“Javid, khastam kardeee… key meekhaay monzabet beshi?” (“Javid, I've had it with you. When are you going to become disciplined?”)
“Aqaa ejaazeh…” (“Sir, may I…? “)
“Aqaa bekhodaa maa kaari nakardeem…” (“Sir, I swear I didn't do anything…”)
Oh yes I did.
I don't want to brag or anything, but I'm pretty sure in the five years I attended Babak elementary and junior high school in Abadan (1971-75), I got expelled from class more often than anyone. Certainly a lot. Even if the real troublemaker was someone else, lack of evidence meant rounding up the usual suspect: moi.
And one of the classes I got frequently kicked out of was talimaate dini, religion.
I sat in the front row, sharing a desk with my adorably chubby half-French partner in crime, Karim Haj Sheikh Javadi. Mr. Shayesteh would enter the class and everyone would jump to their feat: “BAR PAAAA!” (“ALL RISE!”). Karim and I would either jump higher or get up slowly as if we didn't give a damn. We didn't, none of us. But some of us had to make a point of it.
For starters, Mr. Shayesteh looked and talked funny. Imagine John Ashcroft in Yogi Bear's body teaching religion in a voice that was more like a thick squeal. He was always dead serious, like our other teachers. But he was more irritable, which made him an irresistible target. We knew our prank was dead-on when Mr. Shayesteh would squint and pull his lips together in total contempt.
What would happen next depended on the level of irritation and each had a corresponding punishment. First the offender (at this point ready to pee in his pants) would have been called in front of class to answer a few questions about previous night's homework. If he did poorly, which was fully expected, Mr. Shayesteh would wave the humiliated student back to his bench and write a big fat zero in the grade book.
If he was dealing with a repeat prankster, Mr. Shayesteh would go as far as ordering him to hold out the palm of his hand and strike it with a ruler a dozen times or more. Then if you did something totally outrageous, beyond laziness and goofing around, then Mr. Shayesteh would take the terrorist by the ear and give him the boot. That meant standing outside the classroom, facing the empty school yard.
There were two possible scenarios at this point. One was terrifying, the other mortifying.
Usually you were first spotted by Mr. Parastar, the principal, who looked like Clark Gable, but operated as ruthlessly as Milosevic. “Beeyaa eenjaa bebinam!” (“Come over here!”) he would say, calmly waiting until you got in range of his arms and legs which then flew at you with lightning speed.
As far as us pedar sookhteh (anti-establishment 🙂 students were concerned, Mr. Parastar was the epitome of terror. He could slap you around so good you wouldn't dare misbehave EVER again. (For a day or two.) But although a meeting with Mr. Parastar left you badly bruised, it was still not as bad as coming face to face with the Grim Reaper, Mr. Masoud.
Mr. Masoud was the unsmiling headmaster. He had a somber face with a giant hooked nose who walked like Groucho Marx, with an arched back and slightly over-extending legs. There was nothing funny about him. At least Mr. Parastar joked around with the kids once in a while. Not Mr. Masoud though.
I do not recall Mr. Masoud ever resorting to physical punishment. He might have. But he didn't need to, really. One crushing look and you KNEW you were in deep, deep, deep, deep trouble. He would hold his hands together in front, bend over a little and slowly say, “Khejaalat nemeekeshi?” (“Aren't you ashamed?”) And you would be so, so ashamed. You felt you were going to Hell then and there.
Mr. Masoud knew me well. Too well. I was a troublemaker. I was lucky I was going to a semi-private school for privileged oil company staff; expulsion was not really an option. And . But I was on very thin ice.
One day news came that Mr. Masoud would not be coming to school for a few days. His eldest son had died in an accident. As young teens, we knew something terrible had happened. But we didn't understand what death and loss truly meant until we saw Mr. Masoud, a father in mourning.
I still get emotional when I remember him standing in front of all the students on his first morning back on the job. He was dressed all in black, unshaven, and wiping his runny nose with a white folded handkerchief every ten seconds. His hunch was more pronounced. It seemed he had shrunk several inches. And his dreaded stare was now a sad face looking at the ground below his feet.
The Mr. Masoud we feared and despised for so many years was no more.
I wanted to hug the broken man and tell him how sorry I was for his loss, and for every trouble I had ever caused. I wanted to let him know that his sorrow had even touched the heart of a pedar sookhteh like me. I spoke to two of my classmates and we decided to put our pocket money together and buy our grieving headmaster a gift.
A couple of days later we knocked on Mr. Masoud's door and walked into his office. He didn't know why we were there. Was he asking himself, What has Javid done THIS time? It didn't seem so. He was too sad to think the worst. We handed him the gift-wrapped box: “Aqaaye Masoud, tasliyat meegeem.” (“Mr. Masoud, we express our condolences.”)
Mr. Masoud opened the box and looked for a few moments at the silver and red PaperMate pen — the ones with the double-heart logo. He seemed surprised and didn't know what to say. He kept it short and simple. He said thank you, and off we went, feeling something we never imagined possible: love and sympathy for Mr. Masoud.
Months passed. It was time for our high school entrance exams. Like exams in the past, I was counting on a combination of light preparation and pure luck to simply get a passing grade. But when I was handed the science questions, I instantly knew my luck had run out. I was about to flunk a final exam for the first time.
A Babak student, be it an academically mediocre one? My father would kill me. And what about the shame of being called a “tajdidi” (flunky). Call me a pedar sookhteh or a troublemaker, or the devil himself, but, a tajdidi? Never!
A minute after the start of the exam I began to act sick. I raised my hand and moaned, “Aqaa ejaazeh? Man haalam daareh beham meekhoreh.” (“Sir? I'm about to throw up.”) I was hoping, praying, the teacher would call my parents and send me home. Instead I was lead to Mr. Masoud's office.
Mr. Masoud looked me in the eye.
“Naahaar chi khordi?” (“What did you have for lunch?”)
“Sabzi polo.” (“Rice mixed with greens.”)
“Baa torshi?” (“With pickles?”)
“Maast ham khordi?” (“Did you have yoghurt as well?”)
I had heard that mixing two of the three could cause an upset stomach. But I wasn't absolutely sure.
“… Baleh. Maast ham khordam” (“… Yes. I also had yoghurt.”)
“Eybi nadaareh. Khoob meeshi. Boro beshin sare emtehaanet.” (“It's okay. You'll be fine. Go take your exam.”)
Mr. Masoud knew full well that there was nothing wrong with me. But he was kind enough not to question the questionable integrity of a boy who was scared out of his wits.
Let me assure you that my descriptions of Mr Masoud, Mr. Parastar and Mr. Shayesteh are based on how I perceived them when I was in school. I am sure they were all fine men, doing the best they could to control unruly kids.
Years later I met Mr. Paraster who had by then retired, and left Abadan after the devastating war with Iraq. He was tremendously kind and friendly. And we laughed aloud about the good old days at Babak.
Sometime in the late 80s, when I was living in Narmak, east Tehran. I was catching a taxi when I suddenly saw Mr. Masoud walking into a house. I couldn't believe my eyes. He hadn't changed much.
I was not able to gather the courage to knock on his door and say hello. I still looked like a troublemaker.