From My Time in the Language School

I notice I have not spoken much if at all about the administration of the language school or its director. This is not because I am in utter fear of her, but because to me she seems in a sense, how shall I put it, airy, inconsequential, almost trivial, a factotum in the administrative chain of the institute to which the language school belongs. I mean, after all, other than hire and fire, what can she do? Granted, in itself that’s a lot and can have a great impact on the students, and not always to our detriment. The director also sets the teachers’ schedules, decides who teaches what when, though there is a pattern here she follows as best she can. There are always unforeseen circumstances which the director at a moment’s notice must deflect or defy or accommodate or defray. In this light she is indeed something of a marvel, the director, now that I think about it, about whom I have no right to think, because in every imaginable and unimaginable way in the language school she is my superior. One can hardly think of her as powerless. As for me, well, all she can do is tell me to pay my fees, which I do in any case within 24 hours after notification.

I misspoke at the beginning of this entry. As I do with the teachers of the language school, I hold the director in respectful esteem, as much as her actions allow. The teachers, of course, have reason to placate and fear the director who hires them on a freelance basis, though some of the teachers surely would gladly work full-time to receive the benefits offered by the state. I see the director seldom: a glimpse into her spacious office from the secretary’s room, a ficus-filled corner, the glow of the director’s monitor illuminating her face, or her walking with a colleague out of the Amadeus after lunch. Once I saw her huddled with my favorite teacher over the screen as they monitored an official test, the two of them laughing together at something one or the other had just said, then surprised to see me at the door and I surprised at their surprise. I made the mistake of using the formal Sie with my teacher, which we students have been explicitly requested to do, but in the case of my favorite teacher and me, since at this point we were no longer teacher and student, but ex-teacher and ex-student, we had long since forgone the formal pronoun. “Why so formal, Thomas?” she said. “Bis gleich, I’ll be with you in a moment.” The director, on the other hand, looked at me as if I had pissed on the Bible during service, and perhaps in a sense I had. Hadn’t I seen the signs stating an exam was in progress? Why had I blithely blundered into a hallway off-limits to the likes of me? “Second nature,” I said out loud to this unasked question, then retreated back down the stairs to wait for my teacher.

The new course is harder, my teachers not always on the mark. Something is troubling the institute, I can sense it in the hallways when I see the teachers and students milling about together, something more forced about the teachers’ smiles. Classes stumble to their ends with increasing lethargy. A teacher pulls me aside and tells me that I seem to be making no progress, as if I had landed on a permanent plateau from which in all likelihood I would only descend. Winter wind shrieked around the bare chestnut tree beneath which she kept futilely trying to light her cigarillo. I said she had told me nothing I didn’t already know, that a blind man on a galloping horse et cetera. The mind, I said, the mind, difficult, I said, difficult to reconfigure et cetera, I said, playing knickknack pollywack all day long in my besieged brain, then thanked her for what could only ironically be considered her candor. From my peculiar foreigner’s perspective I found Frau Frist a bit histrionic. She resembled a young woman I had known when I lived in southwest Louisiana in the early 1990s, in that she didn’t know what to do with herself once she left the stage. Was this why she made me so melancholy? She was right, of course, about my lack of progress.

After her announcement of my failure to improve, I start going out more often. At a party I see the director across a crowded room. She nods in greeting. The next day at school I receive from her a lunch invitation for the following week. That afternoon on the tram back to my apartment a German in his late fifties verbally accosts a polite, pretty black woman with her baby, until I intervene.

Often I wonder what I am doing in the language school (though I well understand what I am doing still in Germany), what any of us students are doing in the language school. Statistically only one in twelve will become proficient in German and only two in twelve will still be in Germany in three years. What will make me that second person? Mostly my savings and the modest pension awaiting me in the distant future. The days pile up, as do my errors. We students gather under the trees during the break, stare at one another, say nothing, shake our heads, go back in. Halldor from Reykjavík asks why we can’t have a lesson in dictation, but the teacher will have none of those old school ways. In the language school we have our computers before us, we gather up meaning from our dictionaries in Chinese, Persian, Portuguese, English, Turkish, Japanese, Spanish. Sites blink ads in the margins of our eyes. On my screensaver an image of a galaxy dissolves into Jupiter which dissolves into a star cluster which dissolves into one of its moons. But then there come times when the teachers request we put away our devices and listen directly to them, they have something to tell us straight from the director, and we close our laptops or minis, our tablets or phones, try to control our thumbs from twitching, and listen to what the director wishes us to know.

