Katerina Dimitrova Stephanova
Katerina’s memoir tells what happened next, once the family returned to Bansko to resume their life in the aftermath of the confrontation:
A few months later Father had to leave us for two weeks in order to renew the stock of goods he used to keep in his shop. When he came back he surprised the neighbors that came to welcome by saying: "It is time our women in Bansko begin to learn to read and write; they have remained ignorant like animals. I shall make the start. I have decided to send my only daughter to school next year. People may laugh at her at first but later they will envy her. Yes, next year she goes to school."
So, early one October morning I took a piece of wood under my arm and started for school. It was the custom that every child should carry a piece of wood every morning in order to keep the iron stove of the classroom burning. Father and mother stood at the gate and watched me go. I had not been before in a school and wondered what it looked like. In the school yard I saw what seemed to me hundreds of boys playing and shouting to the top of their voices. I stopped at the gate and could not make up my mind to enter, so afraid I was of boys. Luckily one of them who happened to be my cousin saw me and led me by the hand through the crowd of boys, who now stopped their games and came to stare at me. By and by he took me to the teacher and explained to him who I was. The teacher, instead of receiving me kindly, looked at me with disgust and said: "So, you want to be a learned woman, or maybe a teacher?" After a few more such remarks he led me to a bench already occupied by two giggling boys who had to squeeze in order to make a place for me.
Here I sat for many days in perfect misery. As soon as the teacher turned his back, the boys began to pull my hair, to pinch me and to tease me in many other ways. The conduct of the teacher himself did not make me any better off. When he asked me to rise to recite the lesson he would stand before me holding a ruler in his hand, look at me steadily and say: "Now, let us see how many whacks you deserve." Invariably I forgot everything I had learned and the ruler struck fiercely at my hands. I would put my bruised hands in my mouth and try to soothe the pain with my breath, then try again only to find out that I was again failing. I was convinced that I was to blame for my incapacity. I tried harder and harder and began to learn all my lessons by heart (often having no idea of their real meaning) but the hateful man refused to be satisfied. I had the impression that he was always on the lookout to find faults.
Once, although I had always been quiet and obedient, he accused me of gross misbehavior and ordered the boys to pass in turn in front of me and to spit in my face. Until then I had endured scolding, threats, and beatings, but this was too much. I could not stand such a disgrace. As the teacher was urging the boys to come nearer, I took advantage of a moment of hesitation, jumped over the benches, ran through the door and kept running until I reached the market place where I knew I was safe. Here I waited until it was time to return home, said nothing to my parents, and went early to bed, not to sleep, but to think what to do next. There was no question of my returning to that school, but my desire to learn was very strong and I had to find a way out of my dilemma. Then I remembered that two girls whom I knew, Maria and Alexandra, went to a school in the upper part of the town and said it was alright.[*] But it was a Protestant school and as such was condemned by our priests. It was even rumored that the Protestant missionaries put an invisible stamp on anyone they got hold of and claimed his soul after his death.
I made my secret plans and the next morning started for school as usual. I followed a small boy who used to go to the new school and when we neared the small school building I stopped him and asked him to tell the teacher to come out because I had to see him. Presently a well-dressed young man came out and with a gentle, slightly amused smile, asked me what I wanted. At first I was unable to say a word, but soon recovered and blurted out: "I want to come to your school!" He took me by the hand, led me to a classroom and put me in a desk next to a girl of about my own age, then left me there until the end of the hour. I had all the time I wanted to watch the room, the furniture, the girls and the teacher and to listen to his voice. Everything seemed so different from the school I had abandoned only a day before, especially the teacher, for whom I felt a great affection and admiration. When the hour was over and the girls had gone out, the teacher took me aside, asked me many questions about myself and said that he would accept me gladly, only I had to have my parent's permission.
So I had to tell my parents and, of course, broke the news first to my mother. She scolded me and complained that through such actions, I was ruining the good name of the whole family. But I insisted and finally she consented to talk to father. He became furious and said he would thrash me to death and that he preferred to see me dead rather than let me go to a protestant school. I pleaded, cried, told him how nice the school was and went on until finally father turned to my mother. He told her I had inherited her stubbornness and always got what I wanted, that I would bring misfortune to the house, but finally gave his permission. Later I realized that he did not feel so strongly against the Protestant school but feared the criticism of his neighbors.
So I went to the new school where I felt perfectly happy, learned quickly, and soon became one of the best pupils. The months passed quickly, one year ended, then another, then it was all over, all too soon. This was an elementary school, and the town had nothing more to offer. But during my last year my teacher had advised me of a secondary boarding school for girls which the Protestant mission had founded several years before in the town of Plovdiv in Bulgaria. This time I did not have to insist too much and obtained my father's consent more easily than I expected.
One September morning all our friends and relatives gathered to see me off, at the same time reproaching my father for sending me so far away (four days' journey on horseback) to which he replied that he had given his word and had to stick to it. I traveled in company with a large group who went to the same destination with different purposes, and after a few days of beautiful mountain scenery, we arrived in Plovdiv and I was led to my school. The teachers and students received me with undisguised curiosity and much kindness and very soon I felt entirely at home.
The influence of the surroundings was so strong that at the end of the first year I desired to become protestant. Not many months later my father and my whole family were converted to the new faith.
My first year in school passed in joy and happiness and I proved very successful in my lessons. The first summer vacation seemed to me a great event. For the first time I felt that I was of some account for my friends and neighbors who came to see me and listened attentively to what I had to say. I felt sure of myself and my future seemed open and serene before me.
Autumn came and I was again ready to go and again I started our horseback rejoined by many other travelers. The second day we were passing one of the most beautiful mountain scenes I ever saw. The narrow path was winding in an out in a forest of pine trees. The ground below was strewn with grass and mountain flowers, the air fresh and excitingly full of the scent of pine resin. Everything seemed full of life and joy. As I was about to dismount and walk, my horse suddenly stopped and I saw a savage looking strange man hold the reins of my horse. I screamed for help but very soon saw that every horse was held by a man and realized that we were being held up by robbers. They took what valuables and money they found on us as well as most of our food provisions, and disappeared. The travelers looked pale and frightened, but somewhat relieved. I had not realized the full extent of the danger and had been more curious than frightened. I had watched the robbers with interest, their dirty, ragged clothes, their heavy cartridge belts, the guns and daggers, their long hair and fierce eyes and marveled at the rapidity with which they acted.
"You were not frightened," said one of the muletiers to me.
"No, I have seen robbers before. This is my second time." I said proudly.
"I hope it is the last," said he. "They are very dangerous and do not think anything of human life. We were very luckily to escape without anyone being killed. That man there is a merchant; he lost a big knot of gold, but he too, is thankful for his life. Many travelers have been killed at that exact place."
"Well," I said, "I have had my share of robbers and hope to see no more of them."
Notes for this section
[*] Note: Alexandra was probably Alexandra Kolchagova, daughter of Michael and Marie (Venedikova) Kolchagov, of Bansko. Alexandra’s first cousin, Kirafinka Dimitrova Puneva married Katerina’s younger brother, Ivan Stephanov on December 20, 1899.
Richard M. Cochran, Ph.D. |
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