Ali Salami

The School Principal: A Novel by Jalal Al-e Ahmad

The moment I sauntered in, cigarette in hand, I was more standoffish than a cat at a dog show. Lost in my own thoughts, I stood like a statue. After giving me the nod to park myself, the head of the Culture Department took a glance at my hand and then went back to scribbling something fierce. He tried to give me his ear, but I’d already plopped the draft order on his desk. We didn’t trade a word. He leafed through the papers like he was looking for a needle in a haystack, then let out a sigh big enough to blow out a candle, and said, a mite ruffled, “We’re packed tighter than a jar of pickles, sir. Just can’t do it! They’re handing out decrees like candy at a parade… Just yesterday to the Director-General…”

I had less patience than a hungry cat at a fish market. Cutting him off, I said, “Would you mind terribly giving this here document a once-over?”

I flicked my cigarette ash into his shiny ashtray, sticking out like a sore thumb on his desk, as tidy as a pin and orderly as a Sunday school. Everything was in apple-pie order, not a dust bunny in sight – except for my cigarette ash, sticking out like a skunk at a garden party. He grabbed his quill, scribbled something on the order, and signed it off. I was out the door before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’. Done and dusted.

This fellow really got my goat, with all his airs and graces. Clear as day, he was a greenhorn in the big chair. He sighed like he was in a melodrama and looked you straight in the eye when talking, as if your ears were just for show. I’d shelled out 150 tomans at the personnel office to grease the wheels for this order. Had a recommendation in my pocket and had been running around like a chicken with its head cut off for two months. I knew it was a done deal whether he liked it or not. He knew it too. I guess he thought kicking up a fuss was like consoling himself. But it was water under the bridge. The deed was done.

In the general personnel department, they drummed up a new rule as sudden as a thunderclap in clear skies: to make sure the decree wasn’t as empty as a banker’s heart, I had to trot the decree over to the Head of Culture. This was a fresh wrinkle on an old shirt – since when did anyone dare to question the high and mighty decisions of the overall personnel department? It’s a ministry, not some backwater office dealing with paper clips and pencil shavings.

Deep down, I was brimming with more confidence than a cat with two tails, but I reckon the whole kit and caboodle of this mess was thanks to that blasted cigarette, which I’d fancied financing with the extra coin I would obtain from my newfangled job. And let me tell you, I was as fed up with teaching as a mule is with carrying heavy loads. Ten years of yammering about the alphabet, watching the gobsmacked faces of folks’ kiddos over the silliest of silliness… jabbering about “Istighna” with a “ghain” and “Istiqra” with a “qaf,” droning on about Khorasani and Indian styles, the oldest Dari poetry, and teaching them how to spin yarns like “Word of the old.” It was enough to turn a sane man’s brain to porridge.

So, I thought to myself: why not become a director? As the head honcho of a primary school, I wouldn’t need to teach, wouldn’t have to fiddle-faddle between noon and afternoon breaks, and wouldn’t be obliged to hand out sevens in re-exams, just to save my precious last days of summer – the sweetest slice of the pie.

That’s why I set off on this adventure. I went around, pressing palms with those in the know, hunting for a job that wasn’t as dry as a dustbowl. I put my fate in the hands of the personnel department, and we both grinned like Cheshire cats about the deal. One day, they handed me the address of the school, to see if it was to my liking. And off I went, as eager as a beaver in springtime.

 

**

The school stood like a lonesome king on a sunny hillside, two stories tall and as fresh as a new dollar bill. It was a gift from a fella with more money than sense, a culture-loving chap who fancied himself a patron of the arts. He’d built his mansion right smack in the middle of his own land and declared it a temple of learning for a good twenty-five years. His grand scheme was as clear as daylight: he imagined roads sprouting up like weeds, folks traipsing to and fro, all the hustle and bustle turning his land from a cheap nickel a meter to a king’s ransom. And of course, he’d slapped his name on the school wall, blue as a robin’s egg and fancy as a peacock, making sure everyone knew who to thank.

But the place was still as quiet as a graveyard. There weren’t enough neighbors around to chat about hoisting up the pants of Saadi and Baba Taher, or to stick another page from the ‘History of Poets’ on the alley walls. The school sign, though, you couldn’t miss it if you were blind in one eye and couldn’t see out the other. It screamed ‘Power to those who wish for anything!’ with a lion and sun emblem so big it looked like it was about to topple over at any minute. The sun lady perched on its shoulder, eyebrows joined like long-lost friends and a whip in hand, as if ready to take on the world.

The land around was as barren as a banker’s heart – nothing but desert for miles, as flat and dry as a pancake. To the north, there was a line of pine trees, throwing a shadow across the sky like a dark, gloomy thought. But give it twenty-five years, and you could bet your bottom dollar this place would be buzzing like a beehive – cars honking, kids hollering, street vendors crying their wares, and newspaper boys shouting the latest scandals.

