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Schoolmaster José, an old friend of my father, expired at nine o’clock in the morning on a Friday, in the old folks’ home where he had been living for some time. He was a little more than seventy years old, widowed , without children, and was accompanied to the Butantã Cemetery by four people. Two of them sent by the home to handle the funeral bier, and there were also myself and my wife. The funeral was done hastily, since it was the eve of Shabbat and because it was raining—a fine and persistent rain. There were neither speeches nor a waste of time on prayers, except for the strictly necessary ones. Facing the open grave, while the lumps of wet soil were being thrown in, I kept thinking about what that man’s life had been. Had it been worthwhile? I am certain that, if we could have heard his opinion, he would have said yes. He was the type of man who spent his life laughing about everything. Of the teachers who got together at night in my father’s home to discuss matters about the teaching profession, perhaps he was the most modest of all. He was merely the melamed of the primary-school level who transmitted the alef-bet to the children, nothing more than that. When discussion dealt with the plea to raise salaries or to establish new directives for the teaching of Jewish subjects in the schools, there would be inflamed speeches, radical opinions would clash in the air, but he was the only one to remain silent. Everybody tried to put in their two cents’ worth. That’s why, in the heat of the debates, at times somebody would overdo it, letting escape, as it naturally happens, some absurd rhetoric or even some real nonsense. It was only at this point that he made himself known: ‘Coo . . . coooo . . . coo . . . coooo.’ Everybody would laugh, and serenity would again prevail. After all, they were respectable teachers and not uncivilized children. Debates, Eliezer Levin A Schoolmaster’s Requiem 150 eliezer levin yes; discussions, yes; freedom of expression, yes; but not without due respect. That ‘coo . . . coooo’ of schoolmaster José was also known by his students—six- and seven-year-old boys. He tried to put into those thick little heads the Hebraic alphabet, but when the situation got really difficult to the point of exploding the patience of any other teacher, he would let out a laugh and in front of the perplexed eyes of the frightened little boy, he would let out his happy ‘coo-coooo,’ which made the boy smile again. His colleagues didn’t take him very seriously, but they treated him nicely, albeit with a certain degree of paternalism. After all, he was one of them. A funny class of people were those Jewish teachers of that period. They considered themselves to be the cream of intellectuality, they quoted poets and philosophers, they employed a stilted style, they spoke loudly among themselves, but when they had to face their employers, they lost a little of their attitude and ended up accepting the small salaries that were imposed on them. Given the failure of their class, they would go back to meeting among themselves. In one way or another, all of them had their excuses and tried, by means of comments and more inflamed speeches, to hide their bitter humiliation . In the midst of the noisy racket that took place, overriding the entanglement of voices, the curious aside would be heard: ‘Coo . . . coooo . . . coo . . . coooo.’ Some of them would react: ‘He’s a child! Did you ever?’ Others laughed and slapped him on the back, as if approving of his opinion, because, that ‘Coo-coooo,’ in reality, as they had already suspected for some time, represented an opinion like any other. Ever since I was a child, there at home, I got used to the happy and jovial presence of schoolmaster José, who came to talk with my father, not only with regard to problems at school but also about Judaism, about what was going on in the world, about the polemical articles in the Yiddish press, about books in general, about Talmudic questions (he was the official reader of the Torah and the megilloth in one of our synagogues). But the big topic, without a doubt, invariably revolved around the educational work to which he had always been committed. ‘You know, Jossel,’ my father would say to...


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