The Silver Badge, a novel
Set in 1903 in Odessa this autobiographical novel is about a boy from a poor family, Kolya, who studies at a grammar school for upper classes. The novel starts merrily: an impending dictation in class is dreaded by all pupils because an important official is expected to supervise it. Kolya invents a method of prompting those in need of help: he ties a cord to his leg with the other end tied to his friends’ legs so that by tugging at it he’d signal them about punctuation: one tug – comma, two – exclamation mark, three - question mark, four – colon. The result is disastrous: all the punctuation marks landed in the wrong places because his friends were writing slower.
Then Kolya is accused by a classmate as a culprit in a crime he had never committed: this classmate buried his school diary in the garden to conceal his forged marks, but then the headmaster’s dog, who happened to observe the action, undug the diary and brought it to the headmaster.
Another time, bored at the Bible lesson, Kolya starts counting how many times the pope says “well-well-well” and then fights with his classmate who also starts counting but then cheats. The pope drives them out of the classroom. After classes Kolya tries to apologize while chewing a meat pie despite the official fast. This enrages the pope even more.
Kolya is summoned to the head master and expelled from school. Yet the next day he comes to school as usual in the hope that everything would be forgiven and forgotten and because he is terrified to tell his mother about his “tragedy”. However, he is exposed and driven out of school with shame.
His mother, incidentally, is a remarkable woman: brave and beautiful, strong and good-natured. Once a robber broke into the house and instead of calling the police she fed him and invited to come again. During pogroms she sheltered Jews in her basement hiding them in barrels under pickled cabbage.
When she learns about her son’s expulsion from school she takes it soberly which is a great relief for Kolya who had spent two horrible days preparing himself for breaking the news. Kolya makes a vow to his mother that no matter what he will finish the grammar school course on his own, pass the final exams externally and gets a university education. He fulfills his promise in the end but the road to university was full of pitfalls.
Meanwhile Kolya is terribly distressed about his expulsion and appeals to his classmates to confess their guilt and prove him innocent. The boys refuse to help. Finally his favourite teacher, who has been sacked for his revolutionary views shortly before, tells the naive boy that he was not expelled because of this offence but because of the new law about children from lower classes to be banned from grammar schools: the so-called “Circular on Cookwomen's Children”.
He has to earn a living: he paints roofs, tutors underachievers, runs errands, but being an active and cheerful boy he also roams the streets meeting all sorts of characters and learning about life. At some point he even abandons his self-education because he passionately wants to construct the most beautiful and powerful kite in the world and beat his rival in a kite contest. He runs away from home and the three summer months he spends as a homeless loafer. Then his bosom friend falls badly ill with flu, he comes to see him and this sobers him up – he returns home and resumes his studies.
Both he and his sister work so hard that their mother can afford to give up menial jobs like laundry and work as a seamstress only. Three years later Kolya does complete the entire grammar school course. Two times he is intentionally failed at the final exams, and only the third time, when he goes to a different grammar school he succeeds without a problem. He enrolls successfully at the university, to the joy of his mother. And soon his mother has an additional reason to be proud of her son: his stories start appearing in the local press launching him on his lifelong career of a writer.
Chukovsky’s language is lively and colorful, particularly the dialogues, the novel is full of funny and dramatic situations and humourous episodes. The story brings to life a whole epoch in a multitude of vivid details, and it has lost nothing of its relevance today.