In school John shares a small room with Erika and Esmeralda, whom Erica refers to as Emka.
Erika is a sweet 30-something who has two topics: her job and her sister. She’s also into fitness, dresses tastefully, has blonde curls and cares about the progress of the students.
Most days she’s fed up because of the pittance that is a teacher’s salary in Slovakia, and because she has to rise very early to teach all day. Sometimes she’s so tired that she slumps into her chair and goes:
‘Today I’m dead’.
John likes her and gets her a flower, chocolates or hand soap from time to time.
She’s also modest, never brags and takes good care of both Esmeralda and John when it comes to navigating through the almost non-sensical bureaucracy of the school.
John finds she genuinely cares about teaching and – important for John – doesn’t expect to be praised. If he would be running his own school, he’d hire her on the spot. If he could afford to pay her a decent salary.
Esmeralda is in school even when she doesn’t need to be in school. She comes in hours before she actually needs to start teaching. When an other teacher shows his or her head she yells: ‘My students are writing a test!’
She likes to show that her students write tests, and a lot of them.
When she sees John she says things like:
‘Some of my students don’t have good grades, but that’s because I actually expect my students to do something.’
‘You know what my friends say about me? That I’m a workoholic!’
‘Last month all my students ran up to me, cheered, and lifted me of the ground.’
‘They draw little hearts on their papers for me.’
When John says the principle never greets him, she jumps up and yells: ‘He always greets me!’
She also often mentions that the students are not doing anything in other classes. And that her students claim the school is only about two subjects: English and mathematics.
Today she’s in a particularly bad mood or is at least putting on that kind of show. John rarely meets a person with so little self-awareness. There seems to be an agenda behind ever sentence she says. John doesn’t know if he should hug her and hold her for a while or to just run away from her as fast as he can.
She storms into the little office that is crammed with papers and old school books and says:
‘Now she tells me I don’t need to teach literature. I was preparing literature all weekend!’
Erica comments: ‘She’s the boss and we are nothing here’.
John gets an uncomfortable cramp in his gut when he realizes whom they’re talking about and says: ‘You know, O seems like a person you can really say these things to.’
Esmeralda goes: ‘No, no, it’s actually fine. I don’t even want to teach literature. I don’t like the way literature is taught in schools.’
John agrees that, generally speaking, literature in highschool is like teaching the kids never to pick up a book again, but in defence of O he goes:
‘She’s got a lot on her plate right now, sometimes she just needs to make decisions fast. I think that’s normal.’
‘I’m also teaching a lot of hours’, retorts Esmeralda.
Esmeralda has three messages.
She works the hardest ánd is the most assertive.
Her students work harder and love her the most.
The other teachers are lazy and incompetent.
John understands that Esmeralda craves love and external validation, but today he’s too tired to supply it. He doesn’t think she’s a bad person, he just hopes she would not feel the need to do this. In a way she reminds him of his own feelings of not being enough.
He starts correcting tests, a boring little chore he has trouble focussing on, and his mind starts to wonder.
Should he tell O anything about this?
On the one hand he’d love to communicate with her. He knows O wants to have a good relationship with Erika. And in a way they do. Erika always refers to O with a cute little nickname, O-ka, a clear indication of at least some affection between the two.
John asks O to walk her home so they can talk a bit, but as expected O has no time. John blurts out something about O coming across as being a bit dominant perhaps and immediately regrets saying anything like that.
He remembers the words of a priest back in Belgium: ‘If it does not serve love, then don’t speak it’.
But it’s too late and he realizes he’s said it for several reasons. Because he wants contact with O, because he’s annoyed and sad because of Esmeralda’s ego masturbation and because it might help O to manage them better. The school is sorely lacking leadership. O would be perfect to lead the school, but she doesn’t want to give up teaching.
O walks home saying: ‘I hate all this fakeness’.
John walks home thinking he’s done one of the most stupid things he could have done.
Love does make fools of men.
In the tram home one of his students run up to him. The student looks as if he’s about to cry, but keeps in the tears, or perhaps John is not reading the student’s facial expression right.
‘I used to be very lonely, but now I finally have friends. I’m very happy, but at the same time I’m also sad.’
‘It can be overwhelming to be happy’, says John.
‘Yes, but in a way I’m still very lonely.’
‘Do you want a girlfriend?’
‘Yes,’ says the student.
‘Are you in love?’
John says that at 15 his biggest desire was to have a girlfriend and that he was very depressed because he didn’t have one.
He advices the student to always clearly state his intentions to the girl, and to somehow create a fun, sexual tension between the two of them.
‘I will certainly try that’, says the student.
John hopes the student feels unburdened and shake his hand.
‘You’re easy to talk to’, says the student.
John just nods.
‘The other teachers say they don’t like the way you teach, but I do’.
The student hops off the tram, leaving John feeling like an alien, a bit more than usual.
A Kurt Cobain quote flashes through his mind as he watches the apartment blocks of Bratislava scud by.
‘I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.’
But the sadness feels like a snake that’s wrapping itself around his heart.