It didn’t take us long to overcome our initial shyness, and we started to get to know each other during recess. Towards the end of the week, Angelika asked if I would be allowed to visit her on the last day of the school week. We could walk together to her place, and her dad would drive me home at night.
My parents had no objections, and on Saturday, after early dismissal, we walked together to her home. It was a long walk to an unfamiliar part of town. There were lots of trees and beautiful yards. In Germany, most people do not own houses but live in apartments. Angelika stopped at a big cast-iron gate and opened it with a key. We walked through a long garden path to a big house with many windows. A slender young lady opened the front door. She had raven black hair and pale blue eyes. She kissed Angelika on the cheek with a gentle smile and then greeted me. I hadn’t expected Angelika’s mother to look so young. She served us some delicious little pastries in a bright sunroom. The delicate cakes looked like the ones I had longingly admired in the window of the fancy pastry shop in town. Finally, I tasted these small fruit tarts covered with strawberries and topped with whipped cream. Frau Janzen asked me many questions about my family, interests, hobbies, and school. She had a gentle voice and kind eyes. After our refreshments, she showed me all the rooms in the beautiful house, and I was reminded of our big, wonderful home in Gotha, which we had lost. Our room at the Old House where we lived now was about the size of this sunroom.
Frau Panknin’s Success and Biene’s New Friend Angelika
Biene wrote this post.
Often my mother was at the point of exhaustion and desperation to give up. The bureaucracy was so overwhelming that all her efforts seemed futile. But my mother’s tenacity and indefatigable spirit finally paid off after seven years. She went to the highest government department to plead for justice as a last desperate effort. Miraculously, she was received by a representative of the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who had a sympathetic ear and got the “ball” rolling in no time. My father was finally entitled to a sizeable pension and a big back pay for the lost years. My mother had won the struggle for financial security at the expense of her health and vitality. The years of worries and deprivations had taken their toll. But my brother and I were too young and self-absorbed to notice. For us, she remained a pillar of strength and comfort. Her love for us was inexhaustible.
After this memory fragment of my mother, let’s return to my life. Shortly after our second year of high school had started, “Mecki,” our homeroom teacher, introduced a new student. He assigned her to sit beside me since I had lost my desk partner the previous year. She had failed the grade. I glanced furtively at my new companion, who looked straight ahead at Mecki. Angelika had a cute snub-nose and big blue eyes with long dark eyelashes. Her short hair curled softly around her round red cheeks. She had a nicely curved mouth and dimples. When she eventually dared to smile at me, she looked beautiful.
The first year of high school was a big adjustment for us. We had to get used to a variety of teachers and teaching styles. Learning a new language was fun but also very difficult. We had to memorize many English words, their difficult pronunciations and their idiosyncratic spellings. To this day, the infamous “th” is still a challenge for me sometimes. Spelling rules are relatively consistent in German, but exceptions to the rule are common in English. Memorization of words and phrases seemed to be the best solution.
Although school ended at 1:15 p.m., we had little free time because of heavy homework for each subject. In the afternoon, my brother and I would sit at our only table in the small room of the “House of Rocky Docky” and study. His homework was utterly different from mine. We hardly talked to each other, immersed in a different world. My father worked in the Krupp dental laboratory and would not return until supper. My mother had her battles to fight. She was constantly on the go trying to fight for my father’s right to receive a government pension from the police force he had worked for until Germany was divided.
Most people in Germany did not have phone service when I grew up. It was difficult for my mother to talk to government officials and other essential contact persons involved in her struggle to get justice for my father. It was a difficult and stressful undertaking for my mother and very exhausting. She had to travel by bus or train to government offices in other cities to get an appointment. She had to write letters and fill out lengthy forms, which often landed in the wrong departments or were filed away unread. There was an overload of administrative work for the government officials to accommodate all the refugee claims from the east.
We read works of world literature, first in German and then in English and French, and in the last three years, a few excerpts in Latin. We would discuss, debate and talk about the great themes which moved and influenced man’s quest for the meaning and purpose of life. I loved our philosophical discussions and would always actively participate. Although our teachers were authoritarian in many respects, they encouraged free thinking. We were expected and allowed to have our ideas and opinions as long as we could back them up with solid arguments to prove their validity. We were fortunate to have “Mecki” as our classroom teacher. He eloquently expressed deep thoughts and guided us through difficult discussions. He was a great model.
