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کتاب: ماتیلدا / فصل 7

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Miss Honey

Matilda was a little late in starting school. Most children

begin Primary School at five or even just before, but Matilda’s parents, who weren’t very concerned one way or the other about their daughter’s education, had forgotten to make the proper arrangements in advance. She was five and a half when she entered school for the first time.

The village school for younger children was a bleak brick building called Crunchem Hall Primary School. It had about two hundred and fifty pupils aged from five to just under twelve years old. The head teacher, the boss, the supreme commander of this establishment was a formidable middle- aged lady whose name was Miss Trunchbull.

Naturally Matilda was put in the bottom class, where there were eighteen other small boys and girls about the same age as her. Their teacher was called Miss Honey, and she could not have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four. She had a lovely pale oval madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light-brown. Her body was so slim and fragile one got the feeling that if she fell over she would smash into a thousand pieces, like a porcelain figure.

Miss Jennifer Honey was a mild and quiet person who never raised her voice and was seldom seen to smile, but there is no doubt she possessed that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care. She seemed to understand totally the bewilderment and fear that so often overwhelms young children who for the first time in their lives are herded into a classroom and told to obey orders. Some curious warmth that was almost tangible shone out of Miss Honey’s face when she spoke to a confused and homesick newcomer to the class.

Miss Trunchbull, the Headmistress, was something else altogether. She was a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of the pupils and teachers alike. There was an aura of menace about her even at a distance, and when she came up close you could almost feel the dangerous heat radiating from her as from a red-hot rod of metal. When she marched — Miss Trunchbull never walked, she always marched like a storm-trooper with long strides and arms as winging — when she marched along a corridor you could actually hear her snorting as she went, and if a group of children happened to be in her path, she ploughed right on through them like a tank, with small people bouncing off her to left and right. Thank goodness we don’t meet many people like her in this world, although they do exist and all of us are likely to come across at least one of them in a lifetime. If you ever do, you should behave as you would if you met an enraged rhinoceros out in the bush — climb up the nearest tree and stay there until it has gone away. This woman, in all her eccentricities and in her appearance, is almost impossible to describe, but I shall make some attempt to do so a little later on. Let us leave her for the moment and go back to Matilda and her first day in Miss Honey’s class.

After the usual business of going through all the names of the children, Miss Honey handed out a brand-new exercise- book to each pupil.

“You have all brought your own pencils, I hope,” she said.

“Yes, Miss Honey,” they chanted.

“Good. Now this is the very first day of school for each one of you. It is the beginning of at least eleven long years of schooling that all of you are going to have to go through. And six of those years will be spent right here at Crunchem Hall where, as you know, your Headmistress is Miss Trunchbull. Let me for your own good tell you something about Miss Trunchbull. She insists upon strict discipline throughout the school, and if you take my advice you will do your very best to behave yourselves in her presence. Never argue with her. Never answer her back. Always do as she says. If you get on the wrong side of Miss Trunchbull she can liquidise you like a carrot in a kitchen blender. It’s nothing to laugh about, Lavender. Take that grin off your face. All of you will be wise

to remember that Miss Trunchbull deals very very severely

with anyone who gets out of line in this school. Have you got

the message?”

“Yes, Miss Honey,” chirruped eighteen eager little voices.

“I myself”, Miss Honey went on, “want to help you to learn as much as possible while you are in this class. That is because I know it will make things easier for you later on. For example, by the end of this week I shall expect every one of you to know the two-times table by heart. And in a year’s time I hope you will know all the multiplication tables up to twelve. It will help you enormously if you do. Now then, do any of you happen to have learnt the two-times table already?”

Matilda put up her hand. She was the only one.

Miss Honey looked carefully at the tiny girl with dark hair and a round serious face sitting in the second row. “Wonderful,” she said. “Please stand up and recite as much of it as you can.”

Matilda stood up and began to say the two-times table. When she got to twice twelve is twenty-four she didn’t stop. She went right on with twice thirteen is twenty-six, twice fourteen is twenty-eight, twice fifteen is thirty, twice sixteen is . . .”

“Stop!” Miss Honey said. She had been listening slightly spellbound to this smooth recital, and now she said, “How far can you go?”

“How far?” Matilda said. “Well, I don’t really know, Miss Honey. For quite a long way, I think.”

Miss Honey took a few moments to let this curious statement sink in. “You mean”, she said, “that you could tell me what two times twenty-eight is?”

“Yes, Miss Honey.”

“What is it?”

“Fifty-six, Miss Honey.”

“What about something much harder, like two times four hundred and eighty-seven? Could you tell me that?”

“I think so, yes,” Matilda said.

“Are you sure?”

“Why yes, Miss Honey, I’m fairly sure.”