As often as not, what she has to say is important to all of us students in the language school, though not always clear to me, for example, something about the toilets and test lions, Examenlöwen is what it sounded like to my ears, test lions. I have no idea what those are. In truth I would welcome dictation exercises. They might tune up my ears.

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Visits to the homes of teachers no doubt were meant for me to learn more than I would have in the classroom alone where we students faced untold obstacles: the weather which loved to play the quick-change artist; food and body smells that were dragged into the classroom in thick, aromatic burlap sacks filled with hay, spring flowers, and books soiled by the rain of foreign countries; a white board whose words were often erased before I comprehended or copied them. (On these boards I could discourse for days and perhaps later I shall.) In the home of my favorite teacher …

But what am I saying? I never followed her home because she never asked me to, and she never asked, I like to believe, because she knew it best not to, that more than a will-o’-the-wisp our relationship must never become. However, there was the teacher who invited me to her apartment in Vaihingen; her cabinets were filled with bottle after bottle of exotic liqueur. She wasn’t married and I was no longer married. We sat on her balcony, drank wine and cheese and talked about this and that: the classes, our pasts, the students and staff. By midnight, still a little lit from the wine, I was back home, and ready the next day to conjugate, to the best of my abilities, verbs whose precise meaning in the sentence under examination I could not quite fathom.

In class we had to describe, with as much detail as our vocabularies allowed, our abodes, room by room, what radio stations we listened to, what type of music, what we ate for breakfast, what books were on our nightstands, what medicines we took, how old we were when we first experienced love, what love is, et cetera. Room by room, fireplace by fireplace, though none of us had fireplaces; still the teacher insisted we mention fireplaces (plural) regardless. To our descriptions, therefore, we added fireplace after fireplace to please ours teachers who sometimes I think were tricking us; in no way could they really believe we were as good as their praise made out, though this of course might only have been part of the game plan of the language school to get us to learn the language none of us over the age of 24 had a statistical chance of learning beyond the level of, say, a three year old, though I’ve held conversations with three year olds whose command of syntax is far better than mine, even if my vocabulary temporarily is larger. And then there was the other teacher who took me aside and said, “You’re not making any progress,” and I wanted to say, No kidding? And why do you think that is? But I only nodded because the teacher was statuesque and gorgeous and had long white hair and would have been commanding if it weren’t for that one stroke too much in her appearance that told you I, too, am not altogether stable, surely you understand this, my dear boy, and I wondered how it was that she, who was only a decade younger than I, felt it within her right to call me dear boy, lieber Junge. Still, were I one to relish being under the thumb of an Amazon I could do worse. But the fact was I did not relish this possibility and in my imagination suspected her of all kinds nefarious proclivities, such as the public humiliation of her husband, whose German skills—he was Chilean—were no match for hers.

In the home of another teacher I played with her children’s cats, and with her husband I played ping pong, and soccer with her two young sons. The homes of my teachers I was privileged to enter held many things, but I can’t say—despite the tennis matches, the family albums, late evening drinks on the patio—I can’t say that these visits taught me more about the language or myself, but it did leave me with many impressions about my teachers’ lives. In the home of another teacher, her son slept beneath a lampshade painted with spaceships, while his mother and I watched on her flat screen an episode of the crime series Tatort. After we had viewed the episode, she asked if I understood the German soul better now, and I said, “Absolutely.” Together we had put away a liter and a half of Primitivo Puglia, a rich Italian red. Clumsily we kissed at the door goodnight. In the home of a visiting teacher from Leipzig I ate an excellently prepared Chinese meal while across from me she smoked one American Spirit after another. If truth be told, I didn’t understand why I was in the apartment of the guest teacher from Leipzig and not my own, other than because usually there was no one in my home but myself and my plants, or what ghosts I allowed or had forced their way in.

