13 September 1971

First school days

It is a strange thing, memory is.

Present experience creates memory. Memory stews and fades and stews some more. Memory creates past experience.

And if there are no historical records, then there is nothing to confirm or to refute the accuracy of your memory. And since most events are unremarkable when they occur -- you get up in the morning, you have breakfast, go to school, do your work, come home, have dinner, go to bed -- nobody will have bothered to write down the day's experiences. And even if you do your best, past experiences created by your memory will always be deficient.

You don't realize it, of course. How could you?


Have you ever been foolish enough to return to a place of your childhood, your youth?

And have you been disappointed to find the characters not as charming, the buildings not as glamorous, the streets not as wide, the trees not as tall, the forests not as dark, the pastures not as green, the mountains not as rugged?

In my younger and more vulnerable years I read a quote by Jean Paul: "Memory is the only paradise from which we cannot be expelled." Life is more complicated than this, of course, but memory is a good start.

Anyway, school.

I was alone, and I was cold, and I was shaking. And any moment now the light would go out and I would again be immersed in the complete darkness.

It wasn't a basement I knew. It was the basement of a tenement building, and I was standing in a small anteroom.

I stood close to the middle of the small room. I didn't lean against the wall because I didn't want to touch the wall, because I couldn't, because of the spiders. Worse, I didn't even want to take a close look at the wall, because I didn't know what I would do if I happened to spot one. But I certainly couldn't leave. Not that early.

I could see my breath in the cold air as I stared up at the dim naked light bulb that was affixed to the ceiling and was protected by a steel mesh. Any second now. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Now.

Three. Two. One. Now.

Three. Two.


Darkness. I waited as long as I could, maybe five seconds, maybe ten. Then I pressed the illuminated red button and the light came back on and the timer began ticking again.

I looked at my wristwatch. Almost 8:45. Three-and-a-quarter-hours to go until school is over.

Well, three-and-a-quarter hours until school is over for today. I was not even halfway through Grade Two and there would be many more years to come, many more basements, many more times pressing light switches.

Why did I hate school so much? None of my friends up at the Yellow House hated school. Sure, nobody loved school, except maybe for the Kuchner sisters. But then none of them had had to go to kindergarten just because their mother and their grandmother had a fight.

Kindergarten had really taken the joie de vivre out of me. There were the warders who every day tried to engage us little idiots in mind-numbing clapping games, and mind-numbing board games, and mind-numbing building block projects, and who held us to proper behaviour in the small courtyard when we tried to resuscitate our numb minds by running and screaming, and screaming and screaming.

In retrospect I feel bad for those warders, although not very bad. Spending all day with four- to six-year-olds had left them only with a husk of sanity. How much must they have hated us.

The old English teacher came to mind. She came by once a week and seemed really really old but couldn't have been more than thirty-five. She had a face like a vulture and hair like old straw, and she always wore plaid culottes. All she did was try to make some extra money teaching five-year-olds a second language. Unfortunately, teaching skills she had none, and patience she had even less.

(Standing in the basement I didn't know it, but I would meet the old English teacher again in middle school five years later, still as incompetent, still as nasty.)

Then, of course, there were the awkwardly tiny toilet bowls. It was not that any of us had tiny toilet bowls at home, so why did they have tiny toilet bowls in kindergarten? We had two of those, side by side, separated by a curtain. A curtain! If the idea was to train us to control our bowel movement, I can tell you that it worked for me.

And there was nap-time after lunch, where I failed to fall asleep, not because I wasn't tired, not because I wouldn't have preferred a virtual escape from prison, not because of some precocious intrinsic dissidence. No, the reason for my insomnia was that my cot was positioned so unfortunately that as I was lying I had to look up the warder's skirt. And when I closed my eyes afterimages of her rash-covered thighs began to haunt me.

