The first three rows of seats were empty. After three months of classes, this was just what I expected. I flicked the light switch. No light. The bulb on the ceiling had burned out a month ago. Students slumped in the four back rows of my dimly lit classroom. Outside the window, the afternoon fog gathered.
Glum Miss Plochewski with circles under her eyes dragged herself through the door and collapsed into a seat by the door.
Miss Ozieblo pushed her long auburn hair out of her eyes, stared at my legs, turned and whispered to her friend. The two glanced at me surreptitiously and snickered.
“Quiet!” I snapped. “Time to take the roll!”
“She comes,” someone called.
I wrote “Absent” in the roll book...
“Present,” a slim, lively girl in the back row called with a smile.
The same voice! I looked up. Yes, that slim girl, Miss Zuziuk, had answered twice in a row!
“Excuse me...you...yes, you in the last row, are you Miss Zubek or Miss Zuziuk?”
“My name is Agnieszka Zuziuk,” she grinned vibrantly. She spoke English with perfect pronunciation. She wore a chartreuse halter top. Tassels dangled over her bare midriff like a bead curtain.
“Why did you answer for Miss Zubek? Do you have a split personality?”
“She’s my friend.”
“And is your friend in this room?”
“She’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“Absent,” I wrote. I shut the roll book. Three girls in the back row stood up and walked out.
I opened my folder, and began, “Today...”
The class representative, Jolanta Gelner, thrust in the air. She wore a thick steel bracelet. Her short black hair hung straight around her round, determined face. “How much qveshchuns on eksam?” she demanded.
“I told you yesterday! Ten.”
“Vat eggsam iss about?” Krzystof Jonek growled from the back of the room. He lounged back in his chair, his face a pale mask.
“The lectures and the book.”
“Whole book!” an irate woman’s voice protested.
Miss Ozieblo whispered to Miss Gelner, with an accusing finger thrust at me.
“This school not have long exkam!” Miss Gelner announced.
“My exam will cover everything we have studied in the course.”
“Excuse me,” Miss Zuziuk’s livewire voice snapped out. “Why don’t you just give us some questions to study like our other teachers?” Her lips pursed in a smile. “Then we can answer them in the exam.”
“Vee kenn not study so much!” Miss Gelner said. “You giff us qveshchun now.”
“Vee are stoodints!” Miss Gelner’s voice took fire. “Vee know vut skool duz!”
“I am a teacher,” I drew myself up, “and my final exam covers the semester’s work. And I don’t give out the questions before the exam.” I snapped my folder shut.
Stanislaw Radek gestured to Jonek, his finger a dagger.
Dressed in her usual blazer, Miss Woncior sat quietly, reading her notes.
“The lecture starts now,” I snapped. “Shut up or leave!”
* * *
How had I landed in this place anyway? When I finished my Ph.D. in English, university jobs had dried up. My wife Marie had already left me—I didn’t need much to live on any more. I didn’t want to get a job, take orders, and help build American capitalism. I got a job at St. Norbert’s House, Toronto, teaching Vietnamese refugee women. I drilled them in English to buy groceries. “Lettuce is a dollar and ten cents a head. Tomatoes are fifty cents a pound.” How readily they laughed. For ten years I taught the tax-cutting Conservatives axed St. Norbert’s funding. I got a job at the Westinghouse training center, teaching “writing for business” to management trainees from Bangkok and Bombay. Westinghouse’s bright future in the Orient sat before me in charcoal grey suits, eyes riveted to computer monitors as I taught them “I regret to inform you that your proposal does not meet our priorities.” Then the Bangkok stock exchange crashed, the Asian financial boom fizzled, and Westinghouse gave me a four month sabbatical. My friend Daryl Gonczyk told me about the new institutes springing up all over Poland. He gave me an address: the Czestochowa Institute for Foreign Languages and Economics. Here was a chance to finally put my Ph. D. to use.