“What is it then, two times four hundred and eighty- seven?”

“Nine hundred and seventy-four,” Matilda said immediately. She spoke quietly and politely and without any sign of showing off.

Miss Honey gazed at Matilda with absolute amazement, but when next she spoke she kept her voice level. “That is really splendid,” she said. “But of course multiplying by two is a lot easier than some of the bigger numbers. What about the other multiplication tables? Do you know any of those?”

“I think so, Miss Honey. I think I do.”

“Which ones, Matilda? How far have you got?”

“I . . . I don’t quite know,” Matilda said. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“What I mean is do you for instance know the three-times table?”

“Yes, Miss Honey.”

“And the four-times?”

“Yes, Miss Honey.”

“Well, how many do you know, Matilda? Do you know all the way up to the twelve-times table?”

“Yes, Miss Honey.”

“What are twelve sevens?”

“Eighty-four,” Matilda said.

Miss Honey paused and leaned back in her chair behind the plain table that stood in the middle of the floor in front of the class. She was considerably shaken by this exchange but took care not to show it. She had never come across a five- year-old before, or indeed a ten-year-old, who could multiply with such facility.

“I hope the rest of you are listening to this,” she said to the class. “Matilda is a very lucky girl. She has wonderful parents who have already taught her to multiply lots of numbers. Was it your mother, Matilda, who taught you?”

“No, Miss Honey, it wasn’t.”

“You must have a great father then. He must be a brilliant teacher.”

“No, Miss Honey,” Matilda said quietly. “My father did not teach me.”

“You mean you taught yourself?”

“I don’t quite know,” Matilda said truthfully. “It’s just that I don’t find it very difficult to multiply one number by another.”

Miss Honey took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She looked again at the small girl with bright eyes standing beside her desk so sensible and solemn. “You say you don’t find it difficult to multiply one number by another,” Miss Honey

said. “Could you try to explain that a little bit.”

“Oh dear,” Matilda said. “I’m not really sure.”

Miss Honey waited. The class was silent, all listening.

“For instance,” Miss Honey said, “if I asked you to multiply fourteen by nineteen . . . No, that’s too difficult . . .”

“It’s two hundred and sixty-six,” Matilda said softly.

Miss Honey stared at her. Then she picked up a pencil and

quickly worked out the sum on a piece of paper. “What did

you say it was?” she said, looking up.

“Two hundred and sixty-six,” Matilda said.

Miss Honey put down her pencil and removed her

spectacles and began to polish the lenses with a piece of

tissue. The class remained quiet, watching her and waiting for what was coming next. Matilda was still standing up beside her desk.

“Now tell me, Matilda,” Miss Honey said, still polishing,

“try to tell me exactly what goes on inside your head when

you get a multiplication like that to do. You obviously have to work it out in some way, but you seem able to arrive at the answer almost instantly. Take the one you’ve just done, fourteen multiplied by nineteen.”

“I . . . I . . . I simply put the fourteen down in my head and

multiply it by nineteen,” Matilda said. “I’m afraid I don’t

know how else to explain it. I’ve always said to myself that if a little pocket calculator can do it why shouldn’t I?”

“Why not indeed,” Miss Honey said. “The human brain is an amazing thing.”

“I think it’s a lot better than a lump of metal,” Matilda said. “That’s all a calculator is.”

“How right you are,” Miss Honey said. “Pocket calculators are not allowed in this school anyway.” Miss Honey was feeling quite quivery. There was no doubt in her mind that she had met a truly extraordinary mathematical brain, and words like child-genius and prodigy went flitting through her head. She knew that these sort of wonders do pop up in the world from time to time, but only once or twice in a hundred years. After all, Mozart was only five when he started composing for the piano and look what happened to him.

“It’s not fair,” Lavender said. “How can she do it and we can’t?”

“Don’t worry, Lavender, you’ll soon catch up,” Miss Honey said, lying through her teeth.

At this point Miss Honey could not resist the temptation of exploring still further the mind of this astonishing child. She knew that she ought to be paying some attention to the rest of the class but she was altogether too excited to let the matter rest.

“Well,” she said, pretending to address the whole class, “let us leave sums for the moment and see if any of you have begun to learn to spell. Hands up anyone who can spell cat.”

Three hands went up. They belonged to Lavender, a small boy called Nigel and to Matilda.

“Spell cat, Nigel.”

Nigel spelled it.

Miss Honey now decided to ask a question that normally she would not have dreamed of asking the class on its first day. “I wonder”, she said, “whether any of you three who know how to spell cat have learned how to read a whole group of words when they are strung together in a sentence?”

“I have,” Nigel said.

“So have I,” Lavender said.

Miss Honey went to the blackboard and wrote with her white chalk the sentence, I have already begun to learn how to read long sentences. She had purposely made it difficult and she knew that there were precious few five-year-olds around who would be able to manage it.