Our school emphasized language arts, while science-related subjects were neglected. Our physics teacher did not expect much of us. He would spend most of his lessons telling us interesting and entertaining anecdotes about his life and war experiences. Maybe he did not want to waste his efforts teaching science to girls who would never pursue a career in that field. This was still the pervasive opinion at that time. Although I was not scientifically inclined, I once delivered an amazing technical drawing of a Wankel motor. That was my only success in science, and I earned the respect of my teacher. I have to admit remorsefully that my brother had helped me with it.
Biology was another neglected subject. Our squeamish elderly teacher was supposed to provide sex education. She would show us a film of a pregnant mare who miraculously suddenly had a newborn foal beside her. The actual birthing scenes were left out. We were left in the dark. Another substitute teacher took over the topic by telling us a Greek legend of a pot that eventually finds its matching lid. It sounded all Greek to us, and we were quite bewildered. Finally, we searched for answers in real life, not at school.
Life was school, and school was life for me in those days. Everything revolved around school. Every morning, except on Sundays, school started strictly at 8:00 a:m. and the big portal with the stained glass motto “Not for School but for Life” was locked by the caretaker. If you were late, you had to ring a bell. The custodian would open for you and ceremoniously accompany you to the principal’s office on the school’s top floor. Frau Lindemann reigned like a queen at her huge shiny mahogany desk. She was a short, round lady with snow-white hair, bright blue eyes, and red cheeks. She looked kind, but that was deceiving. She was a strict disciplinarian. She would give you a severe reprimand the first time you were late. If you were late three times, you would be suspended. If you had three suspensions, you would be dismissed from school. We feared Frau Lindemann and would only enter her office with great trepidations.
Our classrooms looked austerely functional. There were giant blackboards on the front and side wall opposite the big windows. We would sit in neat rows of two side-by-side desks facing the central blackboard in front and the teacher’s workstation. The room was bare of pictures, displays, plants, or decorative items. There was nothing to distract us. However, we had the most exciting experiences in this dull physical environment. We would vicariously relive humanity’s quest for scientific knowledge and spiritual truths. Most of our teachers were passionate about expanding our minds. They tried to teach us skills to foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective oral and written communication.
This is the beloved school I attended for nine years. Over the entrance was a stained glass window that read “Non scholae sed vitae.” I hardly ever missed a day and was always eager to go and learn for life.
We started with 45 girls in grade 5, and after nine years, only 15 of us graduated. Our homeroom teacher was called Mr. Meckenstock. He mentored us for the entire school time. We fondly nicknamed him Mecki after our generation’s beloved little stuffed hedgehog toy. Mecki faintly resembled the little toy because he had lost most of his hair. However, he was very strict (like almost all German teachers) and also kind and warm-hearted. Above all, he was a unique character full of contradictions. He taught us English and French with lots of enthusiasm. He was proficient in both languages, even though he had never studied them in his native country. He had never been abroad until we went on a field trip to Paris with him in grade 11. The comical adventures of that memorable trip I will never forget. But I will talk about them in detail later. Mecki laid great stress on oral participation in classroom discussions which I liked. I enjoyed sharing thoughts and opinions on ideas or books we had to read in English and French.
Our math teacher, nicknamed Ata (father), was also popular; this short, round, red-cheeked jovial man was a wizard with numbers. Every math lesson he magically turned into a fun experience by engaging us in group math competitions on the blackboard. He cared that we understood and freely helped us when we had problems. We tried very hard not to disappoint him.
These two outstanding teachers probably had the most significant influence on my academic achievement. I will talk more about other teachers soon; teachers at my time were highly respected. When they entered the classroom, we had to rise and greet them in unison. Whenever we volunteered an answer, we also had to stand up. In their presence, we had to act and speak politely and respectfully. But life is full of paradoxes. We girls were not as docile and disciplined as was expected.Before concluding this post, one more afterthought on our school building. As I mentioned, the boy’s high school was adjacent to ours. The schools were so close that we had to cross the boy’s schoolyard to go down some rock steps to our yard. We were not allowed to talk or interact with the boys when walking to our yard below. The boys would stand at the retaining wall and look down on us. Maybe that reflected an attitude symbolic of that time.