Cuore (Chapter 37)
Edmondo De Acimis
THE EVENING SCHOOLS
LAST night my father took me to see the evening schools in our Baretti schoolhouse, which were all lighted up already, and where the workingmen were already beginning to enter. On our arrival we found the head-master and the other masters in a great rage, because a little while before the glass in one window had been broken by a stone. The beadle had darted forth and seized a boy by the hair, who was passing; but thereupon, Stardi, who lives in the house opposite, had presented himself, and said:—
“This is not the right one; I saw it with my own eyes; it was Franti who threw it; and he said to me, ‘Woe to you if you tell of me!’ but I am not afraid.”
Then the head-master declared that Franti should be expelled for good. In the meantime I was watching the workingmen enter by twos and threes; and more than two hundred had already entered. I have never seen anything so fine as the evening school. There were boys of twelve and upwards; bearded men who were on their way from their work, carrying their books and copy-books; there were carpenters, engineers with black faces, masons with hands white with plaster, bakers’ boys with their hair full of flour; andthere was perceptible the odor of varnish, hides, fish, oil,—odors of all the various trades. There also entered a squad of artillery workmen, dressed like soldiers and headed by a corporal. They all filed briskly to their benches, removed the board underneath, on which we put our feet, and immediately bent their heads over their work.
Some stepped up to the teachers to ask explanations, with their open copy-books in their hands. I caught sight of that young and well-dressed master “the little lawyer,” who had three or four workingmen clustered round his table, and was making corrections with his pen; and also the lame one, who was laughing with a dyer who had brought him a copy-book all adorned with red and blue dyes. My master, who had recovered, and who will return to school to-morrow, was there also. The doors of the schoolroom were open. I was amazed, when the lessons began, to see how attentive they all were, and how they kept their eyes fixed on their work. Yet the greater part of them, so the head-master said, for fear of being late, had not even been home to eat a mouthful of supper, and they were hungry.
But the younger ones, after half an hour of school, were falling off the benches with sleep; one even went fast asleep with his head on the bench, and the master waked him up by poking his ear with a pen. But the grown-up men did nothing of the sort; they kept awake, and listened, with their mouths wide open, to the lesson, without even winking; and it made a deep impression on me to see all those bearded men on our benches. We also ascended to the story floor above, and I ran to the door of my schoolroom and saw in my seat a man with a big mustache and a bandaged hand, who might have injured himself while at work about some machine; but he was trying to write, though very, very slowly.
But what pleased me most was to behold in the seat of the little mason, on the very same bench and in the very same corner, his father, the mason, as huge as a giant, who sat there all coiled up into a narrow space, with his chin on his fists and his eyes on his book, so absorbed that he hardly breathed. And there was no chance about it, for it was he himself who said to the head-master the first evening he came to the school:—
“Signor Director, do me the favor to place me in the seat of ‘my hare’s face.’” For he always calls his son so.
My father kept me there until the end, and in the street we saw many women with children in their arms, waiting for their husbands; and at the entrance a change was effected: the husbands took the children in their arms, and the women made them surrender their books and copy-books; and in this wise they proceeded to their homes. For several minutes the street was filled with people and with noise. Then all grew silent, and all we could see was the tall and weary form of the head-master disappearing in the distance.