The Literature Teacher
By Riky Cohen
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
The day after Mom came back from her second stay in the mental hospital, a new literature teacher took charge of our class.
Nili Yaffe, our regular teacher, had gone on maternity leave, and after two weeks of temporary substitute teachers, Hayuta walked into the classroom. She was a tall woman, bent and slender, her skin pale, almost milky. Her short hair frizzled around her face. She was wearing blue baggy pants and a beige buttoned shirt. The way she trudged into the classroom, her body language made positively clear, this teacher was going to have a hard time getting and holding the attention of thirty-five teenagers. And there was a problem with her voice. We all heard it the instant she first spoke: the soft but crisp voice that came from her throat, like a feeble bleating, the vocal version of a vanishing cloud. How could she possibly shout at us with that voice?
At home, Mom slept for long periods. During the few hours she was awake, she simply stared at us through empty eyes. “It’s the pills they’ve given her,” Dad said. “She needs time to get used to them.” When she wasn’t sleeping, Mom sat on the faded brown sofa and smoked in exemplary silence.
Two months in the restricted ward, plus three weeks and a day in the open ward. Then the committee of senior doctors convened and made their decision: “Discharged.”
Dad, who tried to resist them, vehemently protested, argued, and reminded them of what had happened the last time they had discharged her. “Because of you, I’m still paying for what she did. She’ll ruin me,” he snapped at them. But he finally had to accept defeat, and she came home. Or at least her body did.
Despite the oppressive warmth of June, Mom lay in bed for days on end, covered by the thick down comforter, the one stuffed with real feathers they had been given as a wedding gift. Smoking and plunging into a state of distorted reality filled with delusions, she was awash with the drugs she took twice a day.
If I go home and find her like that, I comforted myself, I’ll just go to my room. We won’t even need to talk. My room will be my very own private kingdom. I’ll take my meals in there, and shut myself in with the rotary phone that I’ll drag from their room with an extension cord. I’ll be all right with my radio cassette player and books. I’ll simply fortify my own kingdom of sanity. The door will be locked against her insanity, and she will never be allowed into my fortress.
“At least she doesn’t scream for the whole moshav to hear anymore,” Dad said, relief in his voice. He would come home in the evenings, take off his big work shoes always spattered with mud, and put both feet up on the living room table strewn with her ashtrays. “Perhaps you could tidy up, just until she feels better,” he suggested irritably to me. “Just a little. I’m not talking about spring cleaning, or even washing the floor. Just a little tidying to make the place feel more normal. And you’re fifteen now, you know. It wouldn’t kill you to make us a little something to eat now and then.”
I used to watch her falling into deep sleep, and then waking, staring for long minutes at the wall facing her, getting up in her blue robe with the red flowers to go to the toilet and then coming back to sprawl on the bed, asking for “a glass of water, please.” Her voice like a child’s, as if her condition had made her voice regress to its childhood state, back to the days before the calamity struck her.
Before the calamity, she had worn different clothes and enjoyed walking around in them outside. She used to wear a camel-colored corduroy suit, tight and trim. Then there was the green silk skirt with the purple flowers, the purple bouclé vest with the belt, and the brown, knee-high boots. There had been passion in the way she treated clothes, especially when they were new. She’d possessed a longing that verged on the religious. Once she had caught me in her room, standing in front of the mirror, dressed in her silk skirt, which was several sizes too large. I’d bound it to my waist with a shoelace so it wouldn’t fall. I was terrified to see her standing at the door, but she wasn’t angry. Instead, she laughed. She actually laughed. Then she hugged me. I had rarely seen her laugh.
The scandal with the new literature teacher erupted in the third class she taught us. She walked into the classroom timidly, her purple shirt with the shoulder pads enhancing the pallor of her skin. For a few long moments she tried to shush us, her receding, fading voice repeatedly imploring, “Quiet, I want to begin!” Then she declared, “For those of you who have forgotten, I am Hayuta. Today we will start learning a new story, one I have a special fondness for, but before that I will hand back the papers you wrote about the previous story.” She plodded awkwardly among our rows of desks, handing back the papers with an embarrassed smile, the black frame of her glasses even thicker close up, her skin so thin it seemed almost transparent.
