Authors: J. M. Coetzee
'Do we have to talk about school?' said Maria Regina. 'It is so boring.'
But what we were talking about was not boring at all. Painful, perhaps, for Mr Coetzee, but not boring. 'Go on,' I said to him, ignoring her.
'I do not intend to be an examination coach for the rest of my life,' he said. 'It is something I am doing for the present, something I happen to be qualified to do, to make a living. But it is not my vocation. It is not what I was called into the world to do.'
Called into the world
. More and more strange.
'If you would like me to explain my philosophy of teaching I can do so,' he said. 'It is quite brief, brief and simple.'
'Go on,' I said, 'let us hear your brief philosophy.'
'What I call my philosophy of teaching is in fact a philosophy of learning. It comes out of Plato, modified. Before true learning can occur, I believe, there must be in the student's heart a certain yearning for the truth, a certain fire. The true student burns to know. In the teacher she recognizes, or apprehends, the one who has come closer than herself to the truth. So much does she desire the truth embodied in the teacher that she is prepared to burn her old self up to attain it. For his part, the teacher recognizes and encourages the fire in the student, and responds to it by burning with an intenser light. Thus together the two of them rise to a higher realm. So to speak.'
He paused, smiling. Now that he had had his say he seemed more relaxed.
What a strange, vain man!
Burn herself up! What nonsense he talks! Dangerous nonsense too! Out of Plato! Is he making fun of us?
But Maria Regina, I noticed, was leaning forward, devouring his face with her eyes. Maria Regina did not think he was joking.
This is not good!
I said to myself.
'That does not sound like philosophy to me, Mr Coetzee,' I said, 'it sounds like something else, I will not say what, since you are our guest. Maria, you can fetch the cake now. Joana, help her; and take off that raincoat. My daughters baked a cake last night in honour of your visit.'
The moment the girls were out of the room I went to the heart of the matter, speaking softly so that they would not hear. 'Maria is still a child, Mr Coetzee. I am paying for her to learn English and get a good certificate. I am not paying for you to play with her feelings. Do you understand?' The girls came back, bearing their cake. 'Do you understand?' I repeated.
'We learn what we most deeply want to learn,' he replied. 'Maria wants to learn – do you not, Maria?'
Maria flushed and sat down.
'Maria wants to learn,' he repeated, 'and she is making good progress. She has a feeling for language. Maybe she will become a writer one day. What a magnificent cake!'
'It is good when a girl can bake,' I said, 'but it is even better when she can speak good English and get good marks in her English examination.'
'Good elocution, good marks,' he said. 'I understand your wishes perfectly.'
When he had left, when the girls had gone to bed, I sat down and wrote him a letter in my bad English, I could not help that, it was not the kind of letter my friend at the studio should see.
Respected Mr Coetzee,
I repeat what I told you during your visit. You are employed to teach my daughter English, not to play with her feelings. She is a child, you are a grown man. If you wish to expose your feelings, expose them outside the classroom. Yours faithfully, ATN.
That is what I said. It may not be how you speak in English, but it is how we speak in Portuguese – your translator will understand.
Expose your feelings outside the classroom
– that was not an invitation to him to pursue me, it was a warning to him not to pursue my daughter.
I sealed up the letter in an envelope and wrote his name on it,
Mr Coetzee / Saint Bonaventure
, and on the Monday morning I put it in Maria Regina's bag. 'Give it to Mr Coetzee,' I said, 'put it in his hand.'
'What is it?' said Maria Regina.
'It is a note from a parent to her daughter's teacher, it is not for your eyes. Now go, or you will miss your bus.'
Of course I made a mistake, I should not have said,
It is not for your eyes.
Maria Regina was beyond the age where, if your mother gives you a command, you obey. She was beyond that age but I did not yet know it yet. I was living in the past.
'Did you give the note to Mr Coetzee?' I asked when she came home.
'Yes,' she said, and nothing more. I did not think I had to ask,
Did you open it in secret and read it before you gave it to him?
The next day, to my surprise, Maria Regina brought back a note from this teacher of hers, not an answer to mine but an invitation: would we all like to come on a picnic with him and his father? At first I was going to refuse. 'Think,' I said to Maria Regina: 'Do you really want your friends at school to get the impression you are the teacher's favourite? Do you really want them to gossip behind your back?' But that weighed nothing with her, she
to be the teacher's favourite. She pressed me and pressed me to accept, and Joana backed her up, so in the end I said yes.
There was lots of excitement at home, and lots of baking, and Joana brought things from the shop too, so when Mr Coetzee came to fetch us on the Sunday morning we had a whole basket of cakes and biscuits and sweets with us, enough to feed an army.
He did not fetch us in a car, he did not have a car, no, he came in a truck, the kind that is open at the back, that in Brazil we call a
. So the girls, in their nice clothes, had to sit in the back with the firewood while I sat in the front with him and his father.
That was the only time I met his father. His father was quite old already, and unsteady, with hands that trembled. I thought he might be trembling because he found himself sitting next to a strange woman, but later I saw his hands trembled all the time. When he was introduced to us he said 'How do you do?' very nicely, very courteously, but after that he shut up. All the time we drove he did not speak, not to me, not to his son either. A very quiet man, very humble, or perhaps just frightened of everything.