Alone at night I pace up and down my apartment trying to comprehend passive constructions—wird von mir geschrieben/is written by me; wurde von mir geschrieben/was written by me; ist von mir geschrieben worden/has been written by me; war von mir geschrieben worden/ had been written by me; wird von mir geschrieben werden/will be written by me; wird von mir geschrieben worden sein/will have been written by me—but I can’t keep these strange passive constructions in my head, they’re too different from English, the grammatical possibilities too numerous. When to use Konjunktiv I, when to use Konjunktiv II; when to … The rules pile up on the highway of thought, a massacre of semes. For weeks we had had spring storms that first empurpled the sky, then released upon us a torrent of rain. Once my favorite teacher and I huddled together under the awning of a café and wiped rain off each other’s clothes and faces.

 

 

A teacher (Juliette) says: “The old ones, god, they’re the ones that creep me out, I mean, you never know what they’re thinking, I mean it can all get like so twisty [I’m translating loosely here], and the way they wrinkle, wrinkles under wrinkles, no end to them once they get started. Even the younger, cuter ones, even they are frightening. Can’t tell what they’ll do next, drop to their knees before our respective beauty or spit in our faces, not willfully, of course. Better to have them on the ground. Or under it.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, says the faculty lounge.

Outside and to the side of the open door of the faculty room, I console myself by remembering teachers are human, too; soon enough they’ll look up and find themselves in a café they said they would never enter because it’s an old folks’ café, Starbucks, for example.

The teacher (Juliette) says: “They’ve read Groddeck: ‘The baby caresses the breast more and more sweetly.’ They’ve read Totem and Taboo: ‘In such an excerpt it is quite impossible to give the reader any sense of the lucidity of the original.’ They’ve read The Waning of the Middle Ages: ‘Nowhere does the erotic element of the tournament appear more clearly than in the custom of the knight’s wearing the veil or the dress of his lady.’ Quatsch. All that history muddled by senility, all that loose thought designed to no purpose now that they are nearing their end. No wonder they can’t learn German. Whom are we kidding when we tell them different? Not ourselves.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, sings the faculty lounge. “Fell asleep right in class, one of them did, right there in front of me and his fellow students, and then had the audacity to snore. I mean, I’ve never. There should be an age limit or something, don’t you think? Or a special class for those over forty, or even thirty. That would take care of a lot of our problems. Then no student would be older than we are, as was proscribed millennia ago.” Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

“Well, Ingrid,” said Juliette, who was jealous of Ingrid’s status in the language school, the esteem with which she was held by the students, bordering on the idolatrous by some. “Well, Juliette,” said Ingrid, who in no sense was jealous of Juliette because she had no reason to be, not that that stops most of us from being jealous, but jealous Frau Maeght was not. “Well,” said Juliette again. “Well,” said Ingrid again, “I guess it’s time we got back into the saddle, Juliette.” “I agree reluctantly, Ingrid,” said Juliette.

Ingrid and Juliette left the faculty lounge and its laughter and stepped together into the hall without seeing me, because I had retreated further away, and then they went their separate ways, which is where they had been going to begin with. I was inclined to follow neither of them at the moment and instead retreat to the courtyard or a nearby café and ponder what I had just heard (in what sense had they been kidding, in what sense not?), but I had to follow the one who at that time was my teacher, because our midday pause was now at an end. Choices of teacher we students had none; we got what we paid for, but didn’t know what we were paying for until the class began to meet, and even then we weren’t necessarily sure until weeks later, and by that time we could no longer receive a refund.

So I followed, at a distance, Juliette back to the classroom, where all my classmates were already busy at work on the assignment I had forgotten to prepare, because I had been too busy nosing about outside the faculty lounge, where the teachers of the language school gather to invent methods for us to learn German better. I try not to doubt that that is what they do in the faculty lounge, despite evidence to the contrary. But perhaps the dialogue between Juliette and Ingrid was also meant as an aid to my learning?