Maybe the old boy who built it got the land for a song, or maybe he just waved his hand and it was his. Who knows? Maybe he’s as sharp as a sack of wet mice, but that’s neither here nor there.

These were the thoughts swirling in my head as I moseyed up to the school, anonymous as a shadow. I figured, sure as shooting, folks would eventually come. The real pickle was getting comfortable with the idea. People have a right to lay their heads where the ground ain’t likely to swallow them up. ‘Be bold, be capable, and take the reins of this here school,’ I told myself. And that’s exactly what I did.

So, there I was, taking up the job at this school. By the time the day of inspection rolled around, I had sniffed out that the previous director was cooling his heels in the hoosegow.

Likely, his head was so crammed with nonsense it could’ve passed for a stewpot, and now he found himself reckoning with sins that might’ve been tacked onto him or perhaps forged by a blacksmith in Balkh.

He was a pet of the head of culture, plucked for the director’s chair for a few extra coins, as obliged to chase that job as a cat is to chase a mouse.

Outside of the central bunch, there wasn’t another soul interested in the job. I ferreted out this tidbit at the personnel department. It wasn’t the style yet to pen letters about folks coming back from leave, and I figured no one else would be hankering for a spot in this desert-like area, with winters as harsh as a mother-in-law’s tongue and a commute longer than a preacher’s sermon. That’s why I was as calm as a frog on a lily pad.

Sure, before the money started talking, the folks at the personnel department had their suspicions. They figured there must be a snake under the rock for a fella like me, ten years a teacher, to want to be a primary school director. They thought maybe I was as crazy as a loon, or up to some skullduggery, or worse. It got to the point where the middleman hinted I needed to grease the wheels, and grease them I did. One hundred and fifty tomans a month wasn’t chicken feed back then. If I’d turned my back on it, what then? Back to the grind of classes, essays, and all that folderol like Qabus-Nameh and the cultural almanac.

So off I went, from the head of culture to the overall personnel department, my broker in tow. I handed over the decree, spun my yarn, and left. Two days later, I found out it was all set. The Head of Culture had balked at these highfalutin graduates who puffed cigarettes like steam engines, but someone had put in a good word for me, said I was a different breed. Next Thursday, I was to show up, and so I did.

This time, the Head of Culture stood up as if he’d seen a ghost, saying, ‘Sir, why didn’t you speak up sooner?!’ Then came the chit-chat and chuckles. He ordered tea, griped about his employees, gave me the lay of the land, then chauffeured me to the school, saying the bell had been rung earlier than usual. In front of the teachers and the superintendent, he sang my praises to high heaven and left me there, the new sheriff of this six-class outfit with one superintendent, seven teachers, and two hundred and thirty-five young’uns.

And just like that, I was the director of the school.

 

2

The superintendent was a strapping young fellow, loud as a town crier, easy with orders, and as breezy as a spring day. He got on well with the elder lads who ran their own show, making it plain as day he had no truck with foolishness and could steer the school’s ship steady. The man teaching fourth grade was a mountain of a man, big enough to count as two. First thing hitting you in the office was his looming presence, making you swear he was some highfalutin’ bigwig if you bumped into him on the street. He talked as if he owned every word, and maybe that’s why, after the Culture Chief skedaddled, he was the one tipping his hat to me, hinting we’d be sprouting high school classes under my watch, God willing.

It was as clear as a bell that his bulk was getting too hefty for heading up a grade school. Every time he yapped, I couldn’t help but wonder how a teacher’s pay covered such a grand frame and slick get-up? Straight off, I decided I’d scrap my beard, keep my collar snowy, and my trousers sharp as a tack. The man teaching first grade was a scrawny, dark fella with a patchy beard and a noggin like a billiard ball, always buttoned up tight, sans tie. He looked more like a lowly mail clerk, maybe even a servant. Quiet as a church mouse, and rightly so. You could bet your bottom dollar he only piped up in first grade, yapping about this alphabet bit or that. The chap in charge of second grade was a little round fellow, more of a yeller than a talker. I couldn’t make heads or tails of where he even looked when he talked to someone. He’d give a little yelp, then a chuckle, fancying himself the jester among us teachers, hell-bent on being the life of the party during every break. There wasn’t a thing to be done about it, but it pained me to think of the young ones having to sit stone-still in his class. The third-grade teacher was a lean, tall Turk, sharp as a tack with a stiff collar. He was starched up so much, you’d wonder if he’d topple over walking. But he zipped about like a whirling dervish, speaking in quick bursts, his chest seemingly too small for more than a trio of words. His eyes sparkled with something fierce, not just smarts, but a touch of the unwholesome that had me asking the superintendent if the poor fellow was touched in the head.

