The pipes weren’t cooperating, so I had to shave from a frosty bucket of well water. My clean face felt every bit of wind as I crossed the street quickly, only pausing to relax once I entered my classroom. The jolt of cold left me and sleepiness returned. At my desk I sat and rubbed my eyes. In the corner of the room one of the eighth graders, Vladimir, was threatening to spray a girl with a black water pistol. They sold these types of realistic looking toy guns in the local bazaar. The water in that gun must be cold, I thought. I didn’t feel like yelling at him. I wasn’t going to intervene in a water fight; I’d only get sprayed myself. If Vladimir sprayed the girl, she and her friends would hit him over the head with closed fists and then normalcy would return once the bell rang. I assumed that’s what would happen. Vladimir pointed the pistol at different girls—as though saying, “Who will it be?”—and popped his lips to imitate the sound of gunfire. I put my head down for a minute of sleep before the bell rang, ignoring everyone.
A student tapped me on the shoulder. “Vlad’s got a gun,” said the girl.
“I see this,” I said. “I hope he doesn’t shoot.”
A familiar sound then echoed through the room. I recalled the noise from many police films; the cop says, “Don’t make me shoot you,” then cocks the gun, the metallic grating meant to intimidate before he waits a second, then shoots. That metallic cocking sound was the noise I recognized. “Damn it,” I muttered. “I think I have to address this.”
I prepared my loud teaching voice by coughing to clear my throat.
“VLADIMIR!” I screamed.
Others in the class cringed and shuddered at the volume of my voice, but the boy knew why I’d yelled and hugged the pistol against his chest to protect it. “Give it to me!” I commanded. Vladimir instead ran to the back of the room. He tried to open the window and jump out, but thankfully the windows had been painted shut long ago. “I will not give!” he said, not threatening, but pleading. He spoke English, perhaps hoping I would reward his effort. “I will not give!”
He hugged the gun instead of pointing it.
I held my hand out. He shook his head. A boy punched him in the stomach, and the others screamed at him in Russian that was too personal and too fast for me to understand. Vlad handed me the gun backwards, for safety, as though it were a pair of scissors. My hand dropped down from the weight of the pistol. I was no expert on guns. I wanted to see if there were any bullets inside, but I struggled to remove the bottom piece. “Allow me, Mister,” said the boy who’d punched Vlad in the stomach. He took the gun, pressed a button, cooly caught the clip in his free hand, and passed me both pieces.
“Thank God,” I said. “No bullets.”
“Don’t forget to check the chamber,” suggested one of the girls.
The boy who’d disassembled the gun checked the chamber and shook his head.
“I’m not stupid,” said Vladimir. He dug into his right pocket and produced a single bullet. He pointed from the bullet in his palm to the pistol in my hands. “I’d never mix the two at school,” he claimed.
At this moment I went back to the Peace Corps cultural training. Don’t overact to what you perceive to be crazy. You’ll lose respect if they think you don’t appreciate their culture. Was this one of those moments? The students didn’t appear scared. Apparently I was the only one in the room with an elevated heart rate. In fact, perhaps this was normal. I was in this country to teach English, not judge the absence of gun laws. I didn’t know what to do next. Vladimir provided me with a succinct version of what would happen if I confiscated the gun: at home that night his father would beat him, the next day he’d come to school to learn he’d been expelled, and then at home that night his father would beat him to death. The other students agreed. The only possible result would be a series of beatings and expulsion. A friend from another class had borrowed the gun, claimed Vladimir, and was just now returning it. He’d never bring it to school again. I asked why the friend had borrowed the gun. “To shoot stray dogs,” he explained. “Nothing bad.”
I imagined one of the village policemen laughing at me, asking if I’d been frightened.
The bell rang for class to begin.
Keep order, I thought.
The Peace Corps trainer’s voice echoed: Don’t overreact!
“Fine,” I said. “Put the gun in your backpack.”
Vladimir thanked me. The class agreed that I’d been fair. As a reward they decided to participate in the day’s lesson.
I was fully awake now, and a little jumpy. We got through some new vocabulary and no one even objected to the confusing pronunciations of cough and tough. After twenty minutes the students then began to fade. I turned my back to write a sentence on the board. When I spun around I saw a boy playing a game on his cell phone. The other students watched as I crept up on the boy with silent steps, and they cheered when I snatched it from him before he could react. “Give it!” he pleaded. I placed the cell phone on my desk and lectured him on actions and consequences. Since the first day I’d warned them of cell phone use. I’d learned the words for crime and punishment on the first day of school, overhearing a fellow teacher as he hit a boy over the head for touching a girl’s butt. I said those words now.
“For the love of God,” the boy moaned. “Vladimir got to keep his gun!”
Everyone laughed. I felt stupid.
“Touché,” I said, but none of the children knew what that meant.
After class I entered the director’s office and asked what to do in the hypothetical event of a gun in the classroom. “It’s not very good. But no one has bullets,” he said. “So I wouldn’t worry about guns.” He opened his desk drawer and pulled out two tiny glasses and a bottle for us to drink. He opened a bag of chips for us to share also. We spoke about my classes and then about how much money teachers earned in America. I wasn’t able to leave the office for another twenty minutes, not until we’d finished his half bottle of vodka. I was tipsy, but warm. The wind outside didn’t bother me. Vladimir was waiting for me in the road between the school and my square block of apartments.
“The bullet?” he asked. I took off my glove and dug into my pocket. The little piece of metal was warm from my body heat. I passed it into his small hand. He called me a good teacher and took off running toward a pack of street dogs.