“Late again, Thomas,” said Juliette, when I entered the classroom. Then she pulled me to the side and whispered, “I’ve noticed of late you’re falling behind, Thomas. You shouldn’t allow that to happen. Every step you lose, two are lost in the bush.” Is that what she really said, or only another mistranslation of mine? “Shall I give you extra work, Thomas? Is that what you wish? And your late arrival, how can you excuse that? I know this must be embarrassing for you, me taking you aside in front of the others. What must they be thinking?”

I glanced at my colleagues busy selecting the correct temporal preposition in their workbooks, then looked back at my teacher. “Embarrassing? Not at all, not at all,” I said. “Im Lauf der Zeit, in the course of time, I have learned not to resist the attention of my teachers, as do all students in the language school. Extra work I would welcome if I had the time to complete the exercises already assigned, which I do not, even though I have only my Friday afternoon job at another institute of learning to take me away from what I know is more important, the successful completion of my assignments for the language school. Nonetheless these assignments are sometimes a bit too much; therefore, no, I would prefer not to receive additional assignments, and should you give me extra work anyway, I will thank you for your efforts on my behalf and point out that I am aware they exceed your duties, and at the same time state unequivocally that I will not complete them, perhaps might not even glance at them, in part because I have a hard enough time keeping up as is, as I just said, in part because you cannot make me do them anymore than you can remove me from the class as long as my behavior remains within more or less reasonable and legal bounds, which I never step out of, though if I do, I know you will be there to herd me back into that region where all we students at the language school need to remain if we are to graduate to the next level.”

I’m not sure how much of what I said made sense to her or even to myself, I know my German is easily misinterpreted, but what I’ve written here is what I meant to say in German if my German had been up to saying it. I write this entry in my diary on the tram back to my attic apartment in Stuttgart-West, and wonder, in the margins, if tomorrow I should show it to my favorite teacher, once I’ve altered the names.

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We know that, unlike our teachers, our time in the language school is limited to our course of studies, which lasts only for five eight-week sessions; counting the breaks, that’s a year of learning German, if we don’t skip a session and pass the state-approved exam, essential for most of us to land a job, though not for me since my work is all in English, is English, a dilemma for me on some days, an ontological nightmare on others. Regarding this psychological crisis of sorts, my teachers at the language school give me counseling free of charge, though perhaps they don’t know they do this, transcending their contractual duties not by plowing us with false gods, other than the god of hope, but by—dare I say it?—reading and befriending us in ways that, while being of an entirely professional appropriateness, are at the same time of an acuity and compassion I never imagined possible in any school.

They meet—they must meet; how else could their pedagogy have comforted me?—to discuss the special case called Thomas the left-handed, Thomas the timid, Thomas the elder, Thomas the time bomb, Thomas the traitor, Thomas the tenuous, Thomas the troubling, Thomas the troubled, Thomas the one we should keep our eyes on regardless. The teachers of the language school are not stoics; they expect things to change and to change for the better. They hover about my bed at night (or rather in my imagination they do), float around me, stare into my nostrils, my ears while I sleep, as if they could find there the secret that will unlock what keeps me from fluency in their language. If we could have him succeed. But at what cost? Yes, that’s a danger. Again the voices of the two teachers, the two teachers’ voices again, one of them my favorite, the other not one of my favorites, of which I have several, too many, more than I can accommodate in this report:

“He’s not such a bother, if you know how to handle him; in more ways than not an addition and help to the classroom experience for student and teacher alike.” “So says you. I see it different. And don’t tell me you’re interested in him. Yes, I’ll grant you a certain charm, I’ll allow that, but, you know, a bit too old for us, yes? I mean he must be at least fifty, and, well, we’re so much younger, you by almost a decade, which would make this what, a May-July romance? I mean, ha ha ha, if romance it be at all? By the way, is it?”