It turned out that he wasn’t addled, just a stranger in these parts, living solo, and hitting the books at university.

The fifth and sixth grades were helmed by a pair of pedagogues. One, teaching Persian, religion, history, geography, and crafts, was a dapper young spark with his hair slicked back in Brylcreem style, garbed in snug trousers and a flashy yellow tie pinned down with a hefty anchor brooch. He was ever fussing with his hair and peering into mirrors. The other, in charge of math and the like, was a solid, mature sort, maybe hailing from Mazandaran, with a self-assured air and a pocket always bulging with cigarettes, his badge of classroom prowess. Then there was the gym teacher, an Isfahani chap mixed up in smuggling, who scarce showed up thrice a week and was in hock for two and a half quarters.

These were the characters I was to shepherd and school, tasked with educating and raising two hundred and thirty-five young ones, shepherding them through the grades. But for a bird like me who’d flown the teacher’s coop, any roost could be heaven, any task a lark. So, I dove in with gusto. After the culture head skedaddled, I made my rounds, doling out cigarettes and camaraderie. I was keen to dive into these new worlds, these fresh faces. I found out only the third-grade teacher was hitting the books at university. The Brylcreem chap was brushing up on English for a jaunt to America. A couple were hitched – the first-grade scribbler and the fourth-grade titan. No tea or chinwags during the quarter-hour breaks, just a huddle in the office, survivors of another teaching bout, then back to the trenches. This wouldn’t do. I plunked down five tomans for a brazier, nominating the cross-eyed teacher as the tea brewer.

Then the bell pealed, the youngsters lined up, and the superintendent hovered by the door, itching to speak. The fourth-grade bigwig, with his imposing frame, suggested I address the troops. The superintendent introduced me, and the children clapped. They were a sight, some in white collars, most in traditional footwear. A handful were bursting at the seams, victims of poverty’s sting. A red-haired lad in third grade was hiding a rip in his jacket, while the sixth graders traded whispers. At the end of the first-grade line, a few wiped their noses on their sleeves. Standing before them, words failed me. I managed to say how I’d be proud to call any one of them my own, but was at a loss with so many. A ripple of laughter spread through the ranks. I realized then that talking to children needed its own tongue. But it was no easy game! I’d fancied just closing my door, leaving the superintendent or some such to handle the riffraff, thinking systems in place would chug along without me. But now, I saw the truth. What if tomorrow brought a brawl, a car accident, a tumble from a balcony? My memory of what else I said is foggy. I recall only that when the bell tolled again and the lines shuffled to class, I was bathed in sweat. I paced the veranda till the teachers dispersed, then retreated inside.

Now, it was just me and the superintendent, the two of us in a quiet standoff, when in waltzed the school janitor. He was a sight straight out of the countryside, scruffy beard and all, short and stout, walking like he was balancing buckets on each arm, and huffing and puffing like he’d just won a footrace. He planted himself by the door, staring me down as if he had something to say.

I asked him about his lot in life, figuring he too had a part in this educational escapade. It turned out that he had a wife and a young’un likely overrun with playmates. The man was promised ninety tomans for his closet-sized room next to the john but was still waiting on his five-toman wage for janitorial heroics. Despite this, he’d gone and bought a pair of carpets on a wild installment plan, owing two hundred tomans still. In less than a minute, he spilled his guts, a whole litany of woes and prayers. After he got it all out, I sent him off to rustle up some tea. The superintendent piped up, saying this fellow was a village transplant, hired by the owner’s insistence and practically part of the school’s dowry. I’ve seen enough to know that dowry servants are more trouble than they’re worth. I shared this with the superintendent, who then launched into a tirade about the janitor’s ungrateful, bold-faced antics, and his unfriendly ways with the teachers.

Turning my attention to the superintendent, I learned he was fresh out of teacher’s college, with stints in Garmsar and Karaj, and now landed here. His family tale was a regular soap opera – a father with two wives, troublemaker brothers from the first, and him, the lone survivor from the second, educated and well-regarded, carrying the weight of his ailing mother with nary a word from his old man in years. To top it off, his measly hundred and fifty toman salary barely covered medicine and the fifty-five toman rent. And he’s holding out hope for a technical supervision allowance in a few years’ time. Then we got up to make the rounds of the classrooms.

