In a class of their own

31 December 2006 | Children's books, Fiction

Extracts from the children’s book Ella: Varokaa lapsia! (‘Ella: Look out for children!’, Tammi, 2006). Interview by Anna-Leena Nissilä

There was a large van in the schoolyard with a thick cable winding its way from the van into the school. It was from the TV station, and the surprise was that they wanted to do a programme about our teacher, believe it or not.
The classroom was filled with lights, cameras, and adults.
‘Are you the weird teacher?’ a young man asked. He had a funny, shaggy beard and a t-shirt that said ‘errand boy’.
‘Not nearly as weird as your beard,’ our teacher answered.
‘Can we do a little piece about you?’ the errand boy asked.
‘Of course. A big one even. I’ve been expecting you, actually. Is it some educational programme?’
‘Not exactly.’
‘A substantive discussion programme, though?’
‘Not exactly.’
‘A documentary about our contemporary educators?’
‘Not quite.’

‘But you probably came to do an item about the fact that I’ve been chosen to represent the high level achieved by our nation’s educational elite?’
‘No. But we are from the news division.’
‘Well, then. That’s what I thought. I’m a news item,’ our teacher sighed contentedly.
‘We do the light pieces at the end of the news. Those funny little things just before the end of the broadcast,’ the errand boy said, and showed the photographer his marks. The lights came on and the camera started running, even though our teacher obviously was still mulling over what he’d just heard.
‘Have you ever considered the fact that teachers don’t have uniforms, even though priests, police officers, airline pilots, doctors, and even elves, do? According to a tip we received, there is a teacher at this idyllic little school who has developed his own recommendations for a teachers’ uniform.’
He put the microphone in front of our teacher. He stared at it for a moment, a bit bewildered.
‘The light piece at the end? Am I supposed to be some kind of funny thing at the end of the news?’ he asked.
‘Can you tell us a little about these uniforms? What’s the significance of these splotches, for instance?’ the errand boy asked, pointing to the splashes of paint on our teacher’s sleeve. He lifted his arm and stared at his sleeve as if he were seeing it for the first time.
‘These? These… are marks of rank,’ he began, speaking slowly at first, but quickly warming to his subject.
‘You earn the blue splotch the first time you take a field trip to the swimming hall and come back alive. The brown speck shows that you’ve eaten dilled meat with shredded carrots and raisins over a thousand times in the school cafeteria. This yellow smudge was awarded to me for my achievements as a veteran of the peacekeeping forces in the Recess Snowball Wars. The red streak with brown, splattery edges is for parents’ night, when I single-handedly averted a toilet paper fundraising campaign suggested by sixteen parents. The black dot with the indeterminate colour underneath was given to me out of sheer pity.’
‘And the green splotch?’
‘That came from a paintbrush during arts & crafts.’
‘Interesting.’
‘There’s also an Indian headdress that goes with it.’
‘Is there?’
‘Yes. It’s like a hockey player’s gold helmet. It’s given temporarily to the teacher who has the most pupils and the most worn-out textbooks.’
‘Wow.’
‘And that’s not all.’
Our teacher looked quite enthusiastic now.
‘I think we’re out of time.’
‘You’re out of time when I say you’re out of time,’ he said, jerking the microphone back.
‘As I was saying, I also have plans for a school stock offering. Only teachers could get shares: one share for every student they teach. Whenever one of their old students becomes the head of a large company or makes their first million as an ice-hockey star, part of the student’s pay would be shared with their former teachers.’
‘Pretty wild idea,’ the errand boy said, and tried to wrench the microphone out of our teacher’s hands, but he held it tight. It looked for a minute like there might be a fight, but then our teacher gave him his troop-leader look, and he gave up and let go of it. Hee was very good at handling both dogs and newscasters.
‘I’ve also created a golden handshake just for teachers. At retirement, every teacher would receive their students’ weight in gold.’
‘That’s quite a lot, isn’t it?’ gasped the errand boy.
‘Children are valuable,’ our teacher said.
‘Have you finished now?’ the errand boy asked, almost timidly.
‘No. Everyone should have the right to have a favourite place, whether it’s rock, a stump, or oven a tuft of moss. Favourite places should be protected.’ He gave back the microphone.
‘I’ve finished now. What did you think?’
‘I don’t really know. This is supposed to be a light piece. That was kind of heavy.’
‘Yes, it was,’ the teacher answered. ‘But it feels much lighter now.’

