My grandma perpetually tried to convince me I should take up teaching. “Journalism,” she winced, “it is such a male profession. Your father wants you to be an IT engineer? Don’t listen to him either, love. It’s not a profession for a woman. Teaching. Being a teacher is the way,” she tried to convince me enthusiastically.
And she did encourage me playing a make-believe teacher. When me, my sister and my best friends from behind the fence, whom I shared my childhood and a black locust on the baulk with, played teachers and made our own registers and curricula, she watched us with pride. She was undoubtedly a wise woman: seeing a world war, communism and modern politics have shown her how to be reasonable, and the small town she lived in didn’t really provide a background for her to be a feminist in the modern sense of this word. That’s why her advice shouldn’t probably be taken for granted. Ourselves, we believed in girl power and preferred different stories, not always fully girly: mums and children when we were kids, eternal “mature” students who didn’t really study but mostly had fun, then imagining we were superheroes or soldiers, or planning our own kingdoms, or making puppets and telling our stories in a fanciful, homemade theatre. Years flew by, the black locust blossomed imperturbably every June signalling the end of the school year, we started coming home later and later from our walks, and we detested getting up too early for the classes with the same passion.
None of us became a teacher. Well, correction: one of us almost did, but she changed her mind when she was choosing her university a year ago. Another one is still in the making and having frequent updates from her Instagram, I can assure you she won’t go down that underpaid and under-appreciated career path. Myself, I’ve never believed I could be a teacher. I might look inconspicuously, but when I’m enraged, I have the power of throwing people down the stairs, or a variation on that, which certainly wouldn’t take my career far: throwing a little Mary or John out the window is surely not the best idea. These days, when parents often come up to teachers to complain that their children have to learn too much, I would lose my patience every ten minutes; and if not with pupils, it would be with their solicitous old ones. That is why I really admire those who decided to take up this never-ending toil for the sake of education – because there were a few which I owe a lot, and I know I could hardly do the same thing for the younger generation. And to all of them, cherished in my memories, I dedicate this mighty lexicon.
In the year five of primary school, a new Polish teacher was to be introduced. After holidays, a bunch of twelve-year-olds – exclusively dressed in festive black and white, as Polish kids don’t normally wear uniforms – gossiped in the gymnasium, whispering over older students reciting patriotic poetry for the anniversary of Westerplatte attack. Our old teacher must be pregnant. No, she has cancer, I heard. She went on sick leave, and there’s a replacement. The braver and naughtier of the pupils would utter, that the older friend of their friend told them she was a real bitch.
And then, she came in for the class: a young, enthusiastic lady, Miss Heart-On-Her-Sleeve. And the public admiration of her persona, utterly iconic in my memories, started from the very first minutes: she didn’t ask to find a pair to enter the classroom when we were going in. We could hurry in and pick our own seats – and that was crucial in the only room with vintage desks, these with the benches attached. There was the lingering opinion that it was the easiest to cheat during tests in there, as if the classroom number seven supported the true student life. I went to the back, which was a decent choice, highly in demand among my classmates – a good student was a necessary ingredient of cheating, too, for we provided the answers. But it wasn’t the test that truly puzzled me; it all started with a poem. For the beginning, one of the wittiest poets of the nation was chosen, with his “Request for a Song”.
“So, can you tell me what the poem is about?” she asked and looked up, having finished reading out loud. “Anybody?”
In the group 5a, nobody would ever respond unless me, my namesake or her best friend Julia started. I was a little show-off; I lifted up my fingers, enhancing my well-bred, uber-confident student persona, and went with, “Well, in the poem Tuwim tells us –“
“Wrong,” she said. I was so surprised that I trembled with annoyance. Me? Wrong? In the group 5a? In a literature class? Sorry, I was never ever told I was wrong during Polish classes. I must’ve misheard.
“Well, I didn’t even say anything,” I blurted out.
