The last time I saw my elementary school is already a few years back. I remember thinking how everything seemed smaller than it did three and a half decades ago, when I walked into it for the first time, carrying a healthy dose of pride, a heavy backpack filled with future knowledge, and brand new pants and blazer, white and smart, courtesy of my mother’s nightly sewing. Yet, apart from the apparent size, the time hadn’t changed it much. It was still gray and brown, like most of the surrounding buildings, and it was still in a need of a little repair here and there. There were still kids running around that same playground where both my arm and my heart were broken, running with the energy and the ease you only have when you are completely unburdened with the pursuit of any greatness in life. The building transpired what it always did, that all who entered it were equal, not because anybody could achieve anything they wanted, but because nobody could. The only thing that changed was the name.
Streets, schools, institutions – where I come from, the names don’t last very long. As old men waving from the balconies give way to new men waving from the balconies, so do their visions, their narratives and their truths, their inscriptions on history and on the little plaques on the street corners. Back when I was little, our truth was knitted out of the fine threads of the virtues of communism and out of even finer ones in which brave men and women fought for those virtues and for our country. It was a colorful fabric of heroism and martyrdom, a guiding light of values to shape our lives after. A clear blueprint of not necessarily what is good, but who is and who isn’t.
The man whose bust looked down upon me every time I entered that edifice of primary education was a hero. And a martyr. His bravery was not the one of action, but the one of the strength of conviction which he would, and did, pay for with his own life. He was a school director, I was told, who taught his biggest lesson during the war, on a day when soldiers came to his town and to his school, looking for retaliation. Soldiers had been killed and there were to be 100 civilians executed for every loss of life, 50 for every wound. Staring at the firing squad, surrounded by his pupils, he was offered a pardon. He would have none of it. He chose death, uttering the ultimate words of bravery: “Shoot! Now, too, I am holding a class.”
Seventy years have passed since the man whose name used to grace my elementary school was killed, and seventy years is enough time for a lot of things to change, not only for the names of schools, streets and institutions. It is enough time for the narratives to lose steam and purpose, enough time for the facts to slowly just be. Heroes, too, have expiry dates. With time, a different picture emerged, no less tragic and none easier to fathom. The school director was indeed apprehended and jailed and he was indeed awaiting his execution. During those horrifying hours and days, every single connection anyone in his town had was pulled, every favor one was owed was played on. It was a frantic game in which lives were saved only to be replaced with other lives to be lost, it was humanity that was executed over and over again. The school director’s name found its way to one of the lists with a promise of freedom. The man who was in charge of exchanging the prisoners on such lists for the ones yet to be apprehended held a personal grudge against him and refused to free him. He was executed shortly thereafter, with no final stand, no final words and no class held.
His death was tragic, as were those of thousands who died along his side in those days. He wasn’t greater than life and there was nothing heroic about his death. There usually never is. He was scared, he was imprisoned and he didn’t want to die. He had dreams and fears, friends and enemies, lusts and convictions. He was a real man, not a caricature superhero that someone made him be. We make heroes all the time, be it to spread the narrative of our nation, our ideology or our religion. And when we do, we deny them the decency of empathy with their real struggle. A man tragically lost his life 70 years ago. He was human, not a bust waiting to be toppled or a shrine for someone to preach their tale.
When I look at my elementary school, I see a place where I learned to read and write and a place where I learned to handle numbers well. I also see a place that taught me all the wrong lessons about life, just like scores of elementary schools around the world do every day. A place that taught me that we have the heroes and that they have the villains, and that the only thing I can expect to change in life are the definitions of we and they. I wasn’t taught that when the school director was awaiting his bullet, he and many others found a way to send little messages to their families. I wish I had learned more about them, about the despair of their forlornness. About those who apologized to their families, for they would no longer be there for them. About those who lamented every lost moment they never took advantage of. About those who begged for help, or at least a little food.
It was only years later that I learned about one of those messages. It was short and simple and at first glance impersonal. It was sent just before the execution and it only said: “Don’t send the bread tomorrow”. The family should have it, it would do a dead man no good. I wish I were taught about that, I wish we all were. With no names, no nationalities and no religion attached. Only a story about a person who had to die because we as a society are prone to having people die for no reason, a story about a person who didn’t defend his ideals or make a great speech. About someone who found it in him to help and provide one last time, fully knowing that the world had failed him miserably. I wish we were taught that it was not heroism we ought to pursue, but humanity.