We decorated the room for the foreign inspectors’ visit. Hanna cut flowers out of tissue paper. I glued cardboard leaves onto them. Tiina glued the flowers to the window when they were ready. Tuukka glued the teacher’s pointer, which had broken during a fencing match, back together. Samppa was crying because he had glued his index finger to the inside of his nose. Buster threatened to squirt glue to everyone’s nose, if he had to decorate something. Pate sat in his place like a good boy, because his trousers were glued to the chair.
The visit from the inspectors was making us pretty excited.
‘Just think, our teacher might get a promotion,’ Tiina sighed.
‘What does a teacher become when he gets a promotion?’ Hanna pondered.
‘Definitely something special,’ I assured them.
‘A special ed teacher,’ Tuukka said.
‘My dad got a promotion,’ Pate said. ‘Mom made him Couch-Potato Tsar.’
A tsar. We thought it would be a fine thing if our teacher became a tsar.
When the teacher got back from her test, we practised being civilised.
‘Tomorrow the foreign school inspectors are coming to watch me teach. We’re going to show them how the Finnish school system runs.’
We had no idea how the Finnish school system runs, but we thought it probably ran on batteries like with most other things.
‘The inspectors want to see an ordinary lesson, and that’s exactly what they’re going to see,’ he said.
Then we rehearsed for an ordinary lesson. Everyone thought it was very exciting, because none of us had ever seen one before.
First we practised polite greetings. The teacher went out of the room, and when he came back in, we all stood up. It was very civilised, and we did it perfectly. Except for Pate, of course, because his trousers were still glued to his chair. The teacher got Pate loose from his trousers, and then got the trousers loose from the chair. We were surprised to see that Pate’s underwear had cars on them. They’d always had rockets on them before.
‘Grandma bought them for me for my birthday,’ Pate explained. ‘My dad has the same kind.’
‘Stop jabbering and say Good morning,’ the teacher said when Pate had been put back into his trousers.
‘Good morning, Teacher,’ we answered.
‘Sit down,’ the teacher said.
‘Where?’ Samppa asked.
‘Don’t even try it. Besides, you should raise your hand if you have a question,’ the teacher instructed, and then Samppa started to cry.
‘Take your finger out of your nose,’ the teacher said. Samppa cried harder, because his finger was still firmly glued inside his nose.
When the teacher had dissolved the glue and got Samppa’s finger loose, he drew a circle on the blackboard.
‘What is this?’ he asked.
‘A giant duck-billed flying squirrel’s egg?’ Tuukka suggested. Tuukka usually knows everything, but this time he was wrong.
‘This is a circle. Get that into your heads,’ he said.
‘How?’ Pate asked.
‘Don’t even try it,’ the teacher warned him.
He showed us a map.
‘What is this?’ he asked, picking up his pointer and holding it, with the tip touching a red dot on top of a brown splotch.
‘I confess. I broke it,’ Tuukka said, but the teacher didn’t hear him.
‘This is Tokyo. Remember that.’
Of course we were surprised. None of us had known that the pointer’s name was Tokyo. And that wasn’t all. The teacher tapped the map with the pointer three more times and each time he said a different name: Berlin, London, and Paris.
‘You will know these names by heart, even in your sleep,’ he said.
That pointer had almost as many names as Pippi Longstocking.
Then he put the map away and put a picture of one of his dogs, Coy or Ote, in its place. We couldn’t tell which one it was, because they look just the same to us. The teacher said that it was a coyote, and that a civilised person should know the names of animals from other countries.
Finally he asked us to take out our reading books. Of course, our reading books were at home, because he had said that our brains should be our textbooks. We had those with us, of course, except for Pate, who said that he couldn’t find his anywhere that morning, and Samppa, who claimed that his brain had shrunk when his mother brainwashed him.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ the teacher said.
We weren’t sure whether he was talking about the textbooks or Pate and Samppa’s brains.
‘We’ll be creative. At the end of the lesson we’ll recite a passage from the Kalevala for our guests. It’ll be the highlight of their visit. Little flaxen-haired children with bright eyes whittling off golden morsels from our national epic. The sight of it will elevate their minds like the flight of the lark and help them to understand the source from whence Finnish civilisation springs.’
We didn’t understand any of this, but the teacher’s eyes were glittering strangely as he looked at us.
‘What’s the Kalevala?’ Hanna asked.
The glitter fell from the teacher’s eyes as quickly as it had got into them. He sighed deeply and took a thick book from the shelf.
‘The Kalevala is a book. And we are now going to learn it by heart, from the beginning. Repeat after me:

I am driven by my longing,’
‘I am driven by my longing.’
And my understanding urges,’
‘And my understanding urges.’
That I should commence my singing,’
‘That I should commence my singing.’
And begin my recitation.’
‘And begin my recitation.’
I will sing the people’s legends,’
‘I will sing the people’s legends.’
‘I will bring the people wedgies.’
‘Pate, be quiet.’
‘Pate, be quiet.’
And the ballads of the nation.’
‘And the ballads of the nation.’
‘I’d sooner sing the people’s legends than the ballad of this classroom.’
‘Quiet, Buster.’
‘Quiet, Buster.’
‘Don’t repeat everything I say.’
‘Don’t repeat everything I say.’
‘Stop it.’
‘Stop it.’
‘Fine, repeat everything.’
‘Fine, repeat everything.’
‘Peterpiperpickedapeckofpickledpeppersifpeterpiperpickedapeckofpickledpeppershowmanypickled peppersdidpeterpiperpickhowmuchwoodwouldawoodchuckchuckifawoodchuckcouldchuckwood
hewouldchuckallthewoodthatawoodchuckcouldifawoodchuckcouldchuckwood,’ the teacher said, finishing his recitation and closing his book.
None of us repeated that. We all thought that the Kalevala was very interesting, but the ending was kind of complicated. And Samppa started to cry, because he couldn’t keep up. Buster, on the other hand, was threatening to bring everyone wedgies if he had to repeat one more thing.
‘And finally, the most important thing,’ the teacher said. He seemed a little out of breath.
‘Emergency signals.’
Then he taught us the emergency signals. There were three of them.
If he winked with his left eye, we were supposed to keep quiet and smile.
If he rubbed the bridge of his nose with his index finger, we should shake our heads.
‘And this last one is the most important. This one should be used only when faced with a severe emergency.’
He clapped his hands.
‘When you hear this, run out of the room, and don’t look back. Understood?’
We understood. None of us would have thought that an ordinary lesson could be so complicated. I was sure that our guests would be surprised and our teacher would become a tsar.

There were four foreign inspectors. The fifth one was Finnish. The Japanese inspector had black hair. The German had big hands. The French inspector wore an elegant dress. The English one had big teeth.
‘Don’t let us disturb you. Just carry on as if we weren’t here,’ the Finnish inspector said.
‘Oh, my! I had completely forgotten that you were coming,’ our teacher said.
‘Just give an ordinary lesson.’
‘It will be quite ordinary. We haven’t rehearsed at all,’ our teacher assured him.
The headteacher came to listen to the lesson.
‘You didn’t have to come,’ our teacher said.
‘I want to know what the charges will be when they take us to court,’ the headteacher said.
‘You should be grateful. I’m bringing honour and fame to the school.’
‘There’s more than one kind of honour and fame,’ the headteacher said, and sat down with the rest of the group.
Our teacher nodded to the group and smiled. The Japanese inspector whispered something.
‘She would like to know if all of the teachers in Finland have a coat like yours,’ the Finnish inspector explained.
‘Not yet,’ our teacher answered.
Then everyone was ready. It was time to begin.
‘First a little geometry, because Finnish pupils are the best in the world when it comes to mathematics,’ the teacher explained, smiling, while the Finnish inspector translated for the guests.
The teacher drew a circle on the board. Unfortunately, his chalk broke and he got a little piece of it in his eye, so the circle became an oval that looked like a duck-billed flying squirrel’s egg with a hole on one side. It looked like a little chick had just emerged from it.
‘What is this?’ the teacher asked, blinking his left eye. We remembered, of course, that that was emergency signal number one, so we kept quiet and smiled.
‘Come on, now. You know this,’ he said, rubbing the corner of his eye and the bridge of his nose. Emergency signal number two. We shook our heads.
‘Just a little stage fright,’ he said to the inspectors, who were whispering among themselves.
He rolled down the map. Except it wasn’t the map, it was the picture of a coyote. He didn’t notice, though, because he had taken his glasses off. His eyes were watering a lot from the chalk dust.
‘What is this?’ he said, holding up the pointer in the direction of the coyote’s snout. Of course we knew that it was a pointer, and that it had many names, and we remembered all of them, because we were so civilised.
‘Tokyo,’ Hanna answered.
‘That’s right,’ the teacher said, and the visitors murmured.
‘And what is this?’ He moved the pointer toward the coyote’s back left paw.
‘Berlin,’ Tuukka said.
‘And this?’ the teacher said, aiming the pointer at the coyote’s rear end.
‘Paris,’ Hanna said.
‘Excellent.’
The visitors were speechless, especially the French one, who got up and left without saying a word. We were sure she was going to call France to tell them how civilised we were. The English inspector stayed put. He was laughing so hard that the tears came to his eyes. He seemed to be quite cheerful. The English are certainly very happy people. The headteacher, on the other hand, wasn’t laughing at all.
‘And finally, we would like to surprise you,’ our teacher said.
‘Haven’t we had enough surprises?’ the headteacher asked. But we knew that we hadn’t.
Our teacher gestured for us to stand up. We stood up.
‘We will now recite for you a fragment from our national epic,’ he said, very ceremoniously. And we recited:

‘I am driven by my longing,
And my understanding urges,
That I should commence my singing.
And begin my recitation.
I will sing the people’s legends.
I will bring the people wedgies.
Pate be quiet and the ballads of the nation.
I’d sooner sing the people’s legends.
than the ballad of this classroom.
Quiet, Buster.
Don’t repeat everything I say.
Stop it.
Fine, repeat everything.’

We couldn’t remember any more of it, because the ending was so hard. But we were proud that we knew so much of it.
‘I’ve never heard that version,’ the headteacher said.
‘It’s a new Finnish translation,’ our teacher answered.
The German visitor asked something and the Finnish inspector translated:
‘He wants to know if you’re sure that this is an ordinary lesson.’
‘Quite ordinary,’ our teacher assured him.
The English, German, and Japanese inspectors spoke vehemently among themselves for a moment.
‘They’re a little surprised,’ the Finnish inspector explained.
‘Why is that?’ our teacher asked.
‘They want to know how it is that Finns are such high achievers, when the lessons are just like the ones in their schools.’
Our teacher didn’t have an answer for that.
‘In any case, they’d like to thank you, because you’ve shown them that there is still hope in their own countries,’ the Finnish inspector continued.
The English inspector wanted to tell us something else. He wanted to make a little Thank you speech.
‘Let’s settle down and listen to what our visitors have to say,’ the head-teacher said, and clapped her hands together.
We ran out of the room, and we didn’t look back.

Translated by Lola Rogers

Illustrations: Markus Majaluoma

Quotations from the Kalevala:
Kalevala. The Land of the Heroes
Translated by W.F. Kirby (The Athlone Press, 1985)

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