“Revise what you said. There’s a distinction between the author and the speaker. They aren’t always the same,” she explained. My thirteen-year-old-self was deeply offended – dare you correct me and I’ll hate you forever – but it sparked a thought: this woman would be an excellent literary critic; for what I wrote was, in my opinion, the quality works of an undiscovered national bard, to say the least. Mind that, on the other hand, my Polish writing abilities at the time touched my current English ones. Yet, I felt that extra-exhibitionist need of unravelling the soul raving about the summer captured between my notebooks. And her correcting me, at that very point, was my first lesson on writing. Make a clear distinction between yourself and your characters, or otherwise posterity will merge you with your stuff – and no matter if you’re like Wyspianski, who wrote about the wedding of his best mate and was all symbolic and sacred, or more like Mickiewicz producing poems to his beloved M; if you are lucky enough to enter the curriculum, students will not only hate your works, but you’ll become their very personal enemy. Even so, I was ready for getting her opinion: first thing I did was bringing her my notebook and a print-out of the first few chapters of a novel, never finished, which I was busily typing up every afternoon after school. She asked for a few days, as I wrote too many pages to digest them just at a glance, just like a legitimate literary wannabe should. After one of the classes, she stopped me and asked to sit down.
“You have a lot of growing up to do,” she laughed, “but don’t give it up.”
“Do you think it’s a good book, miss?” I wriggled on the chair, looking at my neatly calligraphed notes and print-outs in her hands.
“Well, don’t be afraid of writing on,” she said, “and, wait, there’s something…” She turned a few pages and stroke one in the middle, straightening it.
“This poem really gives me chills,” she pointed out. It was a poem for the victims of the collapse of the Market Hall, an event that left a dozen of people dead during a trade event in Silesia. A weirdly conscious child, I watched the TV news every night with my parents, and this is where my inspiration came from. “It makes you terrified, in a good sense. I’ll give you a few years and I’m curious to see where you’ll lead it,” she claimed.
When she left, we mourned, refusing to cooperate with our previous teacher for a half of the year. Miss Heart-On-Her-Sleeve was everything we wanted; and whoever got the bad exam results this year, blamed it on the return of our ex-polonist. She was also our first insight into the Legend, who I met in the first year of the lower secondary, and who she was friends with.
Everybody feared him, and rightfully so. Many stories were passed by from the older colleagues to us, primary school pupils. Once, he bantered badly with one of the cheekiest guys in the third year of the lower secondary, leaving them in a bottomless shame that even the best “your mum” joke thrown in response could never erase. He used to scratch his fingers over the blackboard to make students silent. He’d throw people out the classroom without giving them a second chance. He shouted, and he was unfair, the fables stated. And when he was walking on the second floor in his heavy Martens shoes, if you were listening carefully, like Winnetou sensing the hoofbeat, you could apparently hear his footsteps. Oh my, the Legend! His broad shoulders, spiky hair and permanently black clothing gained him the silent, terrified respect. I used to believe he was secretly a goth; or perhaps not so secretly, since he played Rammstein to the group 1b, as another myth stated. All of us were so panicky when he ordered us to write about “A Parable of the Poppy”. And it wasn’t because of Miłosz, no; he and his Nobel prize were actually pretty okay. The fusillade of mediocre grades, which our older acquaintances were moaning about so often, was about to be thrown at us, and there was no saviour. I sat over my notebook, wrote a few thoughts, and put it away to eat my dessert. Then, struck by a sudden eruption of inspiration, I penned what I thought the speaker wanted to say and packed up for the next day. And then, the judgement day came. The Legend started checking notebooks from left to right, and my little heart started pounding. If you looked around, you’d see these young souls, slouched over their desks, afraid to make a sound. When he approached me and picked up my work, I slowly looked up. This time, he didn’t stop by us: he walked up to the blackboard, still reading. He moved towards his desk, sat down and started writing something in my notebook. Everybody watched, astonished, yet nobody dared to move. The cloud of darkest thoughts surrounded my mind as he closed the notebook, clapping its hard covers loudly, and walked up to our desk to return it to me. We breathed with the silence of twenty astounded teens, so unlikely you might think it’s impossible, and suddenly, the class clown asked, “What did she get?”