I should add that there was one person in kindergarten I did like: The old cook. She, unlike the English teacher, truly was old. All of us prisoners liked her in spite of the fact that the warders usually handed out interactions with her as a punishment. I for one always preferred washing the dishes over the skin rash afterimages during naptime.

She saved my life once, the old cook did. Although, the term might be overstretching it. I was hiding underneath a cot when I found a large button. Why I took the old button into my mouth, I don't know. I do know that I accidentally swallowed it and that I started to panic. The warders assembled around me and finally decided to ask the old cook what to do. The cook acted quickly and stuffed some uneaten leftovers down my throat "to catch the button in the intestines". I haven't eaten red cabbage since.

CLICK. Click. Tick tick tick ...

I would like to say something compassionate here about my co-prisoners, but they left no impression on me with two exceptions: The boy whose father always side-vaulted across the gate. And a girl named Petra, I believe, who once accidentally pooped beside one of the tiny toilet bowls. I don't believe I hated my co-prisoners, but by the end of the summer, the first day of real school, I had forgotten about any of them.

It had been a sunny day. I hate sunny days. I don't know why. I like the rain.

I woke up early that morning and it took me no time to realize that the dreaded day, the day when my formal education was about to start, had finally arrived. Without enthusiasm I propped myself on my elbows and looked over at the chair where the night before my mother had prepared the garb that I was to wear. There was the blue-and-white chequered shirt that was reminiscent of the Bavarian flag and of which I also had a red-and-white version that was reminiscent of a picnic tablecloth. There were my flared beige denims, which I did like very much. And there were my brown Clark's desert boots. (My memory omits underpants, which I am sure were laid out too.)

I didn't say much as I sat in the old Volkswagen beetle on our way to my grandmother's house. It was against the law to transport a child in the passenger seat, but my mother always allowed it in spite of the law or because of it. We were fifteen minutes late, which then was nothing unexpected from my mother. My grandmother had already made her way into the parking lot up at the Yellow House. She was all dressed up, and I could see the disapproving look she gave my mother's dress. But she didn't say anything. It was probably too early to start a fight. She also knew that except for the weekends I would live with her, and she would find a way to put me right.

My mother took a picture of me with my school cone, which in Austria your parents give you on your first day of school. If you think it is filled with chocolates, and candy, and comic books, I don't blame you, because that's what I thought. But I was a fool. The school cone is filled with practical things -- pencils, exercise books, slippers, which we had to wear.

Figure: In the parking lot of the Yellow House on my first school day on 13 Sep 1971, holding my school cone. Image: Irmgard Baumann (1971)

It was busy and we had to park at the church and walk the two blocks to school, my mother and I three or four steps ahead of my grandmother.

The great entrance hall was full of people, and I couldn't see much. And when the headmaster started to welcome the parents and the abecedarians I couldn't see him, I could only hear his voice, whose tone didn't inspire much confidence in me.

I felt hands resting on my shoulders, my mother's on the left, my grandmother's on the right. After what seemed an eternity, I felt the slight push, and with it I was released into the world. Slowly I made my way through the great forest of adults who yielded their ground to me so that I could reach the centre of hell.

"Baumann, Michael?" the headmaster repeated.

"He's coming." I heard my mother say from behind the great forest and a lifetime away.

Walking out into the clearing I saw those whose names I had heard called earlier, not many of course because, you know, Baumann starts with a B. Beyond the frightened group, on the third or fourth step of the stairs the headmaster pontificated. He was old, with glasses and white hair, a grey suit, a white shirt, a black tie. His front teeth stayed outside his mouth even when his lips were closed. He looked me over, disapproving of my outfit. Then his eyes returned to the list he had in his hand.

"Baumann, Michael: One cee." he said firmly, which was my class designation.

A little later we were ushered into a classroom and met our class teacher Herr Arbeiter, an old man who would scream into our ears and whose spittle would fly in our faces every time we didn't get up from our chairs fast enough. Obedience training is the latent goal of the education system, and arbitrariness and injustice are its schedule and method. And thus another prison term began.

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