Racheli Nur was the first to get her paper. She looked at the first page, then straight at me, knowing I’d be watching her. Her lips opened and shut, mutely exclaiming, “A+”. Racheli’s reddish, acne-ridden cheeks shone even redder than usual. Hayuta’s body was stiff and tense by the time she got to my table. Her eyes avoided mine as she blurted my name, very nicely, in a feeble, apologetic tone. She handed me the stapled pages, filled with my dense, uninhibited handwriting. The grade had been written in red pen: A-.
Hayuta returned to her table, scatter-brained and fatigued. She collected another stack of stapled papers and began to distribute the new story, In the Prime of her Life, by S.Y. Agnon. Vocal protests flared from every direction.
“Stories for religious schools,” Nuriel chuckled. It had been many months since he’d sat with me in recess behind the gym, on a large rock that hadn’t been moved away during the renovations. Twice I had brought him a book to borrow because he had offhandedly said something or other about a book he’d read. Both times he’d tucked the book under his tracksuit jacket, embarrassed by the thought that anyone would see him holding a book. The last time we sat there, I took a folded page out of my pocket and asked him if he wanted to read something. I remember how my legs dangled over the edge of the rock, and that by the time I noticed that, it was too late. He had taken my story and shoved it into his jeans pocket. Then we shared a silence until the bell tolled. That was the last time we met there.
“Who wants to be the first to read aloud for us all?”
Only Racheli’s hand went up. Hayuta sat in her chair, looked about, and said, “Start reading, please.”
“‘My mother died in the prime of her life,’” Racheli began, reciting in that hateful voice of hers, oozing with festive articulation. ‘“She was barely thirty-one years old. Few and harsh were the days of her life. She sat at home the entire day and never stirred from within.’” The sound of a snore surged around her and Racheli stopped reading and looked at the teacher, flushed and amazed. I raised my eyes from the page and also looked. Hayuta was sitting in her chair, her body slumped limply. Her head was tilted a little to the left and her eyes were shut.
“Hey,” Motti cried. “Look! The teacher’s dead!”
The snoring sound had grown louder and now echoed through the classroom, audible through the laughter and cries. The noise lasted only a few brief moments until Hayuta woke. She seemed confused at first, like an embarrassed child. But then she came to and quickly, wrathfully, tried to subdue the rowdy commotion. “Racheli, go on reading. The next person to utter a sound goes straight to Principal Yitzhaki’s office.”
“So that’s how you get bored to death,” Eitan guffawed.
“Out!” Hayuta raged, offense distorting her face, which flushed under the stubbornly pale skin.
“‘How I loved her voice,’” Racheli read on, her voice mellowing. “‘Often I would open her door just to hear her ask, Who’s there? I was still a child.’”
The teacher’s eyes wandered among the desks until finally coming to rest on me. She seemed to see right through me when she said demandingly, “You. Remind me what your name is? Please read on. Thank you, Racheli… Well? The class is waiting,” she scolded.
I picked up where Racheli had stopped. “‘Once a relative of my father’s was called into town and, seeing my mother, took her for a nurse, for her clothes misled him and he did not realize she was the one who was unwell.’” I read mechanically, reciting like an automaton, yet my heart and thoughts were not with the written words, but with the teacher who had fallen asleep. Perhaps she had had a fitful night. Perhaps she had a baby who kept her awake. Our previous teacher, Nili, had been fond of me, and had been in the habit of reading answers that I’d written on various tests to the whole class. She had never given me less than an A-. Who knew what this one would be like?
In those days, everyone in the moshav talked about my mother’s condition, and the stories chased us everywhere, within and without, half-truths and terrible, humiliating fallacies. Then there were the usual questions: “So where is your Mom now? Still there at the mental hospital? What’s her condition anyway?”
I had a regular ritual that I stuck to. I would close my eyes, picturing in my mind’s eye the image of a new mother. Normal, vital, or possessing the sort of insanity acceptable to the world. The sort of mother who cleaned incessantly, exaggeratedly, scurrying about the house, uttering an endless stream of instructions, scolding me for not clearing the dishes, even administering an occasional spank. A mother like our neighbor, Tzipora with the cropped bleached-blonde hair, who lived across the street. Slender, frenetic, her house always squeaky clean, she was ready to welcome guests or gossipy neighbors at any hour of the day. Her two little children, for whom I babysat whenever she and her husband went out, made sure they drove her out of her mind every day, smearing chocolate on the sofas or roaming through the house with dripping popsicles, her on their heels, roaring, “But I’ve just washed the floor!” Running to catch up with the little one, dealing him a smack. Once I had seen her weeping bitterly in the garden behind their house. When she saw me, she waved her hand, telling me without words to go away.