“Can you tell me what that says, Nigel?” she asked.

“That’s too hard,” Nigel said.

“Lavender?”

“The first word is I,” Lavender said.

“Can any of you read the whole sentence?” Miss Honey asked, waiting for the “yes” that she felt certain was going to come from Matilda.

“Yes,” Matilda said.

“Go ahead,” Miss Honey said.

Matilda read the sentence without any hesitation at all.

“That really is very good indeed,” Miss Honey said, making the understatement of her life. “How much can you read, Matilda?”

“I think I can read most things, Miss Honey,” Matilda said, “although I’m afraid I can’t always understand the meanings.”

Miss Honey got to her feet and walked smartly out of the room, but was back in thirty seconds carrying a thick book. She opened it at random and placed it on Matilda’s desk.

“This is a book of humorous poetry,” she said. “See if you can read that one aloud.”

Smoothly, without a pause and at a nice speed, Matilda began to read:

“An epicure dining at Crewe

Found a rather large mouse in his stew.

Cried the waiter, “Don’t shout

And wave it about

Or the rest will be wanting one too.”

Several children saw the funny side of the rhyme and laughed. Miss Honey said, “Do you know what an epicure is, Matilda?”

“It is someone who is dainty with his eating,” Matilda said.

“That is correct,” Miss Honey said. “And do you happen to know what that particular type of poetry is called?”

“It’s called a limerick,” Matilda said. “That’s a lovely one. It’s so funny.”

“It’s a famous one,” Miss Honey said, picking up the book and returning to her table in front of the class. “A witty limerick is very hard to write,” she added. “They look easy but they most certainly are not.”

“I know,” Matilda said. “I’ve tried quite a few times but mine are never any good.”

“You have, have you?” Miss Honey said, more startled than ever. “Well Matilda, I would very much like to hear one of these limericks you say you have written. Could you try to remember one for us?”

“Well,” Matilda said, hesitating. “I’ve actually been trying to make up one about you, Miss Honey, while we’ve been sitting here.”

“About me!” Miss Honey cried. “Well, we’ve certainly got to hear that one, haven’t we?”

“I don’t think I want to say it, Miss Honey.”

“Please tell it,” Miss Honey said. “I promise I won’t mind.”

“I think you will, Miss Honey, because I have to use your first name to make things rhyme and that’s why I don’t want to say it.”

“How do you know my first name?” Miss Honey asked.

“I heard another teacher calling you by it just before we came in,” Matilda said. “She called you Jenny.”

“I insist upon hearing this limerick,” Miss Honey said, smiling one of her rare smiles. “Stand up and recite it.”

Reluctantly Matilda stood up and very slowly, very nervously, she recited her limerick: “The thing we all ask about Jenny Is, ‘Surely there cannot be many Young girls in the place With so lovely a face?’

The answer to that is, ‘Not any!’ “

The whole of Miss Honey’s pale and pleasant face blushed a brilliant scarlet. Then once again she smiled. It was a much broader one this time, a smile of pure pleasure.

“Why, thank you, Matilda,” she said, still smiling. “Although it is not true, it is really a very good limerick. Oh dear, oh dear,

I must try to remember that

one.”

From the third row of desks,

Lavender said, “It’s good. I like it.”

“It’s true as well,” a small boy called Rupert said.

“Of course it’s true,” Nigel said.

Already the whole class had begun to warm towards Miss Honey, although as yet she had hardly taken any notice of any of them except Matilda.

“Who taught you to read, Matilda?” Miss Honey asked.

“I just sort of taught myself, Miss Honey.”

“And have you read any books all by yourself, any children’s books, I mean?”

“I’ve read all the ones that are in the public library in the High Street, Miss Honey.”

“And did you like them?”

“I liked some of them very much indeed,” Matilda said, “but I thought others were fairly dull.”

“Tell me one that you liked.”

“I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Matilda said. “I think Mr C. S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.”

“You are right there,” Miss Honey said.

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,” Matilda said.

“Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?” Miss Honey asked.

“I do,” Matilda said. “Children are not so serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh.”

Miss Honey was astounded by the wisdom of this tiny girl. She said, “And what are you going to do now that you’ve read all the children’s books?”

“I am reading other books,” Matilda said. “I borrow them from the library. Mrs Phelps is very kind to me. She helps me to choose them.”

Miss Honey was leaning far forward over her work-table and gazing in wonder at the child. She had completely forgotten now about the rest of the class. “What other books?” she murmured.

“I am very fond of Charles Dickens,” Matilda said. “He makes me laugh a lot. Especially Mr Pickwick.”

At that moment the bell in the corridor sounded for the end of class.

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