Extract from Michael Mitchell's translation

Hermann Ungar's The Class

Chapter One

He knew the boys were watching his every move; the slightest chink in his armour could expose him to disaster. In that year he was faced with eighteen boys. They sat in front of him at their desks, two by two, and looked at him. He knew disaster would come. He had to resign himself to appearing to be cruel. He knew that he was not. He was fighting for his livelihood, he fought for every day of reprieve. His severity was one element in a system designed to put off the end. He had to gain time. Any day might prove to be his salvation, for on that very day he had gained he, the teacher Josef Blau, might perhaps, by summoning up all his strength, be able to obtain a mitigation of what he had brought down on himself.

He fought with all the means at his disposal to maintain discipline. Once it was relaxed, everything was lost. Once the first stone was loosened, the whole building would collapse. He knew he would be buried beneath the debris. There were examples he had heard of from which he had learnt that leniency and indulgence were not the way to keep boys in check. That had led to the downfall of other teachers. Goodness and compassion, so people said, were characteristics of the human race; if that was so, then fourteen-year-old boys did not belong to the human race. They were cruel at heart. He knew that once the restraint of discipline had gone, everything would be in vain, whether the reminder of the threat to the teacher's position or a plea for mercy. There would be no respite once they sensed, even for a moment, that their mocking laughter would pursue him when he was forced to flee, humiliated, head bowed, deprived of his livelihood.

The school was in a district of the town where the well-to-do part of the population lived. He himself came from a poor family. The boys were well-fed and well-dressed. He was aware of the freedom of movement and self-confidence a well-to-do background gave a person, if they enjoyed it from birth, and that it could not be replaced by education, not even by the acquisition of culture and wisdom. He was afraid this was where the first chinks in his armour might appear. He could feel the boys' eyes scrutinising his movements and his clothes.