September 22, 2013

Solche Karotten Kaufe Ich Nicht!


I’m not exactly sure what the hell happened in ninth grade. Where I was going to school, two years of foreign language study were required in order to graduate. We had the option of starting a four-year language track in ninth grade, choosing between Spanish, French, and German, but for some reason I ignored that.

            My whole high school education was a jumble of odd and mismatched classes and rearranged tracks. I skipped chemistry completely and took physics and advanced biology instead. The bio teacher was a sad and extremely bitter man who always regretted not going to medical school. The physics teacher was a young and friendly if not very bright guy who learned that he’d been fired about a month and a half before school let out. The class kinda went down the crapper after that.

            I skipped American history in order to take Russian history with a wonderful, smart Southerner who loved to debate politics and was dying of leukemia. I studied British literature with a bald woman suffering from creeping dementia; psychology with another sad man who later jumped off a bridge; and I took the school’s very first computer science course, taught by a tightly wound type who had no idea what was going to happen to computers in the years to come. When he found out, he had a nervous breakdown and had to go away for a few months.

            There were drunks and potheads and perverts, and to this day I look back and am amazed and grateful for the kind of public education I got in Green Bay. For all the sad, unbalanced, and potentially dangerous personalities, I learned a hell of a lot.

            Then there was Bernie.

            Let me back up though. Okay, so when I finally did start the language track, there was no question but that I’d be studying German. In fact probably seventy percent of the kids in the school chose German. Why would anyone in a heavily German community want to study French or, lord help us, Spanish? Having failed to get started in ninth grade the way I should have, I found myself a rare tenth grader in a class mostly made up of ninth graders. This might have left me feeling like I was in special ed, but there were a few exceptions, thank god, including my friend Steve, quite possibly the funniest person I’ve ever known. He went on to graduate summa cum laude, and we remain friends to this day. Then there was LaVerne, the tiny oddball with straight red hair who studied interpretive dance, wasn’t very bright, and absolutely refused to believe she was an oddball, unpopular, or not very bright. Sitting in front of me, for a while anyway, was Brendan. He was older than everyone else, lived with three college students, and had some unfortunate hygiene issues. But he was also a bit of a beatnik, incredibly bright, and a masterful chess player. Unfortunately he was also arrested about halfway through the year when police discovered he and his roommates were keeping a retarded man locked in a closet in their apartment. But that’s another story. It’s probably also worth noting that sitting behind me was a cheap slut of a ninth grader named Dana who was always telling me dirty jokes and making herself a distraction.

            Finally, to get back to where this started, there was our teacher, Bernie Schlafen.

            Herr Schlafen was a beefy man with a pointy nose and an unconvincing combover. He was also possibly the worst German speaker I’ve ever known apart from some of his students. German travel posters covered the walls of his room, and above each desk dangled a set of ungainly headphones, which we used several times a week to listen to the tapes that came along with the textbook. (To this day, Steve can still recite the opening instructions on those tapes verbatim.)

            Herr Schlafen had a temper like all our teachers did, but he also tried to be a pal and make his class as fun as possible. To open each class, he had us recite a series of German tongue twisters (which, if you think about it, is pretty much redundant), and I really really wish I didn’t remember every last one of those tongue twisters to this day.

            For instance, here’s an easy one: “In Ulm, um Ulm, und um Ulm herum.”

            That was one about the city of Ulm, which was far easier than the one about Oberammergau.

            He showed us travelogues and educational films about German culture made in the nineteen fifties while the postwar reconstruction was still ongoing. We sang along with an album (he only had one, thank god) of German children’s songs through which we learned our European barnyard sounds, should we ever need them (the dog says “wau-wau,” the rooster says “kikerrikki”). And when that grew old, he pulled out his concertina and we sang German beer hall songs.

            That’s pretty much how things went for our next three years with Herr Schlafen. At some point along the line he took to calling me “Tschungel” or, as a variation, “Tschungley.” “Tschungel,” see, is German for jungle, so I was Tschungel Jim.

            Yes, well.

            I recall one moment from that class more vividly than any other. It was in the middle of a lecture and Herr Schlafen casually wandered over to my desk, then abruptly and quite unexpectedly tried to tear my sweater off. I mean he grabbed my sweater and tried to pull it over my head because he said looking at it made him feel warm. Teachers could get away with things like that in those days, but I’m proud to report I kept my honor.

            Another day I had the bad luck to run into him outside of school. This is something you never want to happen. No one wants to learn what their teachers are really like. I spent most of my high school years working in a bookstore in a shopping mall. Well, one Saturday Herr Schlafen stopped in. (Believe me, you also don’t want to know what your teachers are reading outside of class.) Anyway, he brought up Dana, the slutty chick who sat behind me.

            “She likes you,” he said.

            “I don’t know about that,” I told him. “But she keeps combing my hair during class.”

            “The hair on your head?” His eyes dropped to my belt buckle for a second.

            I finally caught the growing leer. “Oh, you’re a filthy old man,” I told him.

            “You should just go ahead and fuck her. It’s what she wants.”

            Yeah, I know he was just trying to be chummy, but even if what he said was true it’s simply not something you want to hear from a teacher. Plus I didn’t need to be creeped out like that at work. The conversation never came up again, though the general ickiness of it all lingered for some time.

            For all the tongue twisters, outdated travelogues, and children’s songs, over that three years we actually learned hardly any useful German. Steve tells me he can recall very little from that class simply because we were always laughing too hard. We weren’t laughing because the class was as fun as Schlafen thought it was, but because Schlafen himself was such a buffoon and so much of the class was overwhelmingly absurd.

            After those three years, in fact, apart from those tongue twisters, here are the only useful phrases I took away:

            “Welche Zahnpaste gebrauchen Sie?” (“Which toothpaste do you use?”)

            “Mein Fernseapparat ist wieder kaput.” (“My television is broken again.”)

            And my personal favorite, “Solche Karotten kaufe ich nicht!” (“Such carrots I will not buy!”)

            That last one I must confess is fairly useful, and in fact I still dredge it up at least once a week to this day. I think it’s the disgruntled anger buried in that exclamation point that makes it so effective in so many different situations.


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