The Music Class. An Account

Goran Radovanović

Der serbische Filmemacher Goran Radovanović, Mitglied der Europäischen Filmakademie Berlin, erinnert sich bei einem Besuch einer Wiener Schule an seine Kindheit.

A vague feeling of unease made me regret my promise that I’d visit a »typical« Viennese school to gain firsthand experience of how »diversity works on the ground«. That same vague unease was responsible for my steadfast refusal to attend parents’ meetings, a responsibility that I was only too glad to delegate to the mother of my two sons. Hence, after that last parents’ meeting seven years ago, I’m back at school again, this time in Vienna. What started as just a feeling of unease suddenly becomes strange fear! The feeling of helplessness and trepidation grows stronger as I walk the corridors and staircases of this old edifice. I can hear my mother’s voice, »Don’t panic. All that matters is that you do as the teacher tells you! And everything will be fine.« I can still see myself back in that long gone year of 1964, almost a skinhead, with the Pioneer cravat around my neck, entering the already crowded classroom in the Belgrade Primary School named »22 December« (Yugoslav People’s Army Day). Looking very much like a witch out of Grimms’ fairy tales, the teacher is already there as well, waiting for me, staring through her thick glasses at the bunch of kids as nervous as I was. I was about to say »I’m scared!« but along with many other parents, my mother was left waiting on the other side of the classroom door.

The effect of my first day at school, stemming from the feeling that I was handed over to someone to torture and humiliate me, stayed with me until my early adolescence. Because she, the WWII veteran guerrilla fighter from Srem brigades and the witch from the Grimms’ fairy tales, she was very fierce indeed; incessantly angry and enraged, she was slapping faces right, left and centre, twisting ears, pulling hairs, sending us to the naughty corner…
»Sada ćemo da se sastanemo sa nastavnicima, možete da ih pitate sve što želite,« the voice of my kind host brought me back. I didn’t ask anything very much. Overwhelmed by the weight of foul memories from my own childhood, I asked a question about history books purely out of courtesy, what kids were taught about World War One, or more precisely, was Gavrilo Princip ›an anarchist and cold-bloodied murderer of a Crown Prince‹ or was he ›a fighter for justice for his enslaved nation‹?

I don’t remember the answer because suddenly I felt sick. I had to make it to the toilet that Rasha, my partner who had shared the school desk with me, didn’t make it on one occasion because the Guerrilla Witch didn’t believe his urge; he peed under his chair. The image of my crying comrade looked back at me from the mirror of that Viennese school as I washed my face, trying to wash away evidence of Rasha’s and my own tears…

»A sada ćemo da posetimo jedan razred«, back in the corridor of the school, I was brought back by the kind voice again.

»Koji razred?« I asked out of courtesy.

»Koji biste voleli da posetite?«

»Svejedno mi je. Bilo koji.«

I entered the classroom accompanied by a lady from the Graz area. The first thing that I noticed, even before the pupils’ faces, were scores of little feet in slippers?!!
»Zašto klinci nose papuče?« I asked the lady from the Graz area.

»Iz higijenskih razloga«.

I nodded, embarrassed by my silly question.

»Kod vas deca u školi ne nose papuče?«

»Samo u obdaništima.«

Our chat was interrupted by the kind teacher. »Čas matematike je upravo

završio. Želite li da prisustvujete času muzičkog?«

»Znate, ja nikad u životu nisam pevao!« I suddenly confided in the lady from the Graz area as we walked in the direction of the music room.

»Nikad?!« The lady from the Graz area was deeply surprised. »Zašto?«

»Jednostavno nemam talenta za muziku«, I tried to explain myself.

»Kako znate da nemate talenta za muziku?« insisted the lady from the Graz area, staring me in the face by that time.

I had no answer to that. I was saved by the background noises. Sounds of various musical instruments being tuned were coming from the classroom. We went inside. Unlike the class before, this one was lively and informal. The teacher was hardly noticeable. The same as the kids, he busied himself with the electric instruments. In the end, the teacher addressed us, announcing something that sounded like »our biggest hit«. The kids took up their instruments, the teacher already had his solo guitar. The other students sat on the floor. The vocal was provided by a fair-haired twelve-year old girl. The first chords sounded out, obviously a school anthem in techno-pop style. The girl’s voice wasn’t extraordinary in any way. But she was obviously very happy to perform the »hit« song, hitting a false note from time to time. The teacher took to the microphone to help out; we were listening to the pupil and teacher duet now!!! Friendly and happy. The song was over. My applause was sincere. The little girl acknowledged it shyly, with a charming nod of the head.

»Kako znate da nemate talenta za muziku?« the lady from the Graz area asked me quietly again, insisting on an answer as we smoked in the schoolyard.

When I was ten I fell seriously in love. With Milica, a blonde girl from my class. Everyone knew about it. She knew about it too. And her best friend even sent me a word that she liked me back… On that particular day I had to look especially good; we were having a music lesson! The teacher was assessing our vocal potential. I was expected to sing in front of the entire class. For that reason, I wore my Sunday best and I asked my mother to brush my hair. And as my strongest trump card, I wore my birthday present around my neck so that everyone could see it; a thin gold chain with a pendant in the shape of the cross, a present from my aunt for my tenth birthday! The teacher called me out. I confidently stepped up to the blackboard. It was obvious that my appearance impressed the entire class; I was proud of my best shirt, my haircut, and of course, of my golden chain and pendant in the shape of the cross around my neck. I felt Milica’s eyes on me.

»When the Srem brigades took off!« the teacher »requested« the song in her imperious tones.

And just as I was about to burst into song on full throttle about the guerrilla warriors from Srem fighting the Germans in Bosnian mountains, there was a cry.

»What’s that around your neck?!«

»A chain.«

»Who allowed you to wear that reactionary filth around your neck?!« hissed the Guerrilla witch.

»My mother«, I tried to defend myself in confusion.

»Take it off immediately!«

I felt the stares of thirty students on me. And Milica’s eyes. My cheeks were burning.

Suddenly, I heard my own voice as if someone else was speaking instead of me, pushing me into total perdition.


»What did you say?« The Guerrilla witch couldn’t believe her ears.

»No.« my downfall was a complete certainty now.

I don’t remember the rest all that well. I remember only my cheek, burning after a painful slap. My little gold chain was on the floor. Without thinking, I reached down and picked up the cross-shaped pendant.

»Don’t you ever dare bring this to school again! And your parents should better get over here first thing tomorrow! And now, sing!«

I was drowning in tears.

»When the guerrilla from Srem left for Bosnia to fight there«, I croaked, fighting off the tears.

»You might as well be screeching inside a barrel. Get back to your seat. This is an F!«

I have no idea how I made my way to my desk. I could feel the entire class jeering into the back of my bent head. Although I couldn’t actually hear it, I felt that Milica’s laughter was somehow the loudest.

I didn’t know what to do with the cigarette end. My new friend from Graz, quite taken aback by this unexpected autobiographical indiscretion, tried to help me somehow. Surprisingly, she took the end of my cigarette and carried it over to the nearest rubbish bin.

All of a sudden, right there in the schoolyard, there was the blonde girl that I had applauded only a short while ago, standing in front of me with a friend.

»My name is Milica and she is Tijana. We are from Serbia. Actually, our parents come from Serbia, the two of us were born here. I’m glad you liked our song«, she thanked me politely in a slightly accented Serbian.

»Milica?!« I was puzzled.

»Yes. Milica Djordjević. Like you, my dad is also called Goran. I’ve heard that you’re a film director. Are you shooting a new film?« The girl was very chatty indeed.

»Yes, yes, I’m working on something…« Baffled, I watched this confident child in front of me.

»Do you happen to know which primary school you dad attended?«

I had no idea why I asked her such an unlikely question.

»Of course. 22nd December in Smederevo«, Milica answered helpfully.

»And thank you for coming.«

Milica smiled at me and with her friend walked back to school. A coincidence, the past, the future, transience, eternity, diversity, tolerance, totalitarianism, democracy – all that was spinning around in my head in that deserted yard of the Viennese school, as I could still hear in my ears the sound of the techno-pop version of the school anthem in German.

»Ah, you can sing, then«, surprised me my new friend from Graz as she offered me a cigarette. »You were just pulling my leg. You’re an artist, I’m sure you made it all up. There’s simply no one who can’t sing!«

My friend from Graz was right – indeed, there’s no one who can’t sing!

Goran Radovanović
was born in Belgrade in 1957. He graduated in Art History from the Belgrade Faculty of Arts. A writer, producer and director of both feature films and documentaries, recipient of many national and international awards. A member of the European Film Academy in Berlin and the Serbian Association of Filmmakers.

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