…Here he was. Wise and informed at all times. High-grader, class leader, pride bearer. The escape of the principal on every occasion: her own degree exams, announced inspections, special visits…
No matter what class we were attending, the moment the VIP entered the room, everything changed. Biology, Math or Grammar? The next question after the visitor had taken his seat in the back of the classroom was the same: “Dearly beloved pupils, what is the name of our country?” We couldn’t just simply answer “Romania”… No… That would have been considered a huge mistake and probably the result of a wrong or even subversive education. “Our country is the Socialist Republic of Romania.” Shiny smile and prideful puffed chest accompanied the answer.
Inevitably, the next question followed as expected. “And who is the leader of our Socialist Republic of Romania?” Again, “comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu” would never be the correct and respectful answer. No… Everybody knew the name of our beloved president, the first pioneer, the first soldier and the first communist ever created by Darwin (God was not an option, as attending church was also considered a subversive activity). “The president of The Socialist Republic of Romania is comrade Nicolae Ceauşescu, general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party.” (chest popped in front, shoulders pulling back, straight posture and shiny smile, of course).
We might have gone back to Math or Geography, but usually our principal brought out the heavy artillery to the stage. Johnny was rubbing his yellow fingers impatiently, on the rubber eraser or on the surface of the pen. His yellow face and his rough-skinned cheeks used to get a little rosy of excitement. We only studied Latin in the eigth grade, but his knowledge was always a good reason for the principal to put up a little show in front of the visitors.
“What is our national language? What’s the origin of our national language?”
“Our national language is Romanian. Our language is of Latin origin, mixed with words that belonged to those who were living here before the Romans conquered blah…blah…blah…”
“And how do we say “dog” in Latin?” No one raised their hand. We all knew it was time to relax and go through the same Johnny and Thea Show. Johnny popped up on his untrained limbs and garggled “canis lupus”. Very well, Johnny! Take a sit. (by the way, I once heard a teacher using the phraze “COVER your seat!” like thse pupils were some kind of raggs or ass pillows, not real human beings)
What about “bear”? How did our beloved ancestors call a bear in Latin? Johnny popped again, but this time with a little theatrically played lapsus: “Hrrrmm…ehrrrmmm…ursus arctos!” And on and on they went… Johnny was the pride of the flock, the juice of the orange, the sweetness of love and the richness of the sky… He was damn good! He KNEW everything, he got all the A’s that were available during a school year and he probably got them during spring, summer and winter breaks, too. He was encouraged to see himself as a special case, as a brilliant mind and a future genius. And he acted accordingly. Sometimes, he was playing sad for not getting at least one B during a whole year, saying he had gotten really bored of so many A’s. When sometimes (less than five times during eight years of primary and secondary school) the B hit him, he first put on a show of dignity and than broke down and cried for the rest of the day.
Johnny was also brilliant in high-school. Overachiever, not too popular, though… He usually stood alone, he didn't have a girlfriend and we didn't see him attending too many parties. But he decided the moment had come for some important changes that would have an important impact on his social life. He started to smoke, so that he was able to stand with the smokers during the breaks, around the corner of the building, close to the high-school’s pig farm that used to supply meals for the interns. He indulged in the the beauty of skipping classes and spending time around a cup of coffee with other “skippers”. He grew pretty long hippie hair and became a genuine rocker. He even started to learn how to play the guitar and, after just a few weeks, joined a glam band that tried to play Skid Row and Guns’n Roses covers. Tragically and brutally disturbing, his “solos” reminded everyone of a slaughter house.
During his last senior year, he was still an overachiever, still scored annoyingly high grades and he even got some friends and a groupie. He enjoyed the attention, popularity and acceptance that he had always craved for. But there came another reason of sadness in Johnny’s life. He was an eminent student at probably every subject in the curricula. Not at Sports though, as he had always been clumsy and he ran like a girl, he seldom went out to play while being a kid and his outings were most about going fishing with his dad, that took good care to train him and pas on this hobby. Fishing was actually the only thing that raised his interest.
But he was so good at so many subjects in school without being really interested in any of them. Close to the “entrance summer”, which for all of us was the summer following the end of senior year, he told me on different occasions: “I don’t really know what to do and where to go. I don’t like anything for real.” And every time he said that with a really worried face, with his eyes trying to follow his tangled thoughts.
He went to law school. Again, his father was probably the strongest influence, as he had a safe job as a legal adviser and part time communist political police activities, as most of the key-positions in the public-owned companies (there weren't any other kind during communism) used to combine on their vague job-descriptions. I haven’t seen Johnny again after finishing school. I heard he joined a famous magistrate after he graduated university, became a partner, then took over as one of the important shareholders of a law firm and still enjoyed fishing. I have never heard his name quoted in important subjects regarding legal matters, trials etc. What I did hear was that, at some point, he used to drink a bottle of scotch every day, that he was not married, didn't have kids and had to face some serious health problems.
Johnny probably didn't choose any part of this journey. Considering that his eyes sparkled only when he was talking about fishing (since his childhood until the moment when we lost contact), I take the liberty to think that he was always acting on other people’s decisions. Convinced to see himself as a very special kid, as we all are if there is someone there to acknowledge and encourage us, he had been treated as a golden monkey both by his parents and teachers. The rest of his journey was just the result of this so common mistake. “Be the best in everything, don’t focus on any particular topic, don’t listen to your own heart when having to decide the meaning of your own life, don’t waste time on apparently unimportant subjects such as purpose or calling.” And, in the end, “be the pride of the class and make your parents proud”.
Not stimulating a kid’s need for choice might be more than a serious flaw in education. Inhibiting a child’s or a teenager’s power of decision is equal to a crime against the whole human society. And I am not saying this just in reference to the totalitarian type of education adjacent to communism. We have gone through hundreds of years and thousands of generations of children that had to follow their parents’ footsteps, that were forced to take as granted only the power of example and not being allowed to learn from their own tribulations and listen to their own instincts and callings.
This walked hand in hand with a more and more inappropriate educational system that filled pupils’ minds with the illusory fetish of “general knowledge” and neglected the real need of testing their vocational callings. Out of pure fear and denial, parents who were university graduates would never mind that their son became a sad lawyer, but would be outraged if he were an extremely happy plumber. It is not the case for the opposite theory, as usually the poorly educated parents would be fine if their child was happy either as a shoe salesman or as a neurosurgeon.
We, as humans, have the means to learn everything. We could be the best in everything we train for if we were convinced that we can work just as machines do. But the real society structure rarely needs machine-like humans. We created machines that replicate this human gift because, surprisingly, we sometimes get tired. Or sick. Or drunk. Or gay. Or black. Or distracted. Yeah, fortunately we have flaws and sometimes conscience and sometimes feelings. What if we also try to train these gifts of our kids instead of transforming them into future threats for the grown-ups they will eventually turn into?
What if, for a change, we started talking less and listening more to our children? What if we accepted that whatever we have to say, impose, pass as granted, shout or make clear with slaps and canes is as important as what their virgin minds and unstained souls come up with, apparently from nowhere? What if we acknowledge them as angles even when they spill their cocoa on the fresh table mat and not only when they finally learn that freaking poem in order to recite it in front of our guests or when they candidly smile for a family picture? What if we become aware that intuition and feelings are our true primordial gifts that we bring to this life and that our children’s hearts definitely need to be nourished way beyond the quantity and the quality of the food that we put on their plates? What if, in the end, we sustained our children’s capability of acknowledging that what is good for them in more important than what was or is good for us?