At night I stand at my window looking down on the city, hours spent staring into the lights of Stuttgart, listening in my head to this teacher talking to that teacher, my favorite teacher, say, to this or that teacher doing their best, within the limits of their abilities and pay scale, to help their students. On the trams passengers drink deep from their digital devices, shout into their phones, their brain cells synched to the insect-buzz of their earbuds. Few of us on the tram still read from printed books, fewer by the day. I struggle with the passive. I decline adjectives in the bathroom, memorize the cases on the tram; in another few months I will start reading German female romance novels whenever I am out of my apartment. English I avoid as much as I can, that is, I read no novels, few magazines, listen to NPR deep into night, not yet ready for Deutsche Welle, if I ever will be. We students think: At the end of the year will we be proficient enough to pass the exam? Will we be allowed to enter the German work force, those of us of an age and with the requisite language skills to do so? A writer writes to me that he stopped studying French when he was living in Nice because he noticed French was beginning to affect his syntax. I know what he means. Syntax begins before birth, perhaps. The prime years for language acquisition for most of us students in the language school occurred decades ago. I study, I strategize. For several years I taught grammar on the university level, but I’m as lost as the rest of the bottom two-thirds of the class. We fill in the blank with the correct tense—Präteritum, Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt. My brain reads a blank as a blank, _____ as _____. We fill in the blanks of sentences excruciatingly boring. Written texts are mostly formed in _____. In everyday speech above all we use_____. When something lies still further in the past, we have to use _____. Around the table, we lock eyes, shake our heads in sympathy.

We practice our reading comprehension on texts about a school designed by Hundertwasser. A teacher brings books by Rudolph Steiner to class and begins to lecture on the wonderfulness of his approach to education, life, the cosmic spirit, to which I respond with comic asides, which is not to say that I dismiss Steiner’s influence on Bellow. The teacher is surprised, no one talks back to her, she’s the teacher, we’re what we are and always will be, i.e., foreigners. Later she pulls me aside, admonishes me and says, “I don’t want to hurt you if I don’t have to, but you must …”  “What?” I reply in German. “You hurt me? My dear so-called teacher, that’s an impossibility. Are you mad? There’s nothing, nothing you can do to harm me. Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you understand what you’ve just said? My dear so-called instructress, you are seriously mistaken if you think in anyway you can cause me harm. Do you think you can have me removed from the language school or the country? Truly, my dear so-called educator, you have stepped beyond the bounds of your so-called profession. Furthermore …,” but by this point the teacher whom I’m sure was surprised to be threatened back by a student whom she has just threatened, has exited.

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I’ve been asked by the director to write without veering into fantasy, which I don’t recall having done, or not very often, the previous entry, for example. In any case and to the best of my abilities, I promise henceforth to sidestep fantasy, for in no sense was my time in the language school and what occurred therein anything but reality. Increasingly during the breaks, I would see the teachers and students thumbing their digital devices whose tentacles led them by suggestion to the dream that selfhood was only a click away. We lunged out of the room clutching our smart phones, braved the winter wind in the courtyard for a smoke or for air, all the while texting or talking in our own tongues or gossiping in broken German. The language teachers came and went down the corridors, and sometimes I followed them, listened to what they were saying to one another or to a student or group of students, followed my teachers around a corner, down a stairwell, into the courtyard, either to observe them standing there with their colleagues or students, or going down into the Charlottenplatz station where they bought a quick coffee and roll or sandwich. During the first break, I’d often take a fast walk over Karlsplatz to the Markthalle to buy a banana and Rosinenbrötchen. Once while following my favorite teacher, I turned a corner into a hallway that narrowed then veered left, then left again, and suddenly we were in another part of the building, one no longer connected to the language school reserved for the training of foreigners lost in a foreign land without sufficient command of the language. Abruptly my teacher stopped and turned around and I almost bumped into her, since my mind had been elsewhere, my eyes on the floor. When I looked up, she was puzzling over me with a smile.