“One,” he uttered with just a word. I was about to break down – was it possible to get my first non-passing mark ever in my favourite subject, which was usually assessed to those who didn’t bother? The river of tears rose – I was ready for a true flood. Finding the new reality overwhelming, I picked it up and opened to read. And I almost fell down the chair: on the page, there was a six, the highest mark, with the praise about the style and reasoning below, alongside some questions about my opinion.
“Well done,” he uttered in two words when he saw me beaming. That is how our unusual mutualism started – I had fun in classes even if I’d never have admitted that. My friends, on the other hand, developed a nasty habit of not doing their homework at home. In such case, which became a daily bread, we would lodge on the wide marble windowsill on the second floor, hidden in the nook by the toilets. I’d order one of my favourites on the left, one on the right, and the other one on the edge, and we’ll start writing – because, honestly, you do things for your friends. I was writing three variations on the topic at once during the lunch break, weaving the sentences like three separate braids. Once, The Legend noticed my serious mistake – I slipped off, forgetting to adapt the style of the writing to my friend’s.
“Who helped you?” he switched to interrogative tone, having put down her notebook and crossed his arms on the chest.
“Nobody,” she claimed, looking up with endless fear.
“You didn’t write that yourself,” he insisted, and she kicked me under the desk. “Don’t lie.”
“Um, well… My mum helped me,” she corrected herself quickly, tried to improve her hopeless situation at least a bit. The Legend looked at her homework again, then he looked at her and smiled, to fix his eyes on me afterwards.
“Please tell your mum that she has quite an elegant writing style,” he chuckled and walked back to his desk with sheer amusement on his face. Nevertheless, he didn’t punish us, for some reason – and I continued being a personal word stylist for my BFFs when they asked, which happened almost every day. Then, I learnt to code-switch when I write, which I consider another literary tip.
But it wasn’t just about little or no boundaries he set for us. He told us once that Robin Williams in “The Dead Poets’ Society” inspired him to break the rules of teaching – and I’ll certainly remember him as truly bohemian, because the comparison was so accurate it would make Keating proud of his fan. It was about the entertainment and no pressure whatsoever. He used to give us fun classes in performing poetry, when we had to attack the flower on the windowsill as if it was our ex, at least, while reciting the finest verse written by the classics. And his monthly in-class essay topics were never conventional. Of course, he wouldn’t let us get away with skipping the reading list or not understanding Romantic writing – yet he would always let us get away with our imagination. He wanted to know our opinion, that’s why the book-associated questions were relating the character, or the idea, to modern times. If we threw in our beliefs and interpretations alongside the knowledge, he would never mark it down. Me and him lived in some sort of peaceful symbiosis, even if I used to be unpleasantly stubborn.
When we were about to graduate from the lower secondary, he said, “Kasia will never speak up until she feels the barrel of the gun on her forehead, and even then I’d be doubtful.” That was the time when I decided that being a show-off is not cool – that, however, went to extremes that evolved into a whole lot of pain; from a girl brimming with confidence I hid away between the pages of my books and secluded myself for a long, long time. But even seeing my peaceful coolness, he used to encourage me a lot. For some reason, a good essay would earn me a lot of freedom and a patient understanding of my free spirit. I could sketch over the margins of my notebooks, or write quotes and sketch on the back. I was perilously open about it, trying to be a rebel in the style of a creative good student who pretends not to give a damn. Even If I was drawing my landscapes, angels and swirls on his watch, he would never say a word. He reassured me instead, “I allow you to do that because I know you always catch up, and you’re creative enough. That needs stimulation. Draw whatever you want as long as you write alongside. But be aware that in the high school nobody will let you get away with that.” How wrong was he, oh, how wrong? I would say to him now: with all due respect, sir, but you don’t really know the dark world out there. You’ve never met Professor Mould.