When I arrived in September 1994, I was assigned one course in American History and one in British History in additon to my specialty, English Literature. I’d never studied British history before.
* * *
With the German teacher from Stuttgart, Gilbert Druant, at my side I trudged up the slush-covered steps to the steel door of the institute cafeteria.
At the entrance sat a gypsy beggar woman in a red kerchief, a baby on her lap. I walked past her without a glance.
A sleepy woman yawned behind a row of stainless steel urns: one full of sodden red pulp--beets, mushy carrots, mashed potatoes, and limp hot dogs, split from boiling.
“Two beers,” I said.
She reached down for two bottles. “Eighty thousand.”
I held out a green hundred thousand note.
“To the end of the term!” Gilbert raised his glass in a toast.
“What’s to celebrate?” I asked, and dumped the rest of my beer into my glass.
Gilbert’s grey eyes sparkled behind his wire-rimmed glasses. His favorite shirt--the one he wore every third day--was orange with blue palm trees. “But next semester you will be going back home,” he said.
“Back to Buffalo and Westinghouse.”
“What’s love got to do with it, got to do with it?”
Tina Turner sang and gyrated on the video screen. A tall girl in a white pantsuit at the next table stared, rapt, at the screen, tapping her foot to the beat.
“Are all the Polish institutes like this?” I asked.
Gilbert shook his head. “There are jobs at my other institute, across town. It’s an old school, not like this one. Students there are better than the ones here. I told my boss about you. He invites you to pay him a visit.”
“Nooo.” I bit my lip. “I still have my job at Westinghouse—teaching management trainees from Malaysia how to write business letters.”
“What’s love got to do with it, got to do with it?”
I took a gulp of my Zywiec.
* * *
7:45 pm. I shook the snow off my coat, and laid my shopping on the table of my apartment block’s communal kitchen. The chair wobbled. Unwashed dishes, stale bread, dried cheese-rinds. Old knife scars crisscrossed the table’s wooden surface. Glutinous half-eaten stew congealed in a tin pot. My colleagues who lived on this corridor had left this mess. I shoved the dirty plates aside with my elbow and took out my bread and cheese.
I poured boiling water into the cracked cup and set the kettle back on the burner, crusted black with the overflow from decades of boiling pots. The teachers who used this kitchen...what had made them despair like this?
Somewhere beyond the window, a dog barked.
* * *
I flicked the classroom light switch. Nothing.
From the doorway, Krzystof Jonek’s narrow-set eyes swept the room. He lingered on the threshold, turned and spat a curt word to short, stumpy Radek, his constant companion.
Miss Plochewski dragged herself in the door and dropped into a seat. She wore a multi-colored leather hat with a broad visor and a high crown, like a jockey’s.
Jolanta Gelner, the class representative, strode up the aisle, scowled and whispered to Miss Paczkowska, an aloof brunette with moody eyes shadowed in violet.
I opened my notes.
Miss Gelner thrust her stubby hand into the air. Short-cropped black hair framed her scowling face. “My clessmates talk about this course,” she declared. “Vee never before study course of history of United Stetts. It is too hard. You give exam nekst year,” she announced.
“You want me to cancel your exam!”
“Not cancel, postpunn.”
“I won’t even be here next semester.”
“Dean can find other teacher to give for us exam,” Miss Gelner shot back.
“It’s just five months,” Miss Zuziuk sang out from the window. “That’s not long.”
“The administration are my bosses. They told me to give you an exam this month.
“Vee vill talk to dean,” Miss Gelner barked.
“Good idea. Talk to the dean,” I snapped back. “Now...”
“And venn dean say you give eksam next year?” Miss Gelner butted in. “Then you give next year?”
“If the dean agrees, tell him to write me a letter,” I said.
“Then you postpunn eksam?” I had a vision of Miss Gelner staring down from a guard tower on emaciated prisoners trudging through the fog.
“I do what the dean tells me,” I said, and opened my roll book.