First stop, the second grade, right next to the office. The kids were wrestling with sums, adding 754 to 261, while their cross-eyed teacher aimed for one desk but lurched towards another. Next was the big, empty hall, two stark white columns breaking up the space, and a smattering of broken desks and benches at the far end. The wall across was a gallery of heroes, runners, Egyptian weightlifters, and the right wall sported a grand map of Asia, gifted by Ali Mardan Hindi, every sea a lifeless blue, the Caspian Sea twisted into an odd shape, railways fat and sprawling, and the Indonesian islands squashed together like a jigsaw puzzle gone wrong. Every inch of that map screamed independence, with emirs, khans, and sheikhs leading their people to freedom and fortune! It took me back to my own school days, doodling maps. Back then, we had it easy – a few colors did the trick. Brown for England’s vast territories, pink for France’s equally enormous holdings, and maybe green or blue for the Dutch and their smattering of lands. But now, these kids had a Herculean task!

I blurted this out, and the superintendent, puzzled, asked, “How’s that, sir?”

I inquired what purpose the hall served, and the answer was as barren as a desert – no films, no gatherings, no theatricals, nothing but a silent sentinel during examinations. If you honed your senses just right, you could almost catch the faint whiff of youthful perspiration, the heat of their fevered scribblings during tests. It had the air of a room where the warmth was snuffed out a day too soon. I found myself touching the wall, finding it as cold as a banker’s smile. And those pillars – stout as a couple of riverboats, holding up the hefty load of learning!

We then made our way upstairs. A lineup of five classrooms, each with a sun-drenched veranda out front, like a row of sunbathing crocodiles. From the fourth room, the lilting chant of the Quran wafted out, its intonations and cadences as precise as a fiddle tune, cascading over the desert sprawled below. The sun lent its shine to the few scattered tin roofs, spreading the Islamic call far and wide. For folks yet to come, to dig their wells and stake their claims on this land, that sound must’ve been as comforting as a lullaby – not a misstep, no ill-timed pauses, no jumbled verses. I’d wager my last nickel that the teacher behind those words was a master of his craft.

I reckoned that the chap teaching the Quran class must be moonlighting at nighttime Quran recitations. Our school’s setup was a far cry from that standard. The future settlers of these parts would surely find solace in such devotion. We ambled over to the third-grade room, perched near the stairs. It was as dim as a moonless night, and the desks creaked like an old ship. They were scribbling a dictation, the teacher skinny as a rail, darting about, reading ‘Saadi is a nobleman, fallen on one’s hand.’ I snuck a peek at a kid’s paper – ‘Azaadeeis to ftaade.’ We moseyed on.

 

In the fourth-grade room, the teacher was planted in his chair, a wonder it didn’t buckle under him. The Quran reader was out of sight. If we’d gone in, they’d have stood up, making it all awkward. I peeked in, muttered ‘well done,’ and we skedaddled. The fifth graders were wrangling with profit calculations, the blackboard a jumble of figures. Their teacher paid us no mind, so we shuffled along. Entering the sixth grade, we were hit with a wave of Brylcreem. One youngster’s face was redder than a beet, and the air was still tingling with the echo of a scolding. They were reading Persian, the teacher all puffed up and starting to bellyache, ‘Mr. Director, they just don’t listen. They read like they’re half asleep. You see how hard I try…’

I cut him off as he was about to really wind up, ‘You’re right. My apologies. They shouldn’t be troublemakers.’

And with that, we scooted out. Beyond the sixth grade was a long, skinny room, probably my future office. It had a desk and a cupboard, both as bare as a bald head. It was a slice of peace, bathed in sunlight and as isolated as a hermit’s hut. Once the door was shut, you couldn’t hear the Quran or the yard’s ruckus. The teachers, if they needed anything, would have to trudge all those stairs – I figured it was just the ticket for me.

In the yard, there was a pond, shallow and sized for the shorties. Off to one side, a volleyball net hung, ragged and patched with wire. The yard’s walls stood tall as the Great Wall of China, a stern guard against any educational escape.

At the yard’s end was the loo, next to the janitor’s quarters and the coal stash. We caught a teacher shaking down a student for ‘Baba Water’ money. We poked our heads in the toilet – down two steps into a corridor ending in a wall. The stalls were as open as a prairie, no doors, no roofs, just partitions you could see clear down to the pit. And lordy, they were wide enough to lose a cow in. Around each pit, water pooled like a swamp, and you could tell the kids were spooked stiff of falling into those abysses by the footprints in the corners. I shot a look at the superintendent, a silent signal to beat a hasty retreat from this sorry spectacle.

 

He declared, ‘It’s a confounded mess, sir. We’ve penned hundreds of letters to the building folks, but they claim they can’t be squandering government dough on someone else’s barnyard.’

I retorted, ‘You’re spot on. Can’t have the Ministry of Education’s property looking like a pigsty,’ and we shared a good laugh.