We drove up into the mountains – we had to stop to let the girls put on their coats, they were getting cold – to a park, I don't remember the name now, where there were pine trees and places in between where people could have picnics, white people only, of course – a nice place, almost empty because it was winter. As soon as we chose our place Mr Coetzee made himself busy unloading the truck and building a fire. I expected Maria Regina to help him, but she slipped away, she said she wanted to explore. That was not a good sign. Because if relations had been
comme il faut
between them, just a teacher and a student, she would not have been embarrassed to help. But it was Joana who came forward instead, Joana was very good that way, very practical and efficient.
So there I was, left behind with his father as if we were the two old people, the grandparents! I found it hard talking to him, as I said, he could not understand my English and was shy too, with a woman; or maybe he just didn't understand who I was.
And then, even before the fire was burning properly, clouds came over and it grew dark and started to rain. 'It is just a shower, it will soon pass,' said Mr Coetzee. 'Why don't the three of you get into the truck.' So the girls and I took shelter in the truck, and he and his father huddled under a tree, and we waited for the rain to pass. But of course it did not, it went on raining and gradually the girls lost their good spirits. 'Why does it have to rain
of all days?' whined Maria Regina, just like a baby. 'Because it is winter,' I told her: 'because it is winter and intelligent people, people with their feet on the ground, don't go out on picnics in the middle of winter.'
The fire that Mr Coetzee and Joana had built went out. All the wood was wet by now, so we would never be able to cook our meat. 'Why don't you offer them some of the biscuits you baked?' I said to Maria Regina. Because I had never seen a more miserable sight than those two Dutchmen, the father and the son, sitting together side by side under a tree trying to pretend they were not cold and wet. A miserable sight, but funny too. 'Offer them some biscuits and ask them what we are going to do next. Ask them if they would like to take us to the beach for a swim.'
I said this to make Maria Regina smile, but all I did was make her more cross; so in the end it was Joana who went out in the rain and talked to them and came back with the message that we would leave as soon as it stopped raining, we would go back to their house and they would make tea for us. 'No,' I said to Joana. 'Go back and tell Mr Coetzee no, we cannot come to tea, he must take us straight back to the flat, tomorrow is Monday and Maria Regina has homework that she hasn't even started on.'
Of course it was an unhappy day for Mr Coetzee. He had hoped to make a good impression on me; maybe he also wanted to show off to his father the three attractive Brazilian ladies who were his friends; and instead all he got was a truck full of wet people driving through the rain. But to me it was good that Maria Regina should see what her hero was like in real life, this poet who could not even make a fire.
So that is the story of our expedition into the mountains with Mr Coetzee. When at last we got back in Wynberg, I said to him, in front of his father, in front of the girls, what I had been waiting to say all day. 'It was very kind of you to invite us out, Mr Coetzee, very gentlemanly,' I said, 'but maybe it is not a good idea for a teacher to be favouring one girl in his class above all others just because she is pretty. I am not admonishing you, just asking you to reflect.'
Those were the words I used:
just because she is pretty
. Maria Regina was furious with me for speaking like that, but as for me, I did not care as long as I was understood.
Later that night, when Maria Regina had already gone to bed, Joana came to my room. '
, must you be so hard on Maria?' she said. 'Truly, there is nothing bad going on.'
'Nothing bad?' I said. 'What do you know of the world? What do you know of badness? What do you know of what men will do?'
'He is not a bad man,
,' she said. 'Surely you can see that.'
'He is a weak man,' I said. 'A weak man is worse than a bad man. A weak man does not know where to stop. A weak man is helpless before his impulses, he follows wherever they lead.'
, we are all weak,' said Joana.
'No, you are wrong, I am not weak,' I said. 'Where would we be, you and Maria Regina and I, if I allowed myself to be weak? Now go to bed. And don't repeat any of this to Maria Regina. Not a word. She will not understand.'
I hoped that would be the end of Mr Coetzee. But no, a day or two later there arrived a letter from him, not via Maria Regina this time but through the mail, a formal letter, typed, the envelope typed too. In it he first apologized for the picnic that had been a failure. He had hoped to speak to me in private, he said, but had had no chance. Could he come and see me? Could he come to the flat, or would I prefer to meet him elsewhere, perhaps have lunch with him? The matter that weighed on him was not Maria Regina, he wanted to stress. Maria was an intelligent young woman, with a good heart; it was a privilege to teach her; I could be assured he would never,
betray the trust I had put in him. Intelligent and beautiful too – he hoped I would not mind if he said that. For beauty, true beauty, was more than skin-deep, it was the soul showing through the flesh; and where could Maria Regina have got her beauty but from me?
That was all. That was the substance. Could he meet me alone.
Of course I asked myself where he had got the idea that I would want to meet him, even want to receive a letter from him. Because I never said a word to encourage him.
So what did you do? Did you meet him?
What did I do? I did nothing and hoped he would leave me alone. I was a woman in mourning, though my husband was not dead, I did not want the attentions of other men, particularly of a man who was my daughter's teacher.