Autumn is here again with mellow sunshine, golden leaves, conkers in the grass and local teams playing football on the pitches behind our house. The uncharacteristic (for this part of the world) sunshine takes me straight back to childhood: where I come from such sunshine is an integral part of September and the time when you go back to school.
So today, we go back to school – although not as you knew it. The following three stories will let you experience education in a different way, in another place, another time. One story will take you back to wooden desks, inkwells, blackboards and chalk; another will take you to the future; the third one can be considered a ‘school story’ only in the widest sense of the word – think of Mowgli being educated in the jungle…
Tales of Pirx, the Pilot by Stanislaw Lem
We start with the future, when mankind has reached the stars.
The title provides a clue to the plot of this Polish science fiction novel: it’s the story of how Cadet Pirx, who is not quite as bright and able as some of his classmates but does not lack common sense, makes it through space pilot training. Published in English in two parts as Tales of Pirx, the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx, the Pilot, the loosely connected stories, which occasionally have a comic undertone, take Pirx from a bumbling cadet to merchant ship captain. One of the first science fiction novels I’ve ever read, it made me a fan of the genre and the author both.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
From the future let’s go back to the past: to the streets of Lahore at the end of 19th century where a street urchin named Kim befriends an old Tibetan Lama in search of enlightenment – while on the side he runs errands for a Pashtun horse trader. In due course the horse trader turns out to be an agent of the British secret service, engaged in the so-called Great Game: a ‘game’ of espionage and counter-espionage between the British and the Russians for the control of India. Between them, the Lama and the horse trader change the course of Kim’s life forever.
Which path will Kim follow in the end?
A beautiful evocation of colonial India, its people and its landscape, set against the little known history of the Great Game. The story of the unusual education of a boy and cracking colonial adventure.
Please, Sir! by Frigyes Karinthy
From the streets of Lahore, to the white-washed classrooms of Budapest at the turn of the 19th/20th century. Blackboard and chalk, wooden benches with inkwell, the teacher’s desk on a raised platform in front of the blackboard.
Please, Sir! is a series of humorous sketches in which the author recalls his grammar school years. He might as well have been recalling mine: I attended a Budapest grammar school some 80 years later, but apart from a difference in the grading system and the introduction of co-education little changed in the Hungarian grammar school experience from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to the days of communism.
From the wonderfully evocative description of what it felt like being late to school or being called on to answer the teacher’s questions in front of the class, to classroom pranks and the desperate attempts at explaining away the failing grades in the school report, Karinthy had captured it all to perfection.
Although you might find it difficult to encounter this book outside Hungary, it’s freely available for online reading at the Hungarian National Library’s website both in English and in the original Hungarian.
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⇒ Return From the Stars
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