The blue of the sea in the distance, seen from the vantage point my classroom afforded me on the second floor of our old, derelict building, contrasted sharply with the inimitable act of him rolling his sleeves. The former pointed at freedom and possibilities. The latter, as I found out later, was the preamble to a performance of ill-disguised cruelty, a pantomime of power, a display of male bravado.
We noticed that the rolled-up sleeves and his beard were a way to divert attention from his ever-expanding pot-belly. This might have been Havana in 1990 and the economic crisis with the resulting food shortages might have been hovering over the Cuban capital like barbarians at the gates but his waistline took no notice of the fast-becoming desperate situation.
Perhaps his performance was a sort of masquerade with which to hide his tired-looking face and the sweat patches on his striped shirt. Perhaps all this was coupled with the fact that the subject he taught was a tough one to deliver. How could it be otherwise, though? Political economics of capitalism and socialism. A term for each system. Roughly five months each, plus an exam at the end of each semester to make you decide whether you wanted to join “the rafters” or stick it out on the island with the dying economy, the ubiquitous corruption and the loss of hope. He couldn’t, however, bring himself to doubt. Doubt in his case was the single bullet in the gun in a game of Russian roulette. You never knew if the next attempt would be the last one. A doubt begat questions and questions meant uncertainties. In front of him a classroom of late-teenagers in their second year in uni. To cap it all, they were linguistics students, doing the course that could open up the doors to information, access to alternative sources of knowledge: English. Still the language of the enemy. No, uncertainties would have meant conflict. He hated conflict. Or rather, he hated conflict when he could not win it. No, there would be no uncertainties. Even if that meant war.
The war was declared during that first lecture in September; the moment he rolled his sleeves up.
The beard, the demeanour, the glasses, the sun-kissed neck, the air of someone who understood you, you, late-blooming adolescent who was finally getting to grips with the world even if someone was pulling the carpet from under your feet because they would be flogging it off to the highest bidder next. I remember it all. Even if after the carpet-pulling, you fell over, you got back up, dusted yourself off and indulged in yet another bout of world-understanding. You knew that after he nodded and nodded and continued to nod as you asked your questions and displayed your uncertainties, as you gathered your books and walked towards the door, you knew that he would go straight to the dean’s office, knocked on his door and reported you. For what? For thinking. You knew that capitalism came in the first term and socialism in the second, but the order did not matter. You were supposed to hardly notice the former whilst praising the latter. Even after the first images from the fall of the Berlin wall found their way clandestinely to Cuba. Oh, yes, they did show the other – sanitised – images after. The ones accompanied by commentary that was so partial you had not realised they hated (East) Germans so much. And then, it was the turn of the Soviets. Meanwhile all the hitherto unexpected changes were explained in our lectures in an articulate and cogent way.
But it was for the final exams at the end of each that SL (I’ve chosen to use his real initials) reserved his better thespian skills. The two-teacher examination board, the two classrooms, one for waiting and the other one for the actual test, the silence, softly interrupted by nervous whispers and the heavy steps (because he always made sure they were heavy) approaching, the slow entrance and the shirt sleeves being rolled up, like a butcher, first one and then the other, the whole time his eyes fixed on his hairy, beefy forearms, until he raised them and with one look he seemed to catch us all at once, his voice booming, just the one word, but delivered in the same way as the sword brought down by the executioner on the head of his terrified victim in years gone by: Next!
Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 19th September at 6pm (GMT)