The Teachers’ Lounge: Stories
An original translation of new Hebrew fiction from Bernstein Prize-winner Dror Burstein, author of ‘Kin’
The Substitute Teacher
From time to time a substitute teacher would come into our class without any warning. And for a moment the doubt would arise, is this the right class and the teacher—a substitute teacher, or perhaps the teacher is the right, regular teacher and the class isn’t the right class, the class is the one that has been substituted, or got the wrong room. And once in fact, as a prank, our entire class went into a different room, and the class that was supposed to learn there went to our classroom, and so the teachers for the two classes came in and for a moment didn’t know if they are who they are, and if this is Math, and if they’re substitutes, but for whom. And one of the teachers once said, a second after entering and giving us a strange look: “I feel like I’m my own substitute teacher.” Back then I thought that he’d gone crazy, today I know what he’s talking about.
But most of the time a regular substitute teacher would enter the classroom he’d been sent to, and would teach what had been foisted upon him in order to pass the time, our time. Most of the time we knew that the material a substitute teacher was teaching was of no benefit to us and so we sat there staring straight ahead. But sometimes from the power of this freedom we actually learned things we couldn’t have imagined in the substituted class. Yes, to tell the truth most of what I remember from school I learned from the nameless, faceless substitute teachers, the guests who happened by for a time. Exempt from teaching the required material, they would loosen their ties as it were and talk about what really mattered. The sun, they said, how does it not burn up all the coal inside it? A comet, they wondered, what is the force that causes it to stop, like a ball that’s been thrown and at a certain moment returns to the hands that hurled it upward, millions of kilometers back to the expectant hands, like a child who forgets a key and comes back? Guinea Pigs, how do they know to yawn and clean their delicate fur? Did you all know, asked one of the substitutes, that all the stones in the Western Wall were once at the bottom of the prehistoric Tethys Ocean and are actually shells and fish bones that were crushed into limestone? And time, the substitute teacher suddenly added, time—what is it at all?
Not so infrequently our parents would serve as substitute teachers. Budget cuts in the Ministry of Education caused the principal to turn to our parents so that they might donate their time and erudition. Otherwise the classroom would be empty. Empty of teachers, that is. And then I would need, the principal wrote to our parents, to come down from my office and teach. But I’m so old, he said. The knowledge I’ve acquired is no longer up to date. That is, erroneous. Everything in my head, he wrote, is nothing but nonsense. And my jokes are already moldy just like those sandwiches that you, the mothers, wrap for them and afterwards forget to remove from their bags.
And thus, one day, my father appeared in our classroom. I knew of course that he had taught in other classes over the years. The quote about the sun and the comets I heard from friends in other classes that had heard him. That’s what he taught them. That’s what he loved—Astronomy. He was a jeweler by trade, but precious, polished stones, he thought, no one wants to hear about that. Just buying and selling. Plus the stars, he told me, they’re diamonds too. Large, unpolished, rare. And there really are diamond stars, he said. Dense coal. It’s a diamond the size of a city, dark, that orbits through space. Or perhaps it, the diamond, stands there, and the black space is what orbits under its tip, its south pole, like a record under a needle, and no one hears this music. I heard this music, he said to me, once, in a dream. It’s like the music of a finger running over a small, thin glass at two in the morning. The description ignited the students’ imagination. Night had already fallen, and there were among them those who went out into the courtyard and raised their heads to the sky, searching for the solitary diamond stars, cultivating for the first time the thought of growing rich. Girls stuck fingers and earlobes out into the black sky as if they were trying on a piece of jewelry at the goldsmith’s shop. Our school’s giant telescope was removed from the shed and pointed upward. My father passed among the gazing students and deciphered astrophysical formulas from memory, settled in one breath cosmological controversies such as why the night sky is dark despite all the burning fire, despite the light returning from the faces of the giant diamonds and multiplied tens and hundreds of times, and why doesn’t the moon fall when it’s full, and so heavy, loaded down with so much light. The questions faded, and the world, with each word he said, became clearer and more mysterious at the very same time.
I sat in the classroom, in my seat and looked at the all the students scanning the dark sky, and at my father conducting them like a silent choir. Nebulae and star clusters emerged, and I understood that we weren’t under the school’s dome of heaven, but rather inside the school planetarium, which my father skillfully set in motion and claimed that it was the actual sky. I turned my gaze to the desk. Outside the students began to fall asleep. I knew that in another moment I too would fall asleep on my desk, and that I would awake again in the morning in the middle of another lesson. I wanted to ask my father a simple question regarding one of the moon’s craters, a crater located inside a crater inside a crater, and at its center there is a mountain taller than the tallest mountain on earth. But as is the way of those brief moments between wakefulness and sleep nothing but a few ridiculous, meaningless mumbles escaped my mouth, and I heard my father laugh from the courtyard and I fell asleep.
We walked down the path leaving the school, up the street in the direction of the abandoned Arab village Um-Khalid. The giant, hollow sycamore tree, which was the official symbol of our city and flew on all the flags and on the mayor’s famous, ever-present knit shirt, stood there under the stars, some of which were above its top and some of which rested on its branches and on its leaves like those birds who come down to rest after a long journey of migration. The tree was hollow, and there’s barely a child or youth in Netanya who hasn’t spent a few minutes inside it, or, as in my case, a few days, overall. You could stand there comfortably with another two or three friends, and sometimes you would go inside and find other residents there, sitting on footstools, small tables next to them, upon which were rolls and olives. And there were also a few hollow branches that children could lay in and fall asleep. You could place a book inside them or a teapot and a few cups. And the tree, in the summer, would, from the power of the sun’s heat that built up inside it, warm the water, and you would drink a cup of tea in the tree. The wind would whistle in the hollow branches. My father extended a hand to me. We climbed up the tree. My mother was already there. I saw that our teapot rattled with a light boil above the heads of my two sleeping brothers, who dozed folded up near the base of the tree, in the spot where the tree kissed the earth.
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