“Were you following me?” she asked, and I said, no, I mean, well, yes, of course, I was following her, I mean, the weather, the winds of winter, through the gates, I mean the door, at first listening to her and her colleague talking until the colleague abandoned realism, I mean, realized she had somewhere to get to and sailed toward the WC, I mean, I’m terribly sorry, Tut mir sehr leid, forgive me, dear teacher.

She took in what I had said or had tried to say, or seemed to take it in, I can’t be sure she understood, since I wasn’t sure myself what I had said, the sense of my words collapsing behind me like a wave. She looked at her wristwatch—slender black leather strap, moonlit face, no numbers, only letters in a graceful silver script whose selection to me appeared random, wdnnisnhawto or brsrednaowka or something like that. “But you shouldn’t follow me, Thomas, at least so closely.” Her words meant nothing to me, registered only as a mysterious music issuing from elsewhere, woanders. “Don’t you find these corridors confusing?” she asked, but didn’t give me time to answer. “No, Thomas,” she continued, “you should not follow me.”

Suddenly I heard two measures from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It was her cell phone. She pulled it from her bag, noticed who was calling, turned it off. “Husband,” she said. “I’ll get back to him.” Then she smiled and said, “Don’t you find these devices a bother? Do they remind you as well of the umbrella handle with built-in watch and revolver Benjamin noted in his Passagenwerk?” I wanted to say, “Please, dear teacher, tell me how you wear your knowledge so gracefully,” but I couldn’t even get the “Bitte” part, the “please” past my lips. Then she said, “I too am sad here, Thomas, you little dreamer, kleiner Schwärmer. You make up all kinds of things about us, don’t you? But really, lieber Cheib, the teachers of the language school suffer the same guilts and grins as the rest of you. A daughter is killed in a car accident on the way to a concert in Munich, a father lingers for decades with Alzheimer’s, a wife has an affair, a husband apoplexy. The body fails more than any wife, Thomas, or parent or husband or child or friend. How long you should stay in the language school depends entirely upon you. I have nothing to say about it, though, yes”—here she smiled a strange smile, one I’d never seen before that seemed to move across her face in search of somewhere to settle, and then she turned her head, but in profile I could still see her smiling, and her left eye glistened in the winter light—“I would hate to see you leave before you yourself want to. But that’s not a problem; even your own occasional misbehavior is tolerated, though not necessarily welcomed in the language school. Perhaps elsewhere it would be, at home, for example, with your pets, if you have pets”—I didn’t—“but in the language school you must be respectful.” For a moment she paused, then said,  “What am I saying,” and laughed at herself while I continued to stand as stiff as a rake and as blank-faced, “you are the most respectful student I’ve ever encountered in the language school. No one holds us in the kind regard you do, one bordering on the impossible, granted, but never or seldom crossing into it. Balance, Thomas, Gleichgewichtigkeit, a balanceness is what you must strive for. I know it won’t be easy, none of this has been so far, but, so far, you’re doing sort of OK. But from now on, Thomas, watch me closely, don’t follow me, no, don’t do that, but watch me closely. I’ll let you know when to follow, when not. Trust me, even if sometimes I’m a bit bitchy, down on the world, domestically murdered, heimisch ermordet, so to speak, adrift, adream, just as you students are. Do you think my life is mostly the beauty of parenthood? You like to compare us teachers to you students, don’t you, Thomas? I understand that. It’s not easy to be both teacher and student. Some schools of thought and practice claim we shouldn’t try, because we might then exert too much influence. But really, what exactly is too much influence? Does Kant influence you too much or not enough, Thomas? Hegel? Wittgenstein? I detect your animosity toward Heidegger, that’s been clear from the start. No, no, don’t protest, I know what I’m saying. And now look at the time, you rascal!”

She stretched her wrist toward me and from it came a scent of baked bread and lavender, and the letters swirled across the moonscape of her watch, and I might have fainted had she not taken me by the arm and led me back to class.

 

 

 

One Response to “From My Time in the Language School”

  1. Genia Blum

    I have lived and worked in Germany, and this is superbly evocative—wonderful writing!

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