That was our cue to scarper. We ambled out to the yard for a gulp of fresh air. I inquired about the school’s coffers. Each classroom had a cleaning kitty of fifteen rials for brooms and whatnot. The hall, big as two rooms, recently got an eleven-rial handout. The Ministry doled out the stationery and scribblers. Then there was the twenty-five toman monthly for drinking water, still uncollected. Last year, they warmed their bones with wood, but this year, it was time to switch to coal. Setting up each stove cost three tomans a year. The school’s monthly budget was thirty tomans, already spent, and here we were in late November. I made it clear as crystal that these matters were Greek to me. I was ready to hand over the reins to him, making it seem like no director had shown up since the school year kicked off on October 2nd. He seemed a fine choice for a superintendent, having run the show for two months solo and knowing the ropes of education. I’d heard tell of directors picking their own superintendents, but I had neither the time nor the gumption for that. I was barely clinging to my own job. We retired to the office, sipping on the janitor’s home-brewed tea until the bell tolled again. I thumbed through the students’ dossiers – just a birth certificate, a confirmation, and a smattering of report cards. These scraps told me most of the parents were dirt farmers and gardeners. Before the final bell and the school’s closing, I skedaddled. That was enough for day one. Come sunrise, I was back at the schoolhouse.

The young’uns were filing to class, and the superintendent stood on the veranda, stick in hand. Only two teachers were in the office – their daily jig, I presumed. I sent the superintendent off and started my own patrol at the entrance. The school faced potential streets on the north and east, sloping towards the main drag – paved, with buses, trees, shops, a whole shebang. I figured, from any direction, they’d see me at the entrance and skulk in, red-faced and tardy. But was it too harsh for a start?

A figure loomed from the south – the Brylcreem lad, ambling along like he had all the time in the world. He spotted me but slowed to a crawl, even whistling a Western tune. I could see the anchor on his tie, rigid as a board. ‘Must be his only tie,’ I mused. He was so carefree in his approach, I was near boiling over. Then, as if by magic, he hastened his step, buttoned his jacket, and tipped his hat my way. That was a narrow escape. I was about to bolt inside and slam the door, but he greeted me with a look that seemed to beg pardon:

‘Please, sir. The kids are waiting.’

It seemed to go swimmingly. The fellow probably hadn’t even noticed me, or maybe he was off in dreamland, perhaps musing over some damsels he’d eyed in his English class the night before. Or maybe, just maybe, this chap, slick as a greased pig with Brylcreem and sporting an anchor on his tie, was as lonely as a Maytag repairman. Could be his bus was later than a bridegroom, or he got caught in a logjam of a traffic snarl. Might’ve been someone from the back of beyond, drawn here like moths to the light of Morteza Ali’s bounty. But in my heart, I let bygones be bygones.

I was about to launch into a tongue-lashing from afar when the fourth-grade teacher’s bulky shadow loomed, barreling towards me like a bull in a china shop. His stork-like legs made him a fine runner, but his heft fought every step. This one grated on me like a bad fiddle. ‘Here we go with a bang,’ I mused, hightailing it to the office, planting myself down, and pretending to be busier than a one-armed paper hanger.

He rolled in, huffing and puffing, sweat pouring off him. Even his ‘howdy’ seemed soaked through. I managed a ‘hello’ back, bit my tongue on asking if he’d have sprinted like that if he hadn’t seen me. Seemed too sharp a barb. So, I ushered him to sit, passed him a glass of water, and offered up a smile as strained as a tea bag.

As he lumbered off, I couldn’t resist: ‘Look on the bright side – you’ve shed a couple of kilos!’ He glanced back, flashed a grin, and shuffled out.

I was about to give my room the once-over, see if the janitor had done his bit, when the superintendent’s steps thumped down the stairs. I knew his confident clomp in just one day – seemed like the bricks themselves lay down flatter for him. Before he even got to me, he burst out, ‘See, sir! That’s how they come to school. He didn’t give a hoot, sir.’

‘Hmm,’ I grunted, mulling over a witty comeback. I thought better of it and asked instead, ‘But what about those two empty classes?’

‘Oh, sir, third grade’s in gym. Told ‘em to scribble a dictation. The math teacher for fifth and sixth hasn’t shown up yet,’ he said, hauling a desk to the wall and perching on it like a rooster. He nudged a photo of the Achaemenid tombs on the wall, revealing, ‘Look here, sir…’

On the plaster, a hammer and sickle were scrawled in red pencil, as sloppy as a child’s first attempt at drawing. He rattled on without a nudge, ‘It’s a relic from the old director, sir. When I first came, he was still running the show. They were into this sort of thing – peddling papers, spewing propaganda, doodling hammers and sickles. After the big cheese got nabbed, I nearly wore myself to a frazzle getting them to cut it out. Parents were up in arms, the military governor came sniffing around three times, wondering where the rest were hiding.’

