The Teachers’ Lounge: Stories
An original translation of new Hebrew fiction from Bernstein Prize-winner Dror Burstein, author of ‘Kin’
The Philosophy Teacher
We had a Philosophy teacher who said he was a student of Epictetus. We were ignorant and didn’t know who Epictetus was or when he lived. Years later, when I checked and realized that he died around two thousand years ago, I recalled the Philosophy teacher and his lessons. Our school administration did not look kindly upon lessons in Greek philosophy in a state-religious institution and therefore the Philosophy teacher was forced to claim that Epictetus was among the sages of the Mishnah. He said, there’s Antigonus, there’s Aristobolus, thus there’s Epictetus as well. This wasn’t strange at all. They could sell us anything, and sell they did. I recall, for instance, a Pythagorean Theorem that does not exist, which the Math teacher taught us, in the days just before he was stricken with forgetting. His Pythagorean Theorem was valid not just for right angle triangles but for all triangles. The errors we made following this geometrical theorem will forever accompany us as a mark of disgrace. When the time is ripe, I will recount his mathematical innovations. For now I’ll mention just a few claims and proofs. He claimed, for instance, that the original Pythagorean Theorem, the one dealing with right angle triangles, also applies to the Bible. In what sense—he didn’t specify. He tended to be late and excused this with explanations like: I was stuck at home because I was calculating the height of the Tower of Babel using Trigonometry. I found cosine based on the data in the Bible. He also invented types of numbers. Like the almost-prime numbers. An almost-prime number, I remember, is a number divisible by 1, itself, and one additional number. For instance, 4. Almost prime. 9 as well. And 25. He resented that 16 is not an almost prime. If it were, there would have been a beautiful series. At night he labored over his calculations, in an effort to find the mistakes. He had a shoe box he would schlep everywhere. He would come into class, open it a crack, and remove a slip of paper. And whatever was written on the slip he’d teach.
Only the Math teacher is not my interest here but rather the Philosophy teacher. The Philosophy teacher was hostile toward the Math teacher due to the freedom the latter assumed for himself with regards to the wonders of the Greek mathematicians. He would sometimes come into Geometry lessons and sit, visibly full of wrath, and listen, and calculate. The high point was when the Math teacher argued that a straight line is a triangle since the sum of the angles in it is 180 degrees. The Philosophy teacher was furious. “Yes?? So then where is the third side?” he roared. “Why, there are 180 degrees in a square as well, so is a square a triangle? What are you teaching them, Grossman?” The Math teacher didn’t panic. It’s a thin triangle, he said. From the middle to the right is one side, and from the middle to the left—a second side. And the whole line is the third side. It’s a closed triangle. And the sum of the angles in a square isn’t 180 degrees but rather 360 degrees, he said calmly. You’re making a fundamental error. I suggest that everyone work in the area in which he is an expert, the Math teacher said and opened the door, signaling to the Philosophy teacher to leave. It seems to me that he had a similar shoebox as well. Apparently this was distributed as a holiday gift to all our teachers.
And thus we learned the teachings of Epictetus, who was among the Land of Israel’s great Talmudic sages. If a student were to complain about a penalty or failure on a test, the teacher would quote: “Remember that you are but an actor in a play whose character is determined by the playwright; if it his desire that it be brief, so it will be, and if long, long it will be. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, it is upon you to perform this too properly, and so too the part of a cripple, a sovereign, or a private man. This you must do—to play properly the part that is given to you. The choice of the part is in the hands of another.”
One day the Philosophy teacher did not appear in class. A few days later the administration notified us that due to circumstances in the teacher’s family lessons in Philosophy would no longer take place. We were glad and that was it. No one thought to go and find out. For us the teacher was a duty, however much an often interesting one. But once he disappeared and stopped coming he simply ceased to exist, and his empty slot turned into free time. Only ten years later, when I studied Philosophy at the Haifa University, did I recall him, when the professor—who held a truly frightening resemblance in his profile and hairdo to Baruch Spinoza—mentioned the name of Epictetus in passing.
I was reminded of the Philosophy teacher, whose name I had already forgotten, and a few second later I noticed him. He seemingly emerged from out of my recollecting head, he was truly there in the flesh. He sat in one of the first rows of the lecture hall and listened, like me, to the lecture. Despite the ten years that had passed he hadn’t changed much, at first glance. At the end of the lesson I gathered up my courage and went down toward the first row to greet him. To my alarm, when I got close to the bottom of the stairs I was able to ascertain that half his face had been completely disfigured, as if someone had pressed a red-hot iron to its left side. Only his green eye had been spared from the disfigurement, and it looked straight at the board. The old teacher diligently copied the lines the professor had written, who now passed by him, and clearly averted his gaze in order not to look at the gruesome face. I stood there, a bit above him, nailed to my spot. I understood that in a moment the teacher would rise and turn to go up the stairs, and then he would see me, and recognize me. I wasn’t sure I would be able to withstand a face to face conversation with him. I would have to, I knew, ask him about the circumstances in which his face was disfigured. This thing had to have taken place then, during the time at school. And I understood with certainty that this was the reason for the Philosophy lessons coming to an end. Suddenly it seemed to me that I had read that this teacher was a member of some underground organization. There was some issue with the Temple Mount. And the Philosophy teacher, who served in Combat Engineering, tried his hand at assembling a homemade explosive.
The teacher continued sitting there. The hall had already emptied out almost entirely, except for two or three students who remained, half-awake, in the top rows. I said to myself, I’ll go up to the teacher and place my arm on his shoulder. And I went down a step and almost reached him, when from his direction a sort of pent-up, choked roar could be heard. A sort of unclear “No … no,” as if it were a hoarse lion that roared the “no” from the depths of its belly, no, deeper than the belly, as if from a cave. He rested his hand on the shoebox that was next to him. I froze on the spot. From the top step I heard the voice of the Philosophy professor, who stood there and watched me the whole time. “He’s waiting for you to leave him alone, he can’t get up and go to the bathroom while you’re standing on top of him like that. He’ll explode soon.” The old teacher opened the shoebox a crack with one hand, and still didn’t turn his head toward me. A groan bubbled up from his stomach like a pot with hardboiled eggs that had been left over a high flame. I knew I had to get out of there, but I didn’t move from my spot. I waited for him to open the box already. I wanted to look, to see what was inside.
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