Stories Excerpted from Domenico Starnone’s Fuori registro (1991).
Translated and published by permission.
Translated from Italian by Maria Tirelli Sheil
The Empty Classroom
Nobody was there: not a book, nor a coat, nor a jacket; only air, thick with breaths. I checked the roll book: no, the class was not allowed to leave early. A little anxious, I looked out into the deserted corridor. Teachers’ muffled voices from the other classrooms, all at work. You could hear a pin drop. I stealthily stepped towards the boys’ loos. I pushed the door with circumspection. Then I leapt in, shouting: “Everybody out!” The bathroom was empty. Only an open tap was slushing. I turned it off.
I went out and checked once again: the classroom was still deserted. Then I walked towards the girls’ loo, recognizable from a note hung on one side of the door, written by the plumber of the local authority, which roughly said: “If you keep throwing sanitary pads down the bowl, I swear I won’t unblock them ever again”; on the other side, a flier penned by female teachers and students said: “How dare this gentleman? Why has nobody thought of putting a wastebasket in here? Are we supposed to swallow the pads?”
I was about to go in, but I had second thoughts: it was the girls’ loo, it could be embarrassing. So I went looking for the caretaker, Maria. I found her walking backwards in the corridors while perfunctorily mopping the floor and singing: “Oi Marì, oi Marì.” She saw me and ordered: “Stop there before you step on the wet floor.”
I stopped, and after exhausting negotiations at a distance, I persuaded her to go into the girls’ loo and check if my class had taken shelter in there.
“You haven’t got your class?”
“I’ve got it, but it’s not there.”
She went in and never came out.
“Signora Maria!” I shouted.
Not a whisper.
I steeled myself and went in.
All my twenty-five students were holding their breaths in there. Plus Maria the caretaker, who justified herself: “What could I do? They’ve taken me hostage.”
At this stage everybody cried affably: “April fool, April fool,” even if it wasn’t April.
D’Orazio, the ringleader, replied: “Nah,” and announced that, actually, for my sake, he would promptly release Maria the caretaker.
“You prefer to spend the period in the loo rather than with me,” I grumbled, gutted.
“He’s taken it badly,” marvelled D’Orazio. And seemed to be disappointed by my peevishness. Many shouted at me: “No, we love you a lot.”
I didn’t believe them. No.
“I had prepared a lesson on Carducci,” I said in a plaintive tone. And explained: “It’s your loss: I won’t even tell you who he is.”
All of them, falsely pained, replied: “No, we want to know. Please. The lesson on Verga was so riveting.”
I knew they were lying, but nonetheless I wondered: lying, not lying?
I ordered: “Let’s get back to class.”
Impossible. The caretaker, who had resumed her mopping, shouted: “Oh, no! Nobody gets through. Have some respect for a worker.”
We remained silent amidst obscene graffiti, gurgling drains, dripping taps, the smell of urine, with them motionless in feigned devotion and me motionless in feigned authority. A few minutes passed, and I felt ill at ease. Then I recited a poem and commented on it, in that loo: “The pensive father with his goatish hair…”
And so, we waited for the bell to ring.
Yesterday I was thinking about her, my colleague Marotta. She often asks me to open her locker and check if the students have hidden a dead mouse in it. She claims that she had once found one. And she described it in detail: it was a dark-grey sewer rat, with whiskers, this big.
I couldn’t believe it. On the other hand, Marotta is a very serious woman: middle-aged, single, kind, very cultured, with greasy thin hair, some of it black and some of it white. It is difficult to imagine that she’s lying. On the contrary, she swears on her mother, who died thirty-two years ago, that students had put a mouse corpse in her locker when she had finished teaching the writer Ippolito Nievo and was about to start the Milanese Scapigliatura movement. This is the way she marks time: with the syllabus of authors and literary movements planned by the Department of Education many decades ago.
I open the locker gingerly because dead mice disgust me too. There is nothing in there: only a hairbrush, bundles of duly corrected homework and the roll book.
Meanwhile, Marotta enquires about what I see.
“Is the mouse there?” she asks me standing ten steps away, ready to run into the corridor.
I reassure her: no.
She picks up her roll book, thanks me and dutifully goes to work.
Sometimes she stays for a while and announces:
“This year I’m doing The Ginestra once more.”
“Me too,” I reply.
And we have a chat about Leopardi’s last poems. She cites essays that were published over forty years ago, but she talks about them as if they were recent. Unlike me, she knows them not by hearsay but because she has read them.
I really appreciate teachers like my colleague Marotta. They have been nothing but teachers all their lives. In the afternoon, they prepare their lessons using the same books which they had studied in their youth with excellent results. In the evening, they correct the homework using the same red and blue marks that their secondary school teacher had used. In the morning, they always come on time, make the roll call, methodically conduct oral exams, one day calling on students starting from A, one day from Z, and then repeat out loud to the students what they had learnt at university decades ago.