She was the complete opposite who we were introduced to during high school times. She earned a completely unflattering nickname due to her surname, and platinum blonde hair that had an appalling green tint in the artificial lights of the corridor. And I managed to get myself in trouble on the very first day, when my best friends and one of the guys from the different group were chit-chatting, waiting for the break to finish. We were truly annoyed – instead of ordering us to write, she asked us to draw a comic book, and the guy was just taking the mickey of us.
“Is this a bloody arts class?” my friends scoffed. “It’s seriously unbearable.”
“What is so wrong with her, then?” he asked.
“Her surname fits her, mate. She’s like a real nasty mould. She constantly reads her notes in the sleepy tone of voice until all of us actually fall asleep. But then, she asks questions. She makes you need caffeine,” I complained.
“Every teacher asks questions,” he remarked.
“But it’s like playing a game of guessing a word on her mind. Grasp a synonym, not a concept,” I carried on raging.
“And seriously, they told us to be brave and creative in writing. What’s left of that?” my friend, who had also been taught by the Legend before, threw her opinion in.
“The platinum mould,” our colleague giggled. Completely unaware of my nervous ticks and hysterical signs, he’d carry on mocking her – and when he turned around, he faced the polonist herself. She just tried her best to curve her lips in something vaguely reminiscing a polite smile and passed us by. And she fired the synonym gun at us as soon as we began the class in revenge. Being used to the unorthodox methods of The Legend, I needed to force myself back to ordinary. Soon, we figured out the key to the “snap the equivalent” game, as we noticed that among her lexicon of personal synonym collection, “sublime” was the most likely to describe every single literary work. If she asked what we thought of a poem or an extract, all of us would answer, “it’s indeed sublime, professor”. She always counted this as the correct answer, completely unaware of the sarcasm levels attached. We discovered another shortcut, too; the sister of one of my friends was taught by Professor Mould back in the day. And we discovered that the notes she dictated were exactly the same as those which she read out for five years in a row – so everybody just photocopied said notebook. Now, I think her methods had some effectiveness – I’m not sure if that’s how you prepare students for the final exams, but it gave me the chance to explore and read a lot on my own. For that, I need to thank her, but the slight disappointment remains – she was so promising, letting us write an essay on a topic we thought of ourselves in the first class! Yes, I wrote a letter to John Lennon, no, I don’t think she was particularly impressed with me. However, she took a sabbatical when we were in our second year, and this is where Professor Grey comes in.
She was a librarian; most of us have seen her before. With her Lennon-style spectacles and oversized cardigan, she depicted the most stereotypical image of somebody who spends most of their time locked out between the bookshelves – and some of my classmates used to hit back on that in revenge attempts. After the lazy note-copying that Professor Mould provided us with, we felt slothful, to say the least – but there was no note-dictating, she trusted in solid note-making instead. She used to repeat, “We’re behind, people, we need to catch up,” even if we believed that we were ahead. When any other teacher wasn’t present and a class was cancelled, instead of sending us home or extending our break, she’d plead to the head teacher to give her a class slot. We complained a lot. We felt it was breaching all the children (or teen) rights, Geneva Conventions and European Treaty alike; and it was often repeated that if she could force us to come in during Christmas, New Year or any national holiday she’d invite us to skip a festive dinner for a true Polish lesson marathon. In the school with places like Heaven, Hades or Narnia entrance, there were plenty of spaces to hide and pretend you had no clue about the substitute class. Yet, after all these complaints, something truly magical and unexplainable happened. The final year started and all of us were getting ready for the final exams. Easily to predict, in our humanities-focused class, there were many, many people who wanted to approach the Matura – the finals, or exams of maturity, as they are often called – with extended Polish, too. Moreover, we’ve heard the news – Professor Mould was coming back to take over for the last year. You can never please a student, and unsurprisingly, we weren’t delighted at all. Even thinking of the lady who brought Hypnos in to give good literature a nap time was making us cringe; and suddenly, it made us express veritable endearment for Professor Grey. Most of us would secretly go to her when preparing for Polish exams, although she kept on refusing. She named our sneaky attempts as “unethical for her and unfair for our regular teacher”. Nevertheless, I wanted to share my presentation idea when I was preparing for the oral exams. She was curious what motivated me to choose a topic that nobody else dared to tackle – the comparison of the 19th-century columnists with modern ones – which had few reference sources, forcing me to analyse the subject on my own. And I had an excuse: I needed books. There was no better person than a librarian to help.
