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Smoke bomb burning and language learning

Updated: Apr 18

The bus had just left me. Seated on the outskirts of the Munich station, with the characteristic briskness of the first days of November, in place of cursing whomever had decided the platform signage would only be in German, I cursed, instead, my limited knowledge of the language. And then I cursed Frau Renate.

There does not exist any act of cursing or bawling complaint without the element of blame, and blaming oneself isn’t half as cathartic as blaming others. Such as, beneath the dark sky of Bavaria, I mentally detailed a list of those at fault; it was a list of indecorous scoundrels against whom to blaspheme openly, since, after all, there is no thought more pleasurable than that once you move to the dark side.

My first steps in the study of German were not entirely amiss, I should be clear. In fact, the few words and loose phrases I can articulate today stem from my first mentors. To them, I owe the pronouns, five or six verbs I can’t conjugate, various family members, almost all the nouns that can be enumerated in a classroom, a few animals, the ability to count from one to one hundred and, of course, colours. How could one forget the song of colours so sweetly transmitted by Herr Pundsack?

But grammar school with its colours, animals and didactic songs remained in the past, giving way to high school and a pauperine plan of studies, brilliantly enforced by those executioners of learning, those masters in the art of the decapitation of enthusiasm, those who extinguished my aspiration to be able to speak German someday. As I reconsidered my first scholarly years, I found no ostentatious or blameworthy foes, and the list was reduced to two names upon revisiting high school.

Nemesis #1

Frau Renate is the first name on that short and infamous list. She had wrinkled skin, her brown hair so poorly died that it left in evidence the greying roots that grew below, rather enormous teeth the colour of feed corn and toxic breath that smelled of cigarettes. In sum, she reunited all the characteristics to ensure that a child in puberty would heckle her.

I should be honest, anyway, that she was not a bad person, merely useless in complying with her mission. She, as with us, her students, together were victims of an improvised and poorly designed system. Renate and her attempts to teach German were drowned beneath our screams and insults. She not only had to evade our jokes—darts loaded with venomous humiliation—but also every type of projectile directed at the enormous glasses that covered 45% of her jaundiced face.

We were not against her, instead it came down to every student warring against an educational system defiled by mediocrity.

One of the final memories I have of Renate is precisely one which, in itself, appeared a battlefield. I remember smoke and fire. Someone had brought a smoke bomb to class that morning, and some other accomplice had contrived flinging it in the waste basket. Almost like a military tactic, surrounding the distracted enemy with stealth.

Soon the bomb took effect, and there was more than smoke. The waste basket torched into flames and a desperate Renate inserted a foot in to stamp it out, instead leaving her booted extremity jammed and trapped between scorching papers while the flame climbed up her leg.

That battle had ended and we had won, but I left wounded and my desire to learn German had crumbled before the many distractions and much lost time. What was once a genuine interest to master foreign languages instead was morphing into a generalized rejection of them.

Nemesis #2

The following instructor (and the following name on my list) finished off the assassination of my tenuous desire. Like a ruthless sergeant, Annette plundered my already damaged aspirations. And although I may refer to her as the enemy, Annette appeared to be anything but a villain. With her long and pale anatomy, apparently taken out of a frame from El Greco, along with her slow gait and dragging steps, Annette looked more like a soul in pain, a phantasmal being who also dragged her sentences, elongating them, tediously, converting her in an insufferable creature to hear speak.

As such, this phantasmagorical and unanimated being squandered my confidence like a soldier without honour quashes his weary enemy.

No one ever attacked Annette, perhaps because her soporific discourse had us all in a hypnotized trance—we were a comatose army.

The school’s error in those days was to mix students from advanced, intermediate and basic levels in one single classroom. Annette’s error was her disregard for this detail.

And there was I, among that mix of students with assorted levels, lost in a level below basic. A poor boy whose maximum knowledge of German was constituted by colours and farm animals. There I was, required to hold in my hands a thin, yellow book of advanced grammar with the obligation to learn and understand its rules. How was I going to understand? One of the most memorable conversations I had with Annette reflected the low-level pedagogy of the instructors in my old school:

“David, and your homework?”

“I couldn’t do it.”

“And why not?”

“Because I didn’t understand anything that’s in the book.”

“Have you even opened the book?”

“Yes, but it’s all in German.”

“Step out into the hall immediately!”

And, with that example of a delusional and hardly sympathetic instructor, it becomes clear how the aspiration of a student can be destroyed in short time. Seated under the cold sky of Munich, compelled to wait five hours before being able to leave for Berlin, I understand now the fundamental role an educator plays in the life of a child and the degree of conscientiousness that one must have upon influencing our lives. A responsibility shared with the school directors and with the parents for not monitoring whether their children learn (or not).

Two lessons were learned from this tribulation.

In the first place, with certainty it is never too late to learn: Duolingo has done in a question of months what those dismal instructors failed to achieve in five years. I’m sure that a good teacher could have done even more.

The second great lesson that arrived thanks to the errors of those terrible pedagogues leaves me with a faint appreciation; in fact, they taught me efficaciously how NOT to teach. At present, as a teacher of languages, I’m sympathetic with my students, I know my methodology well and I apply it in class in accordance with the knowledge of each pupil, and, without a doubt, I know what not to do.

And, of course, German is not one of the languages I teach.

When the indecorous becomes the new norm, the new standard, decency becomes a chore.

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