Tuesday 13 December 2016.
Said like that, it might be interesting, even for the rest of the class. This teacher is good. As my little brother would say: she is ‘cool’.
I, on the other hand, have been bored for some time. I can’t stop looking at the girl in front of me. Every time I look at her, I feel a lump in my throat. I had begun to feel this way from the first day of class. I don’t understand it because we have been together in the same school since primary school, not always in the same class, but in the same school. We shared the same activities, but I had never felt the way I did when I saw her enter my class this year, with her curly hair, worn loose, her open neck and a folder pressed against her body. She walked right past me to sit in front. I don’t know whether it was the hair or the clothes that she wore or simply the body of this girl, who I shared so many years with at school, but right there and then, she became a woman.
Since that day, I’ve been thinking about what to say to her, how to explain what I feel for her.
But I can’t.
Deep down, I still feel like a child. I carry on playing football with my friends after school. I see her standing at the gate at the exit, chatting with her friends. Occasionally, an older boy would approach the girls and try to join in their conversation. Fortunately, she always went back to her friends. And that calmed my fears.
But one day, my whole world collapsed.
I remember that I was coming to school with my little brother. It is something I have done everyday since my father’s death five years earlier, after our mother stopped taking us to school because her new job required her to get into work early every morning. While I was on my way to school, I saw the new boy from Sweden hurrying past me on my left. I liked him. He was friendly, sporty and the girls liked him. When he came alongside, he tapped me on the arm and said:
“David, can I have a word after school?”
I nodded. As I had to come back to collect my little brother from school, we agreed to meet up at the exit gate of the secondary section.
I couldn’t have imagined what was going to happen next.
If I’d known, I wouldn’t have agreed to meet him later.
When I met this tall blond boy, with white skin and Swedish accent, he told me he’d fallen in love with a girl in class, but didn’t know what the custom was in Spain if he wanted to ask her to go out with him. My heart dropped. He’d decided to ask me because I seemed serious and to have had some experience with girls. How far from the truth he was, I thought to myself. But I’d no time to think more about it when he told me who the girl was.
From that day on, I’ve tried to avoid looking in her direction, pretty difficult, considering she sits in front of me. In class, we sit in pairs and they put me to sit next to Elsa. So I try to talk to her about topics in class to stop myself glancing at Sofia’s table. What is worse, for a whole week now, Erik’s decided to sit next to Sofia,
I realise I’ve been distracted. Zaragoza, where I’ve been living since birth, a sacred city, no less! It’s all the more interesting to say the least, because I’ve never heard about such a thing before.
I’ve to admit that coming to History class has been worth it this year. She’s a great teacher, which is a real surprise. I briefly caught a glimpse of a guy who tried to hit on her the other day at the end of the school day. All he got was a serious rebuff and an eyeful of her boyfriend’s muscles when he came to meet her on an enormous motorcycle after school. What an idiot! Imagine at 16, hitting on your teacher who’s more than 10 years older than you. Well, each to his own.
I’m just thankful that she hasn’t worn high heels like she did on that first day. She made us feel like dwarves, even though she’s the shortest player in her volleyball team.
She’s still leaning, with her hands on the table at the right-hand corner of the first row. She silently, observes some students’ surprised at the idea of a sacred city.
Now, she’s grabbed everyone’s attention.
“… A place where nature submitted itself to man and perhaps one of the few places where this natural phenomenon truly existed.” This was how she ends the history of the city’s beginnings.
She’s certainly got my attention. I look at Elsa on my right and she looks back at me. She’s Sofia’s best friend. How ironic, me sitting next to her. Luckily, I like her. We’re always helping each other out in class when one of us doesn’t understand something. The dark colour of her skin and her height make her stand out from the rest of the class. With an American father, a former NBA basketball player and a Cuban mother, their daughter is sure to look a little like each of them. She gets her height from her father, and the rest from her mother. From the few times I’ve seen them together, I can safely say that her character is completely the opposite of her father’s. They moved to the city ten years ago when he was hired as coach to the main basketball team. He was kept on for only four years after that, when the club dropped into the Second Division. By that time, the mother had already got herself known as a top class teacher of rhythmic gymnastics in one of the best clubs in the city. So they decided to stay. Her father wasn’t short on offers either. He decided to accept a post at the university as an associate lecturer in the Department of Industrial Psychology, using the Doctorate he had obtained in the United States while he was playing basketball.
She continues looking at me. We both shrug our shoulders, in a gesture of puzzlement and, of course, surprise. I know that Elsa loves History. I’m sure that she must find the class very interesting. But the idea of a sacred city sounds a bit far-fetched, and she doesn’t believe in fantasy worlds or in imaginary characters. I, on the other hand, don’t think it sounded too bad after role-playing with some friends last summer. After all, it was all based on imaginary characters.
“For me, it continues to be a story or a legend,” the teacher went on, “but if anyone succeeded in proving it to be true, it would be amazing. What is certain is that there is more to tell.” She stops and looks at us.
There’s a long silence in the classroom, as we wait for her to continue her explanation. She points to the drawn map and proceeds with the explanation:
“The Romans knew the large river which ran from the west to the east: the Ebro. In fact, by now, you are probably asking yourselves why the Iberian Peninsula carries the name that is derived from the river passing through our city.”