He hopped down, the photo swinging like a pendulum, then settled back, hiding the symbol. I quizzed, ‘Any more of these characters around?’

‘Oh, yes, sir. Like the no-show today, always late by a half-hour or forty-five minutes. And the third-grade teacher, talking to them’s like spitting into the wind,’ he said.

‘And why’s this still here?’ I asked, nodding at the symbol.

He sighed like a steamboat whistle, ‘Well, sir, who can you tell your woes to? Speak up, and they brand you a spy or a turncoat. It’s like locking the barn after the horse has bolted. I’ve had my hide tanned twice with this stick for trying!’

 

Then he launched into a tirade, bewailing how the school had gone to rack and ruin. He moaned about the shattered trust of the locals, no help for the needy, and endless wrangles with the military governor. He painted a picture of the kids turning as rebellious as a bunch of wildcats, and on he went with his litany of woes. After he wound down, I handed him my handkerchief, and he trudged off to scrub that hammer and sickle off the wall.

I told him, clear as a bell, that we ain’t Nakir and Munkar, those mythic judges of the dead. I laid it out plain that we’re long in the tooth for this sort of business, and besides, the state’s second pillar had deep pockets for such matters, with officers trained up to their eyeballs and not needing a lick of help from us. ‘Let’s just stick to our knitting,’ I said.

As I moseyed towards my room, I mulled over how, all over the globe, folks hide these sorts of symbols behind pretty pictures. Just as I was fussing with my handkerchief at my nose, the last teacher came in. Stepping out on the veranda, I raised my voice so it echoed through the school like a bell in a steeple, called for the superintendent, and told him to mark the tardy teacher with a big, red hour of lateness in the ledger.

 

**

On the third day at the school, I was up and at ’em bright and early. As I swung around the corner behind the wall, the air was filled with the cries of children. I quickened my step and came upon a sight as jarring as a crow in a cornfield. There, in the veranda, five youngsters were squirming like fish out of water, while the superintendent played a tune on their palms with a stick, as methodical as a clockmaker.

Each little rascal got two whacks on both hands, and the rest of the students watched like spectators at a sideshow. The kids were pleading and wailing, but still held out their hands, trained as they were to this sort of thing. A couple of the older ones put on a brave face, and one dodged the stick with a craftiness that surely riled the superintendent. But one little feller was so tiny, I reckoned he might just blow away in the wind. His hands were so small, hitting them seemed as likely as catching a fly with a sledgehammer.

I was about ready to holler or boot the superintendent clear to Sunday, but he hadn’t seen me. As I stepped into the school, something in the children’s eyes twinkled, and a murmur spread through them like wildfire, reminding me that as the school director, it wouldn’t do to lay hands on the superintendent in front of God and everybody. So, I choked down my anger and climbed the stairs with all the calm I could muster.

The superintendent, just noticing me, was gearing up to say howdy when I cut him off, asking him to let the kids off the hook this time. They might’ve been late, dirty, collarless, or guilty of any one of a hundred little misdeeds. He started to reel off their crimes, but my mind was stuck on that little tyke’s teary face and tiny hands. I had half a mind to give the superintendent a piece of my mind and snap his stick like a dry twig.

The kids shuffled back to their places, sniffling, as the bell rang. The teachers, bless their punctual hearts, herded the students into their rooms. Once the veranda was as empty as a banker’s heart, I spotted a bundle of sticks under a cupboard. I eyed the superintendent, who looked like a cat that had swallowed a canary, and remarked that with his antics, he could’ve snapped one of their necks. He chirped back, “If you don’t stop them one day, they’ll trample you underfoot, sir. They’re as stubborn as mules, sir!” Every sentence he ended with “sir,” as if it were a magical charm.

I decided to shift gears and asked about his mother, which lit up his face like a lantern. As he summoned the janitor for water, I felt a sudden urge to give him a lecture, like a grizzled old timer.

I told him about the two times I got my comeuppance at school – once for scaling the mosque’s minaret for a bird’s-eye view, and the other when the director punished me by mistake, then gave me a book as an apology. I yammered on for what felt like an eternity, and he, being wet behind the ears, lapped it up. Finally, I asked him to snap those sticks, which he did. And with that, I made my way to my own room.

In that first week, I dove headfirst into the school’s doings like a duck to water. Winter, with its frosty fingers, brought its own batch of head-scratchers: nine coal-burning heaters that were hungrier than a bear in spring, water that needed fetching four times a day like clockwork, and rooms that got as dirty as a pigpen with only one janitor to tackle the mess. I hollered for another janitor from the Ministry of Education, and we were all ears for his arrival every blessed day.

