kevin carried on. “I asked her a question, she opened her mouth, and what came out was...”
They exploded in laughter. “Like she has marbles under her tongue!” Agnieszka nodded deliriously.
Then I remembered Miss Zegarek reading her Romeeoh and Jewelyet paper to the class, and grinned.
The door burst open.
Miss Bloch, chairwoman of the English department, aged thirty-five, looking fifty-five, with tea-stained teeth, dressed in her habitual grey polyester suit, stepped in. “Oh!” her hectic eyes darted round the room, then fastened on my face. “The students talked to Dean Fularon and...I am ashamed...I am so embarrassed!”
“He has postponed your American history exam.”
“That letter was real?”
“Yes!” her grey-flecked hair fell forward as she nodded. “The students requested it. He agreed!”
“Without talking to me?”
“It is an insult to you!”
“Postponed till when?”
“I’ll be gone.”
“I know, I know.” Miss Bloch shook her tousled head.
“But am I still giving the literature exams?”
“Oh, he did not cancel that.” She stood there a moment, wooden, then turned and vanished.
Agnieszka eyed Miss Bloch coldly, then turned back to Kevin.
Kevin went on with their satire. “I asked Miss Bartoszewska, ‘Do you prefer coffee or tea?’ She looked around like a cow at a crossroad. How did she pass the entrance exam?”
“Oh, she didn’t,” retorted Agnieszka.
Kevin’s face sobered. “Mmm?”
“I failed her entrance exam myself,” Agnieszka said.
“Buuuuut...her father came with money for Brother Kynski.”
“So Brother Kynski found someone more...obliging...” she said, with a spiteful glance at the door, through which Miss Bloch had just disappeared, “to replace me as head of the department.”
* * *
A crooked branch reached through the darkening sky outside my window. An open can of herring soaked in oil, a lump of cheese, a chunk of yesterday’s bread...a cup of tea...my evening meal spread out on my desk.
I pulled out the tattered green-covered book Mr. Szczepanek, my eager student, had given me. Flipping the pages I met a pair of piercing, dark, deep-set black eyes staring at me out of an old photograph.
When he was twenty-one, he left Poland for Germany to study sculpture on a private scholarship. He was never to return home. He lent his passport to a political suspect in the German capital, was found out and imprisoned, and the Russian Embassy in Berlin withdrew his passport. At first, in Italy, he tried to earn his living as a draftsman and sculptor. From Italy he went to Paris, where he was forced to earn his living as a simple manual laborer. In 1854, he wrote to Bronislaw Zaleski, ‘Humanity entered the path of history through sin. To redeem itself, humanity must labor throughout innumerable millennia. But labor is redeeming only if it is accepted freely, and not as a scourge imposed by the fear of starvation or punishment. Work accepted with love is the highest expression of human freedom.’
Work accepted with love... I stared out the lone tiny window at dim lights in the apartment block opposite. And me? What had I done with my precious freedom? Someone’s shadow flickered in the faint glow of a third story window. You see the glow, you know someone is there, you never know them. Years pass, you’re gone, and someone yet unborn sits here and sees a shadow flicker in the window across the yard.