Or another neighbor, Sylvia, mother of Ilanit, a girl I occasionally played with. She was a tall, emaciated woman, an elegant introvert with a soft, almost silent voice that seemed to conceal a hidden share of frequent pain, as if someone were there, inside, constantly shushing her. Sylvia used to look with watchful eyes while I played with her daughter, as though she was afraid I’d pass to her daughter a pinch of what had contaminated my home. “The problem with reading too many books is that you end up forgetting about real life,” she once said to her daughter about me. “Don’t take your example from her.”
After that, in my mind I dressed Mom up as imaginary figures. Women from television, strangers from the street – I replaced her image with theirs for a minute or two. But then, when I opened my eyes, she would still be there. Sometimes she looked back, her ashen eyes reflecting scalding grief, and remained mute. I used to look at her as she twitched her mouth silently in what looked like involuntary movements. She’d sit on the sofa, unspeaking, for hours at a time, smoking. Then, suddenly, it would begin, those horrible twitchings, filling me with horror, stifling me. It looked as if she desperately wanted to say something, but her voice refused her. It was as though she was straining to roar the terrible sadness that was stuck in her throat, struggling with it, trying to spew it out on the world, the walls, and me.
In the next literature lesson, it happened again. Hayuta walked into the classroom and immediately ordered us to open our notebooks. Failing to silence us, she declared, “Pop quiz.”
Everyone shouted, “Nooo!”
She gave a wan smile. “Then I ask for silence.” As if obeying her own instruction, she stood still, looking scatter-brained, and was silent for a second or two until she came to her senses and asked Galit, who sat behind me, to continue reading from where we last stopped.
Galit obeyed, her voice melodious, as she articulated the words. “‘My mother seemed to have forgotten her pains,’” and again that venomous laugh sounded from the back of the classroom. Hayuta had leaned forward on the table, her head in her hands, and immediately fallen into a fleeting yet deep sleep, her expression folding into another, fossilized, frozen world. This lasted for two or three minutes, which seemed to stretch into at least an hour. Then she was back with us, ignoring what had just happened, gently shushing the hubbub, and going on with the class.
“What do you think the deal is with that Hayuta?” Racheli asked me in the corridor during recess.
“Must be tired from her work, her kids. How should I know?” I muttered.
Racheli came from a family with a dad who worked in bank and a mother in a government office. She lived in a villa on a moshav by the shores of Mikhmoret and always wore brand names and Reeboks. Now, she gave me a mocking, dubious look. “I don’t think so. Something’s off with her.” She stared at me as if I was supposed to have the answers. Suddenly she changed the subject, her eyes sparkling with a new idea. “You think you’ll get admitted to the advanced literature program?”
“Sure,” I replied, nervousness in my voice. “Why are you asking?”
Hayuta left our school at the end of the year, despite our having become used to her fleeting naps. We’d even stopped being noisy in the classroom. Once, we planned on being utterly silent, the whole class, the moment she fell asleep, and not uttering a sound. Galit had come up with the idea. Eitan had been tasked with timing Hayuta’s nap. “Three minutes and twenty seconds,” he cheerfully cried. I will never forget the look that sparked in Hayuta’s eyes. Defeat and insult, free of rage – a sad acceptance of that weird, abnormal, external thing forced on her. I think she even knew that we called her behind her back, “The Nutty Napper.”
She gave me an A+ on my test on Agnon’s In the Prime of her Life. Beneath the grade she wrote: Excellent, well done. I showed it to Racheli, who strained to wear a forced expression of indifference.
She said, “She really liked you, that Nutty Napper. We all saw it from the start.”
I never made it into the advanced literature program, despite Hayuta’s recommendation. The class administrator and the principal both explained that I was much better suited to the high school’s secretarial and bookkeeping program because of all the other low grades I’d earned during the time that my mother returned home from the mental hospital. Dad was happy. “It’s better,” he said, “that you learn a real profession.”