At first, I stuck around the school in the afternoons like a barnacle on a boat, but after three or four days, I loosened up a bit. I figured the school wasn’t hanging on my every move; things wouldn’t go topsy-turvy if I stepped out. Besides, in the afternoons, most of the tykes were bending and stretching in physical education, and the young’uns in the first grade were always under watchful eyes. The volleyball net in the schoolyard was as safe as houses, and the desert-like surrounds, with their gullies and dips, seemed safer than a mother’s hug compared to the larger, wilder schoolyard.

The teachers had cooked up a system to take turns watching over the afternoon sessions, so I wasn’t fretting over any slacking or skylarking. If there was any mischief brewing, it was likely in the mornings when I was there, watching over the roost.

One day, an inspector blew in like a spring breeze, and we chewed the fat over tea for a spell. In the office, he tipped his hat to the way the school was run, considering we were as strapped for resources as a pauper at a feast. I also rubbed elbows with the visiting doctor, who couldn’t keep his Qazvini accent hidden among his medical jargon. He was as regular as clockwork, showing up once a month to eyeball the kids for trachoma, an eye ailment as catchy as a yawn. He poked and prodded their peepers with such gusto, I reckon I would’ve given him a piece of my mind if he’d tried that on me. He prescribed mercury ointment, cotton, and bandages – all things we were supposed to get from the Ministry, but they were as scarce as hen’s teeth. So, we leaned on a student whose papa was an army medic and got the goods on the house.

Those young’uns were always getting into scrapes – running, tumbling, squabbling, and playing rougher than a bunch of alley cats. Their favorite pastime during breaks seemed to be duking it out; one minute they were as peaceful as lambs, and the next, some poor soul was eating dirt. I had a hunch it was because most of them had shoes as rare as a blue moon. Even the ones shod were coddled so much they didn’t know how to hoof it properly. So, a couple or three times a day, someone would come in with a nick or a bruise, and the office floor got spotted with mercury ointment like a dalmatian.

The kids took to slathering on the ointment themselves, right from our stash, and then scampered back to class. The older ones often lent a hand to the young fry, with the janitor or the superintendent pitching in now and then. And I even wrapped up the ankle of that little tyke with the kitten face and tiny hands myself – a real mother-hen moment, if I do say so.

I rummaged through the school’s files – a modest collection, if ever there was one – and laid my eyes on the records for electricity and telephone. Seemed like, if the wheels of progress spun a bit faster, we might be blessed with both in two or three years’ time. I made a couple of pilgrimages to the building department to stir the pot and tried to sweet-talk my way through my contacts in the electricity and telephone offices. At first, they figured I was trying to feather my own nest, pretending it was for the school’s sake. So, I eventually let that dog lie. I was just doing my duty, after all.

The school was as dry as a bone – no drinking water, no running water. We caught rainwater in an underground tank, filled up by a pump, and that’s how the youngsters quenched their thirst. During recess, over the din of the kids, you could hear the pump groaning and wheezing like an old man with a cold. The kids thought it was a hoot, a noisy toy. Their play was more about hollering and scolding than laughing and merry-making.

For drinking water, we had two big 100-liter iron tanks, standing in the yard like twin monuments on four legs, filled twice a day. When the bell rang, the kids swarmed to it, thirstier for water than for knowledge or culture. This water came from a garden shaded by pines that cast long, dark shadows – the janitor hauled it over. It was clean, I made sure of that at the source. The janitor was often missing in action, and his wife would show up with a bucket and a leaky can, losing half the water on the way. I shelled out my own cash to patch up the can and the pump, couldn’t wait for the school’s petty cash.

One day, the school’s owner came by, a snobbish, elderly gent who acted like he was visiting a tenant’s farmhouse. He hadn’t even crossed the threshold when he started giving the janitor and the education department what-for about the kids smudging the walls with coal. After some chitchat and digging up mutual acquaintances, we found some common ground. He doled out advice on fixing up the school – patch the leaky toilet roof, clean the overflowing cesspit, dredge the muddy water tank, and keep the pipes from turning into icicles in winter. He reckoned he’d been bamboozled by the education department and claimed he’d be in the Academy if he were out West. We plied him with tea, trotted out the teachers, and made promises till the cows came home. The man was like a burr, a walking, talking relic of bygone days, brimming with tales. He hung around for an hour and a half, and I had to sweet-talk him once a month.

As for the teachers, they were on the clock for 24 hours, but their actual teaching time barely scraped 20 hours a week. The superintendent used to juggle this before I came aboard. As we got to know each other, we struck a deal to ask for another teacher from the education department, aiming to lighten each one’s load to 18 teaching hours a week, as long as the school stayed open in the afternoon. Even the teacher hitting the books at university could swing 18 hours. The red tape was the biggest hurdle, but we navigated that stream without capsizing the boat, and I sent a request for an extra teacher to the education department.