Then, she drops her pen. Bending over to pick it up, she creates a moment of sensation in class … at least among the boys. The girls, on the other hand, focus the map.
“For them, it was the river coming from the west, from the world of the dead, of darkness, of twilight…”
I realise that I’m staring at her. It’s been a while since something like that has happened to me, at least for reasons other than her looks. Surreptitiously, I watch my classmates. I don’t want them to see me doing it. The fact is I do it often, but I don’t want them to think that I am a voyeur. It’s basically curiosity or so I tell myself when I watch them. This time, I see that they’re all looking at the map intently and listening attentively to the teacher.
“…And it was the river that flowed toward the east, where the sun, the light rose … towards Rome. It was the river which suddenly converged with two others: one running from the north, from Gallia (hence its name: the Gallego) and the other, the Huerva, bringing waters from the south.”
The teacher is silent as she points out the rivers on the map. She then continues:
“The direction of the water’s flow was regarded as the transport or as a vehicle of information from its source. In other words, the river that carried water from the North, from the Polar Star, brought water from the Cosmos, from knowledge itself.”
Suddenly, Elsa commented in a low voice:
“In other words, people from the north are smarter than us.”
From the ensuing silence, it appears that everyone in the class has heard her. With hoots of laughter coming from all sides, Elsa blushes and the teacher addresses her point:
“The truth is that I don’t know how to respond to that,” she smiles, “because if I tell you about the river from the south, I don’t know what conclusion you are going to come to.”
There’s a slight pause while she smoothes her hair with her hands. Then she carries on:
“Because the one from the south, if we accept your interpretation, carried with it information from the Earth, from the material underworld, from the serpent or the dragon up to the north.”
Now, I don’t know where to look. I can see Elsa beginning to feel uncomfortable. She glances at me, as if to say that this is all beginning to sound like nonsense. But like me, everyone continues to listen. After all, it’s a fact that these rivers do exist. I notice that the class is totally silent.
“We might conclude that the city of Caesar Augustus was designed to be the centre of the Roman Order. As a consequence, they looked upon it as a sacred city, designing it to be a representation on Earth of a world ordained by the gods.”
She walks silently towards the window. Outside, the day looks as dark as night. The wind picks up. Through the window, we can see the clouds have all turned almost black. We all know that they are a prelude to a storm.
Suddenly a bolt of lightning in the distance startles us. We can hear gasps from the girls. Then, there’s total silence in the classroom. No one’s looking at the screen. Without taking her eyes off the window, the teacher says in a loud voice:
“Do you know how this link between the heavens and the earth was created?”
I look at the others. Nobody responds, including me. There’s only silence. It’s the first time that something like this has happened in a History class. It’s the first time in the whole year that the teacher has been able to hold everyone’s attention with an explanation. She turns back to the map. All eyes follow her, like spectators at a tennis match. No one says a word.
The teacher answers her own question:
She stops and looks at us again.
“In this way, the Roman town of Caesaraugusta was geometrically designed, using knowledge held only by the priests. It was assumed that they were the only ones who understood the true depths of the mystery of life.”
Unabashed, I look at Sofia. I know all too well that she will be enjoying this. And so she is. She’s shifting in her seat and sitting upright at her desk to listen more intently.
“For this reason, custom prescribed a foundation ritual to create the city. What happened is that the priests drew perpendicular axes between each point on the earth, the Cardus and the Decumanus. To do so, they used two oxen to pull a plough to mark the perimeter of the city. The Earth represented the material world: the feminine form impregnated by the plough which, in turn, was the symbol of masculine energy, both of them being sacred …”
She waits for a moment and surveys her audience.
“Hence, they gave the city a sacred character. They understood that it was a place of Order or, in other words, they created a City of Harmony because a balance had been created by combining these two energies.”
The teacher stops for moment and contemplates the look of surprise on our faces. I glance at the rest. We’re all the same. She puts up a large plan of the old city and draws two thick lines: one along Don Jaime I Street from the Ebro River to Coso Street, and the other from the Plaza of La Magdalena along Calle Mayor, Espoz and Mina and Manifestación, to end at Caesar Augustus Avenue.
She turns and says, pointing at the two thick lines she has drawn:
“Behold: the Cardus and the Decumanus of Zaragoza.”
I recall someone else mentioning this earlier at some point in my life. I’d never given it any importance. Now, it seems that it is. Elsa sits with her mouth wide open. I look at Sofia again. She’s the only one in the class not looking at the board. Instead she’s busy, scribbling something down on a sheet of paper.
But, at that point, something else is happening.
I don’t know what it is.
The teacher lifts her right hand to her ear. Her expression quickly changes into one of pain. She has to support herself on the table with her other hand. She looks dizzy. She starts bending her head forward and pursing her lips. What’s happening to her?
Good God! She literally collapses on the table, holding onto the edge of the desk with her left hand in order not to fall to the ground. There’s shouting in the classroom. Suddenly, it’s chaos.
The students in the first row get up and run to her assistance.
By then, we can see that her hair’s stained with a streak of red, from the blood trickling from her right ear. With her fingers, she tries to stop the flow. With her head resting on the table, she looks at us helplessly, as if trying to ask what’s going on.
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Writer: Glen Lapson © 2016
English translator: Rose Cartledge
Publisher: Fundacion ECUUP
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