Although I had developed quite early in my life a knack for languages, I was not doing very well in the English course. In spite of my efforts, especially in the last two senior grades, I failed to obtain a passing grade. To overcome my apparent deficiencies I even enrolled in an independent commercial correspondence course. I began to read English novels, exchanged notes and worked with friends, wrote a research paper on the British welfare system, all to no avail. Mr. M., our English teacher, used a rigid, my-way-only teaching approach, which I dreaded and which caused me to have nightmares. This young and inexperienced teacher had a peculiar way of marking our written work. For each grammatical error he would put a big cross in red ink on the margin of the test paper. No matter how good the essay was, no matter how well the student expressed his thoughts, the final grade would never be better than a mere satisfactory mark. But if one received two of those red marks, as was often the case with my work, the best one could hope for was a D (a 5 on a scale from 1 to 6). This method was stifling my creativity. For me the only way to squeeze out a satisfactory result was to write as little as possible in an effort to avoid those fearful crosses. Mr. M., of course, noticing my attempts of circumventing the grammatical pitfalls, now zeroed in with vengeance on the sketchy details and evaluated my writing as scanty and deficient. It became very clear to me then that I could not develop my true potential in an atmosphere of paralyzing fear and indeed I wound up with an unsatisfactory grade on my graduation certificate.
We had teachers, whom we feared and despised, teachers, whom we feared and respected, and teachers, whom we loved and respected. One of the latter was Mr. Müller, our math teacher in the senior grades. He presented his lessons on analytical geometry and calculus with clarity and a sense of humor. Being still in his early thirties, he was in touch with what made an adolescent mind tick. He gained our respect through his profound knowledge of the subject matter, his enthusiasm for mathematics and his ability to infuse in us understanding and even love for the queen of science. He often introduced a new topic with a joke. To warm us adolescents up to the trigonometric functions hinting with a meaningful twinkle in his eyes at their beautiful curves, he told us the joke about a teacher in an all-girls high school in the lower grades. One day the young girls asked him a question during the math lesson, “What are sine functions, Mr. T?”
He promptly answered while revealing his knowledge of ancient languages, “The word ‘sine’ is derived from the Latin ‘sinus’ and means bosom. But you will get that later in the upper grades.” No doubt, that joke and many others of this kind appealed to us boys being in that volatile stage of development sandwiched between child- and adulthood.
It is not surprising that the Wesel High School amongst many other schools in North Rhine-Westphalia organized, one year before our graduation, a field trip to the capital of Germany to provide the students with first-hand experience of the wall that was going to separate Germans from Germans for almost 30 years. The day after our class had participated in a guided tour of a small section of the wall, the teacher in charge of our group granted me permission to go see my relatives in East Berlin. Mr. Zorn with the Latin nickname Ira was personally responsible for our safety. I often wondered how he could have allowed me to cross the border on my own with all the horror stories circulating in the daily newspapers about harassments, arrests, even disappearances of people from West Germany. At the checkpoint I had to list all my personal belongings. I had nothing to declare except my cheap DM 20.00 camera.
Again I enjoyed a most pleasant visit with Aunt Alma and her family. I cannot recall having announced my coming, but I must have sent them a card, because the whole family had assembled in the living room, when I arrived at their door. Uncle Artur with his biting sarcasm softened only by a disarming sense of humor was again, as on my previous visit, at his best poking fun at the political system in general, but especially at the wall very much to the chagrin of his party-loyal sons-in-law. He asked whether I knew why there were so many round holes in the wall. When I shook my head, he answered the question for me, “To let off the cabbage steam.” Now this riddle makes only sense in English if one knows that cabbage steam (Kohldampf) was a euphemism for ravenous hunger.
Now the sons-in-law had their turn to inform me from their perspective the raison d’être for the wall. It was built, so they insisted, to protect the citizens of the GDR from the attacks of the Western imperialists. Surely I must have seen the tank traps and the barbed wire in front of the wall facing west. They would serve as the first line of defense. If they were intended to keep people from leaving their socialist country, they would have been set up behind the wall. I remained unimpressed. Their fervor for the system showed me that they had pulled blindfolds over their eyes. They believed what they wanted to believe on the principle that you do not slap the hand that feeds you. With Uncle Artur`s help the family finally steered away from the political hogwash and focused on their guest.
Berlin Wall – Photo Credit: hstrclgrl.blogspot.ca
When I told them about my trips to Spain and Yugoslavia I indirectly conveyed to them the kind of freedom I enjoyed on the other side of the Wall. Also I enthusiastically talked about my career plans, namely to study high frequency technology. Uncle Artur, a leading scientist in a related field, a son-in-law already involved with electronics in the NVA (National People’s Army), Anje, the second youngest daughter also planning to become an electronics engineer, we all warmed up to this refreshingly apolitical topic with Aunt Alma cheerfully chiming in, “Wouldn’t it be nice, if Peter and Anje could study together in the exciting world of electronics!” With this comment Aunt Alma more concerned about good family relations than about politics made a profound statement about the tragedy of a divided Germany.