They have little in common with the architect-teachers, the engineer-teachers, the publicist-teachers, the union-activist-teachers, the artist-teachers, the shopkeeper-teachers, teachers with their heads full of nonsense. There isn’t a whit in common between them and those who come to school in amazing cars, their phones hooked on their belts like revolvers. Marotta has seen little or nothing of the outside world, while she sees more and more things in her locker. Instead, those colleagues who see the world far and wide and sometimes tell us, when they have a moment: “You don’t know what it means to work seriously: it’s terrible, it’s frightful, the responsibilities, the exertion” and look like some Marco Polos who have seen a monstrous Cathay or some Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, victorious after a battle that had turned into a slaughter – those colleagues don’t see anything at all in their lockers. Sometimes they don’t even see their students.
I prefer Marotta: never a word too many; mindful of nuances; very shy, but as tough as stainless steel; a woman whose intellect is wasted in a useless job done conscientiously. Her life can be measured in Italian writers’ units: many Manzonis, many Leopardis, many Vergas. Her days are marked by the syllabus, which trundles on in a straight line, then it rotates and starts again with nauseating circularity. Therefore, she can say: I’m doing The Ginestra once again. Or situate her visions of death between Ippolito Nievo and the Scapigliatura.
Her students, like stones in a slingshot, rotate for a few turns and then whistle away to end up nobody ever knows where. She remains, dazed by the merry-go-round she boarded many years ago. Amongst all those who repeat the year, she is the one who repeats most. She goes round and round, straddling once again that ‘new’ of hers that hasn’t been new for a long time. And instead of becoming wise, as they say happens when time passes, she is losing her mind, like Ariosto’s Orlando, on who knows what moon. The boomerangs of the school years don’t get lost in the air but hit hard on one’s head. And Marotta, every time with the grace of an old-fashioned little lady, asks from a safe distance: “Is the mouse there?”
I was thinking about her yesterday, as I opened my grey metal locker. I told myself: “My colleague Marotta: I must talk to her more often.” Then I stopped with slight palpitation. I slammed the locker door, which I had left half-open, and went to the bar.
I am talking about the Cathar heresy in my class.
“The Cathars,” I say, “didn’t eat meat and didn’t make love. They wanted to be pure: no body and all spirit.”
“What kind of life was that?” asked Enzo Passini, who wore a camouflage suit (with a skull wearing yellow-framed spectacles on its back) to escape who knows what kinds of imaginary enemies that he fights between home and school.
Passini is very young. He has a slender body and an inexpressive, almost dull face, as if someone had forgotten to draw his eyes, his mouth, and his nose. To make up for that, he is a show-off: he is always up for a fight. And he thinks that if he doesn’t kill somebody as soon as possible, if he doesn’t stuff himself with food and booze, if he can’t find a way of having a lot of sex, he has nothing left but suicide. He guffaws with his mates at the idea that the Cathars deprived themselves of what he and his friends instead lead everybody to believe they do with no restraints and no limits. And he makes faces and sneers at the pensive patronesses of parishes, including Giusy Solofra, among the only ones who listen in my classes with interest.
I go on. I prattle on about the Cathar controversy against the Church’s squandering. But it is not only my students who don’t listen to me: I, too, don’t listen to myself. I feel like the pronoun ‘it’, alien to the I who is talking, to the you with whom I could converse, to the old-fashioned pronoun ‘thou,’ which, not by chance, nobody uses anymore. A part of me digresses on the cholesterol levels in my blood and that of some colleagues with whom I exchange serious information about deep-fried food, saturated fats, meat, cheese, wine. All things that we can neither eat nor drink any longer. The passing of time on the body is like a punishment reserved to us and us only, and particularly aggressive. Instead, the age groups that the outside world sends to us like a message from the gods remain unchanged: from fourteen to twenty years of age. In school, young people are always identical to themselves, as though they were made of plastic. They go young, they come young. They devour Nutella snacks, overstuffed sandwiches, red pizzas drenched in oil; and their blood doesn’t go bad. Nature is merciless only to us. It continually, aggressively, signals to us that the bodies of these kids flourish and flourish. We are the only ones who wither. Every day is the right one to discover that we are past our time.
Sometimes I listlessly examine my body to identify the signs of my job. I look under my appearances and clothes for evidence that in all these years I have really existed in front of existing students. But it is difficult to establish what signs my permanence in the classroom has left every morning and what are instead the result of normal wear and tear. I have chronic pharyngitis: every night I gargle. My voice becomes hoarse and sometimes it goes altogether. My blood pressure plays tricks on me. Sometimes I think I have a tumour in my right wrist, but it is only the effect of a slap given to my desk to avoid giving it to Passini.