As the second week was winding down, a new janitor strolled into our little kingdom. He was as lean as a rail and as weathered as an old barn, with a nightcap perched on his head and dressed in blue, the same shade as a policeman’s uniform. He was always fingering a rosary, and handy as a pocket on a shirt with all sorts of chores. Now, the water-fetching was split between the two janitors, each taking a turn. The school spruced up like a cat after a nap – floors scrubbed, old wood stoves humming. We’d forked over 30 tomans to get those stoves going, and I’d inked the receipt a week before. These stoves were no more trouble than a couple of kittens for the janitors to handle.

But the new janitor, he was a stickler for the books, always asking, “What about the budget?” We even hired a laborer who hung around the school for two days, primping himself more than he did the stoves, looking like a Haji Firouz character from Nowruz festivities. He was a sight for the kids, maybe helping them shake off some of their jitters.

This new janitor, though, ruffled the teachers’ feathers something fierce. He didn’t tip his hat to any of them, nor did he hop to when they gave him small tasks. He showed up at eight sharp each morning, signing the attendance book with lines as crooked as a mountain path, and skedaddled when the afternoon bell rang. He’d nod to me, but those teachers, puffed up like roosters, were miffed he didn’t do the same to them.

What really got their dander up was how he’d lord over them. While I let the teachers hole up in the office during their free time, this janitor would breeze in, serve them tea, and stand there like a statue. It put them on pins and needles, and they didn’t dare tell him off, for he had a tongue sharp enough to cut glass. They tried to send him off on wild goose chases, but he was quicker than a hiccup and always came back too soon, a thorn in their sides.

The teachers’ laughter, which used to bubble out of the office during breaks, dried up like a creek in summer. I could smell a storm brewing. With ten years under my belt, I knew if teachers can’t have their chuckles during breaks, they’d take it out on the students in class. If they couldn’t lighten their load with a bit of horseplay, they’d snooze through their lessons. So, I stepped in.

I called the new janitor for a powwow. We chewed the fat about his work history and kin for a spell, then got down to brass tacks – his wages. He was pulling in about 300 tomans, peanuts for a fella with 25 years of experience. But in a school where the top dog teachers made 190 tomans, it was a king’s ransom.

The pickle we were in was as clear as day. The teachers saw this janitor as an outsider, a square peg in a round hole. He didn’t have any of the fancy diplomas or letters after his name – he was just a janitor, though a bit of a tough nut. But he had every right to be. I danced around the subject, dropping hints and beating around the bush, trying to tell him that even if teachers didn’t rake in the riches, a man of his religious conviction surely knew they were worth their salt… But he cut me off mid-sentence, “Oh sir, what are you saying? You’re green as grass here, don’t know these folks from Adam. Today they’ll have me fetching cigarettes, tomorrow it’ll be hooch. I’ve been wrangling these so-called intellectuals all my life.” He hit the nail on the head. He figured me out quicker than a cat on a hot tin roof. He knew I was about as useful as a screen door on a submarine in this school. But I was fretting he might push his luck too far, so I tried to reel him in. How could I, the head honcho of this outfit, let a janitor run roughshod over me?

Just then, the rumbling of the coal truck came like a cavalry charge. As it screeched to a halt, I blurted out, “Enough of this hogwash. How can teachers splurge on liquor with their peanuts pay? Look, the coal’s here.” As he left, I threw in, “Give it a few days, they’ll be asking you for a loan, and you’ll all be as thick as thieves.”

I moseyed over to the iron gate, where the truck was dumping its load near the shed. The driver handed a slip to the janitor, who pointed up at me on the balcony. He came up, handed me the receipt – a fancy document from the Ministry of Education, but blank where the coal amount should be. It was as plain as the nose on your face that I was supposed to fill it in. So, I scribbled down the amount on all copies, signed them, and handed them back to the driver. I hollered down to the janitor, “If it needs a seal, stamp it yourself,” and went back to my doings, pondering over the janitor’s sharp tongue and work ethic, thinking, “If only a couple of teachers had his gumption, our kids would be philosophers in no time…”

Then, in he comes, holding a lump of coal like a trophy, “Didn’t you get it, sir? They left it blank for you to fudge the numbers.”

I was dumbstruck. Even if I had twigged, I wouldn’t have played along. I snapped back, “Now you’re giving me orders? A fine mess we’re in with a director like me! Take the papers back, let them figure it out…”

I’d hollered so loud, the whole school must’ve heard. I was the easy-going sort, always buttering up everyone from the grocer to the water guy, knowing full well it was the parents, not just the kids, who needed schooling in manners. And here I was, getting a lesson from the janitor on how to swindle the Ministry over a coal delivery.

 

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