“Well, professor, I want to be a journalist myself,” I confessed. She smiled widely.
“And what sort of writing will you do?” she asked, and what struck me was her tone and the words she used. She sounded as if she was sure that I would write indeed. I lightened up and fixed my fringe, looked at my notes, and then straight into her eyes. She believed.
“Culture, if I get a chance,” I started spreading my options as if I possessed the finest craft to cut them out of the exceptional material, “News writing is appealing to me, too, and having an opinionated column sounds like a dream.”
“I can see you doing stuff like her,” she assessed, pointing to the magazine cover for which one of the columnists I picked wrote, “that feminist feuilleton. You could be the new generation,” she smiled. I snorted.
“Thank you,” I lowered my eyes. The compliment from her was invaluable.
“I read the articles you’ve written for the school newspaper,” she continued, “and enjoyed it. It wasn’t just me – all of the polonists were impressed. You have a spark. Don’t give it up. Ever.”
It took a few months, counting from that moment, to get my first serious newspaper internship. The preparation for the finals took over my life completely, and the same presentation brought me to another teacher. Miss Talented-Graduate was a daughter of my dad’s friend, and at the time, she had freshly graduated from Polish philology at uni. I felt I needed to discuss my progress with somebody, and since I could count on Professor Grey less when she declared her loyalty to the Polish teachers tribe of the Upper Secondary School of General Education No. 3, she offered to meet up with me. Our dads set up the date and time, and on a white, snowy Fat Thursday afternoon (which is a doughnut-filled equivalent of Western Pancake Day), I got an invitation to a little, cosy flat in Golebiow, the northern Radom district. And our conversation didn’t just conclude on the topic, which we discussed thoroughly. The discussion started circling away from it, and afterwards, we spent the entire evening discussing literature – extra-curricular, too – over doughnuts and tea. She was impressed by the fact I loved to create – she had heard a few things about me as a pre-introduction, so then I showed her my stories, sketches and a jewellery portfolio. I, on the other hand, was captivated by her dedication.
“I tried journalism, you see,” she told me, “but it didn’t capture me. You have to love what you do to never work a day in your life.” Even if there was no open position for her in the city we lived in, she believed she would get in, and refused the thought of escaping the city which isn’t really liked by its inhabitants. “That is a cowardice,” she claimed, “to complain about the state of things and escape instead of trying to make an impact. I’ll try my hardest to become a teacher instead.”
A year after, I was messaging the childhood friend, mentioned above, who had just started high school. Among other things, and having discussed over-hashtagging her Instagram pictures, she started complaining about the Polish teacher that was squeezing the life juices out of their group. I had known a few opinions on different polonists around the city, so I started throwing surnames around in hope to offer some survival advice.
“Let me log into my register,” she texted me, to send me a message with Miss Talented-Graduate’s surname a few minutes after. I couldn’t believe my eyes – and I was so happy to see that her hard work paid off. Because it needs to be stated: besides testing my knowledge and giving me feedback, she talked me into a few more things. Don’t give up, train, learn, develop, take opportunities – and the destiny will be in your favour.
And then, I looked at my friend’s texts with a dollop of nostalgia. All her complaints will fade away with time, I thought, smiling to the screen. Frankly: when I look back, there’s no annoyance that used to clench my fists and light up my fiery tongue (and a pen or keyboard, for that matter) from time to time, and all that’s left is warm memories. I guess I understood the power of those who took up the hard toil on such an unpleasant ground as me. To start with, I got the analytic background for being well-read with all of them. A few writing tips came along, too. But the most priceless class turned out to be the lesson on myself. Some days, when I type my prose up feverishly, I even like to think that the fate had a generous hand for polonists for me – and I think if I was somebody else, I’d be envious of that staggering luck that shaped Kasia into a follower of her dream.