I often observe my hands. I have the hands of a young lady from a good family. I can’t do anything with these five-party tentacles. I can’t hammer a nail. I can’t fix a tap. I can’t do any boxing. I can’t even play the fife. Smooth and bloodless, they are beginning to be covered by a web of veins on their back, thin as a veil. Only the knuckles retain the unquestionable trace of some labour. I have been hitting these bones on whatever is at hand for twenty years: on the blackboard, on a student’s desk, on my desk, on a door. I do it to draw the students’ attention. Or to draw my own attention when I feel drowsy. I hit them skilfully, accompanying my toc toc with urgings such as: “Quiet now. Pay some attention. Silence. Did you hear me? Are you playing dumb? I’m talking to you! Passini, I’ll kick your arse all the way to the principal’s office if you don’t stop!” The knuckles are red, the skin is rough, the index finger of the right hand (which is more exposed to the impact) shows a slightly callous bulge.
This gesture has left in my body the only sure sign that I have worked in this world. I don’t like my knuckles.
Behind the closed door of the classroom, some teachers, especially the male ones, lose any form of dignity. They hate to get bitter and nasty as they grow old. And they react with chilling results. They fool themselves by regressing more and more every year towards the age of their students. They throw tantrums like infants. Invent an affected vocabulary (little rascal, little rogue) that they find funny. They pull pranks, hide your roll book, eat your snacks, stick on your back pieces of paper with various insults written on them, write on your locker: “rest in peace”, organize soccer matches between students and teachers to show off in shorts and vest, continually repeat: “aw, I feel so good,” make subversive speeches during student assemblies, fall in love with female students who are so puny that, if they really hugged them, they could lose them in their wrinkles.
My colleague Sabotino is one of those teachers. Always at the barber’s, scented, with a bomber jacket worn over trousers that are very tight at the hips, he is a grey-haired sixty-year-old with a painfully quick gait who, as soon as he crosses my path, says: “Come on, smile a little! What’s wrong with you? You look like my grandfather! Come to the bar.”
At the bar he tells me how he, due to his role as an educator, must resist the propositions of his female students, who won’t leave him alone.
“I can’t take it anymore,” he exclaims, exhausted. The flesh is weak, especially his. What’s more, the student Milena Scoccimarro wears patterned black tights under black miniskirts with the purpose of tempting him. Yesterday Scoccimarro’s tights had a ladder that was a white furrow along her calf. And he, seeing that trail of light, had been dazzled. Sitting at his desk, he had written the poem that he now wanted me to read.
I read it. In Sabotino’s verses, the ladder has become lightning, a flash, a flicker in the dark sky of the tights. “Dazzling Scoccimarro,” he raves in verse, “you are high-voltage/ like wires/ that if you touch you die./ I wish I could die/ at first touch/ or spark youth anew.”
I find myself looking out the window without knowing how I ended up there. My class is in the courtyard for recess. The classroom is empty: multicoloured rucksacks beside the chairs; books abandoned on the desks; jackets and coats lying face down like corpses. Beside me is Giusy Solofra, a swot with an overflowing bosom and a sensitive soul, who, when she sees me in a melancholy mood, never fails to keep me company out of kindness. She asks questions about: famine, war, exploitation, solidarity, what to do with life.
Meanwhile, the students flock under our window. Passini and his gang of scums are interrogating my colleague Sabotino, who is at the centre of a large cluster of young guys, telling stories.
“What might he have to say?” asks Giusy Solofra, certain (she’s right) that only she and I consider the serious issues of the world.
No sound can be heard. But who needs to hear? I tell her what Sabotino says to the students. The elderly teacher is better than a blue movie. Through his mouth, he fires obscene reminiscences about his life as a womanizer: of caretakers, secretaries, teachers, principals, students. And he does it with such an abundance of information that everything sounds true. In truth – I tell her – Sabotino dreams, the prisoner of an old age laden with unplacated desires.
She confirms with a shudder: “It’s true.”
“True?” I become alarmed.
Yes. That teacher often says indecent things to her in the corridor. Yesterday, instead, he was almost kind. He whispered to her: “Seeing you was enough to throw me out of kilt.”
“Kilter,” I correct.
Kilter, she repeats. But Sabotino’s kindness didn’t last long. Then he told her: “I’ll buy you an ice cream. Only one. We’ll lick it together.”
Giusy Solofra shudders at the thought. She is disgusted and confesses it to me as we stand elbow against elbow. She is repulsed by old people: flabby bodies, false teeth, wrinkly necks and hands, white hair; and teachers shouldn’t even think about certain things.
I feel a sudden anxiety and move imperceptibly away from her. I stare at the filthy countryside, while I feel that my ears are burning.
“Dandelion,” I exclaim, pointing at yellow stains in the fields, beyond the railway tracks. ‘Dandelion’ is a word with an amazing poetic aura. I point out: “The colour is blinding.” And poeticize: “Flares the dandelion.”
She cautiously corrects me:
Maria Tirelli Sheil is an editor and translator based in Dublin, Ireland. She worked as a writer and an editor for American academic publisher H. W. Wilson for many years. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Dublin-based non-profit publisher of literary fiction Betimes Books, for which she volunteers as editorial director. She has edited and translated a number of novels and academic works.
These stories are part of the special issue Reading Domenico Starnone (October 2021), edited by Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova.