The Children's Realm
Private Elementary
The Building down Zechariah Street had four apartments. The Nahlielis' apartment was on the first floor, at the back. Its windows overlooked a neglected backyard, partly paved and the other part overgrown with weeds in winter and thistles in summer. The yard also housed washing lines, garbage cans, traces of a bonfire, an old suitcase, a corrugated iron lean-to, and the wooden remains of a ruined sukkah. Pale blue passionflowers bloomed on the wall.

The apartment contained a kitchen, a bathroom, an entrance passage, two rooms, and eight or nine cats. After lunch Isabella, who was a teacher, and her husband Nahlieli the cashier used the first room as their living room, and at night they and their army of cats slept in the tiny second room. They got up early every morning arid pushed all the furniture out into the passage and set out three or four school desks in each of the rooms, with three or four benches, each of which could seat two children.

Thus between eight A.M. and noon their home became the Children's Realm Private Elementary School.

There were two classes and two teachers at Children's Realm, which was all the small apartment could hold, with eight pupils in the first grade and another six in the second grade. Isabella Nahlieli was the proprietor of the school and served as headmistress, storekeeper, treasurer, syllabus organizer, sergeant major of discipline, school nurse, maintenance woman, cleaner, class teacher of the first grade, and responsible for all practical activities. We always called her Teacher Isabella.

She was a loud, jolly, broad woman in her forties, with a hairy mole that looked like a stray cockroach above her upper lip. She was irascible, temperamental, strict, yet overflowing with a rough warmheartedness. In her plain loose cotton-print frocks with their many pockets she looked like a thickset, sharp-eyed matchmaker from the shtetl, who could weigh your character, inside and out, with a single look of her experienced eye and a couple of well-aimed questions. In a moment she had got to the bottom of who you were, with all your secrets. While she interrogated you, her raw red hands would be fidgeting restlessly in her innumerable pockets, as though she was just about to pull out the perfect bride for you, or a hairbrush, or some nose drops, or at least a clean hankie to wipe away that embarrassing green booger on the end of your nose.

Teacher Isabella was also a cat herder. Wherever she went, she was surrounded by a flock of admiring cats that got under her feet, clung to the hem of her dress, impeded her progress, and almost tripped her up, so devoted were they to her. They were of every possible color, and they would claw their way up her dress and lie down on her broad shoulders, curl up in the book basket, settle like broody hens on her shoes, and fight among themselves with desperate wails for the privilege of snuggling in her bosom. In her classroom there were more cats than pupils, and they kept perfectly quiet so as not to disturb the students; as tame as dogs, as well brought up as young ladies from good families, they sat on her desk, on her lap, on our little laps, on our satchels, on the windowsill and the box that held equipment for PE, art, and crafts.

--- From A Tale of Love and Darkness
Amos Oz
©2004 Harcourt
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