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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207–1273)

The Sick Schoolmaster

From “Stories in Rime” (Masnavi)

THE BOYS of a certain school were tired of their teacher, as he was very strict in the exaction of diligence; so they consulted together for the best means of getting rid of him for a time. Said they, “Why does he not fall ill, so that he may be obliged to be away from school, and we be released from confinement and work? Alas! he stands as firm as a rock.” One of them, who was wiser than the rest, suggested this plan: “I shall go to the teacher, and ask him why he looks so pale, saying, ‘May it turn out well! But your face has not its usual color. Is it due to the weather, or to fever?’ This will create some alarm in his mind. Then you, brother,” he continued, turning to another boy, “must assist me by using similar words. When you come into the schoolroom you must say to the teacher, ‘I hope, sir, you are well.’ This will tend to increase his apprehension, even though in a slight degree; and you know that even slight doubts are often enough to drive a man mad. Then a third, a fourth, and a fifth boy must one after another express his sympathy in similar words, till at last, when thirty boys successively have given expression to words of like nature, the teacher’s apprehension will be confirmed.”

The boys praised his ingenuity, and wished each other success; and they bound themselves by solemn promises not to shirk doing what was expected of them. Then the first boy bade them take oaths of secrecy, lest some telltale should let the matter out.

Next morning the boys came to school in a cheerful mood, having resolved on adopting the foregoing plan. They all stood outside the schoolhouse, waiting for the arrival of the friend who had helped them in the time of need—since it was he who had originated the plan: it is the head that is the governor of the legs. The first boy arrived, entered the schoolroom, and greeted the teacher with “I hope you are well, sir, but the color of your face is very pale.”

“Nonsense!” said the teacher; “there is nothing the matter with me. Go and take your seat.” But inwardly he was somewhat apprehensive. Another boy came in, and in similar words greeted the teacher, whose misgivings were thereby somewhat increased. And so on, one boy after another greeted him, till his worst apprehensions seemed to be confirmed, and he was in great anxiety regarding the state of his health.

He got enraged at his wife. “Her love for me is waning,” he thought. “I am in this bad state of health, and she did not even ask what was the matter with me. She did not draw my attention to the color of my face. Perhaps she is not unwilling that I should die.”

Full of such thoughts, he came to his home, followed by the boys, and flung open the door. His wife exclaimed, “I hope nothing is the matter with you! Why have you returned so soon?”

“Are you blind?” he answered. “Look at the color of my face, and at my condition! Even strangers show sympathetic alarm about my health.”

“Well, I see nothing wrong,” said the wife. “You must be laboring under some senseless delusion.”

“Woman,” he rejoined impatiently, “you are most obstinate! Can you not perceive the altered hue of my face and the shivering of my body? Go and get my bed made, that I may lie down, for my head is dizzy.”

The bed was prepared, and the teacher lay down on it, giving vent to sighs and groans. The boys he ordered to sit there and read the lessons, which they did with much vexation. They said to themselves, “We did so much to be free, and still we are in confinement. The foundation was not well laid; we are bad architects. Some other plan must now be adopted, so that we may be rid of this annoyance.”

The clever boy who had instigated the first plot advised the others to read their lessons very loudly; and when they did so, he said, in a tone to be overheard by the teacher, “Boys, your voices disturb our teacher. Loud voices will only increase his headache. Is it proper that he should be made to suffer pain for the sake of the trifling fees he gets from us?”

The teacher said, “He is right. Boys, you may go. My headache has increased. Be off with you!” And the boys scampered away home as eagerly as birds fly toward a spot where they see grain.

The mothers of the boys, on seeing them return, got angry, and thus challenged them, “This is the time for you to learn writing, and you are engaged in play. This is the time for acquiring knowledge, and you fly from your books and your teacher.”

The boys urged that it was no fault of theirs, and that they were in no way to blame, for, by the decree of fate, their teacher had become very ill.

The mothers, disbelieving, said, “This is all deceit and falsehood. You would not scruple to tell a hundred lies to get a little quantity of buttermilk. To-morrow morning we shall go to the teacher’s house, and shall ascertain what truth there is in your assertions.”

So the next morning the mothers went to visit the teacher, whom they found lying in bed like a very sick person. He had perspired freely, owing to his having covered himself with blankets. His head was bandaged, and his face was covered with a kerchief. He was groaning in a feeble voice.

The ladies expressed their sympathy, hoped his headache was getting less, and swore by his soul that they had been unaware until quite lately that he was so ill.

“I, too,” said the teacher, “was unaware of my illness. It was through those little bastards that I learned of it.”