Was it Fear or Second -Hand Smoke?

The undeniable truth that education, knowledge in general, are assets no one could take away from you, prompted my mother to seek the best schools for me from the beginning.  Somehow, she managed to extract me from the area school, which, according to her standards wasn’t good enough, and placed me in a different elementary school, a little further from our home, but well worth it.  It had the reputation of an elite school and what was even more important, next to it, there was the best, oldest high school  in the country, named Nicolae Balcescu, but most people from the older generations called it Saint Sava.

The ultimate goal was, that after the first seven years in this elementary and then mid-school, I would be prepared for the ferocious acadmemic competition to make it into St. Sava.  Yes, my mother had vision for my life, she had a long-term plan. A very long one, which extended beyond her pysically being with me on Earth.

It was only a fifteen- minute walk to my school along the Congress Palace, and the Tower, which was at the time the tallest apartment building in Bucharest, and up by the Lutheran Church which was always closed and looked deserted, and to the left I walked every day, through the courtyard of Saint Iosif Cathedral, which was Catholic and always opened, or so it seemed. There sure were a lot of churches around for a country of atheists, but rumor had it, Romanians weren’t always non-believers, so the houses of God, most of them deserted buildings as I grew up between  1950’s and 1980’s made historical  sense. My elementary school was in the back of the Cathedral’s yard and the times when we had recess was also marked by bells ringing from the Cathedral. A coincidence.

There were about 35 or 40 of us in one class, under the direction of one teacher. It was a co-ed school.  My teacher was Mrs. Radulescu, a massive older woman with a lot of experience in education.  That implied she was a good teacher.  She had greasy shoulder-length hair and a long face that seem to never end, if it weren’t for her  yellowish teeth, sticking out through her always cracked, dried lips. Perhaps because she constantly licked her lips, it is her mouth and her teeth that I remember the most of her face. To me she looked like a horse!

Mrs. Radulescu had the reputation of a no nonsense educator, which meant if a pupil made a mistake he or she will get punished in ways only she could conceive.  In fact, it wasn’t even necessary to make a mistake and we were punished just in case…we might have thought of making a mistake or get into mischief.

We wrote slowly and diligently: a, b, c, d… 1, 2, 3 … and she leaned over to see if the letters were perfect, they had to be perfect! If a letter wasn’t, Mrs Radulescu ordered:

“Make a fist.” and the pupil made a fist and she would hit the guilty student in their knuckles where it hurted most, with her immense gold ring, the tool of our torture.

Many times she just hit us for no reason, and by the time parent-teacher conferences came around, I was so scarred I barely spoke at school, only when asked.

“Your daughter seems sick! She is too quiet.” she told my parents.

“”She is quiet?” my parents were surprised,  as I never stopped talking at home, they told her, but Mrs. Radulescu ignored their story about me, her pupil, which was uninteresting, and changed the subject turning towards my father:

“So, I hear you inspect farms? That must be nice, all that fresh fruit. It’s apple season and there are no apples on the market…”

Somehow, my beatings stopped after that parent-teacher conference, and so did  the beatings of  others, but some children’s  didn’t. Many of my friends continued to learn the lessons of tough knocks even when the a, b, c s where perfect! Somehow it didn’t seem fair… I was confused about the fairness of the beatings, but mostly I felt guilty because I wasn’t punished anymore and others were for no apparent reason!

From the perspective of today, I wonder if positive thinking would have helped us, the students, stop her abuse… but of course we didn’t know then about such miraculous tools  and that by the power of our minds alone we could  have changed the  reality of our fate! What was certain, was that we had other very distinct feelings, of fear and helplessness. Personally, I’d have done anything Mrs. Radulescu asked me to do to avoid  pain or help my friends.  Over the  next four-years she was my teacher, she never hit me again after that parent-teacher conference.  It was a miracle, or perhaps she just enjoyed fresh farm apples! I’d never know for sure…

In the second part of my 2nd grade year, I started to cough and I had a high fever. It got worse and worse until  my mother took me for X-rays and to a doctor.

“She has double pneumonia”. the doctor told my mom. “She needs to stay home and take these antibiotics and rest. Bring her back in a month.  Don’t take her back to school until I see her again”.

I was sick! I didn’t have to see Mrs. Radulescu and for a change my mother was nice. I liked being sick and coughing was not that bad after all… I was dosing on and off with the high fever and being awaken every four hours to take pills. My bother kept putting hot onion leaves on my chest, a non- scientific treatment to loosen the cough which continued to be dry and hurt my throat…

Generally though, I was happy and the benefit of not seeing Mrs. Radulescu coupled with the satisfaction of seeing my parents worried was worth the illness. I felt special and valuable. I felt their fear that I could die!

For days, my parents sat around my bed smoking and looking concerned.  Twice a day my mother  opened the windows to “air” the room but then the smoking would start again.  In those days everyone smoked in Romania and people had no idea how bad this was and as I was healing from double pneumonia I kept inhaling the smoke of all those concerned about my health.

I missed a lot of school that year, and the following year, because the pneumonia kept coming back with a vengence or perhaps I was calling it back in my subconscious mind, to avoid Mrs. Radulescu!  However, a rational mind could not exclude the aggravation of my illness by the exposure to second-hand smoke, a much more palpable reason, we  didn’t understand at the time.

What was the reason of my illness? Was it Fear or Second-hand smoke? Perhaps both? Most importantly, what were the powers of my mind over a teacher’s abuse or my parents’ smoking? I only had power over me and  after months of being sick and doing most of my homework and studies in bed, propted on fluffy pillows, the bed became my comfort zone. In spite of missing months of formal instruction with Mrs. Radulescu, at the end of the school  year, when I finally went back to school, I was awarded Premiul II (Award number 2) Meaning my grades were the 2nd best in the whole class.  Then, I had no question in my mind it was my hard work and discipline to study for months sitting there, taking medicine and writing in my bed despite the high fever and cough. which made me successful.

In retrospect… I wonder if Mrs. Radulescu  secretly continued to enjoy her fresh apples from the farms my father inspected while I was sick. Suddenly, I was not that sure or proud of myself, Doubts of my real value seeped into my already doubting mind.

7 thoughts on “Was it Fear or Second -Hand Smoke?

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