One of the oldest and best songs by Jeffrey Gaines is called Headmasters of Mine. It was the closing song on his first, eponymous album. As wrong-headed as the headmasters and teachers in the song are, they are angels compared to some of the people who taught when I went to school. Some of them were so improbable and awful, it’s worth remembering them along with other lost souls in my life.
I attended a few schools in Cologne, Germany. As my mother explained later, I developed slowly and was held back from starting first grade for a year. When she had to take me to some sort of official evaluation, I brought a stuffed animal with me and apparently acted child-like and fragile enough to cause concern, even without understanding what the scrutiny was all about.
A warning to start
When no further delay was possible, I was registered at one of Cologne’s public schools. In April 1961, on the eve of the first day in first grade (back then, the school year started the Easter break), my father gave me a discouraging talk. He sat on a chair next to our sink, in his undershirt, smelling of sweat. “Tomorrow begins the serious part of life,” he said. “Your childhood is over and you have to study and work hard. If you do well, you get good grades and that’s very important. You will make friends with other boys, and will know some of them for many years.” Having heard that, I probably hid somewhere to cry a few tears, because I could no longer be at home, playing with the cat and my stuffed animals, enjoying the company of my grandmother. She had raised me, because my parents were always in their shop, selling shoes. I knew I would hate school.
The following day, my grandmother took me to the school. It was only about ten minutes to walk from our apartment building and I had been past it many times with her, but it was expected that new students be escorted and handed over to the school on their first day. I remember it was over very quickly—I sat in a classroom with about 40 other boys at 10 a.m., and shortly after noon, I was back home for lunch.
Mourning with Mary
Ernst Eul was probably in his early thirties, but his demeanor, dark brown suits, and baldness made him look—to me, at least—much older. I did not know that was unusual; later, we all spent hours trying to guess what a certain teacher’s first name was, because they usually never disclosed it. Maybe Eul introduced himself with his full name because his last name was so short.
Eul taught us how to write, how to read (or pretend to read what we had memorized), and how to perform simple manipulations with numbers. Twice a week he made us run around the schoolyard. The structured environment and being made to learn things appealed to me; I did reasonably well except for the running around, of course. Day after day, from 8 a.m. until noon and sometimes until 1 p.m., there was Eul. He was sometimes angry with pupils who were absent-minded or loud, but he mostly seemed uncomfortable, as if he could not breathe well.
With one exception: religion. At that time, everybody I knew was Catholic and went to church on Sundays. At home, we prayed before and at the end of meals, and I also prayed before I went to bed. Our school was public, part of the city’s school district, but it was a Catholic school. There were Lutheran schools as well, and, later, I spent some time at a school where a white line across the schoolyard separated Catholics and Lutherans.
Eul lived and breathed a certain aspect of Catholic religion: The agonies of Mary, mother of Jesus, when her son was arrested, whipped, nailed to the cross, pierced with a spear, taken down, and laid in a tomb donated by a disciple. Sure, he talked about the manger and the shepherds and Jesus’ miracles and the Sermon on the Mount, but he always got back to Mary and how she suffered along with her son. Nothing could withstand Mary’s miseries. From something as joyful as the miracle of the loaves and fishes, he would be back in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion, within a handful of words. He was so skilled at manipulating our emotions that most of us were in tears when he went on about Mary. He usually closed out the school day this way, which meant most of us were sad and sniffling when we left. He covered the same territory from many different angles. He explained how betrayed and disappointed Mary, too, felt when Peter denied knowing Jesus. Or, he would make up a story about Pontius Pilate and how she prayed for him. As the school year went on and we became used to his Mary stories, he kept returning to her standing under the cross, watching her son die. When every other element of the narrative was sucked dry, this still had the power to make at least a few boys cry. I was not among them. I quickly tired of Mary and was glad when Eul was no longer our teacher in second grade.
A grouchy drunk
When I was in third grade, we moved and I went to a different school. One of the teachers there was an older man with teary eyes who kept using idioms that were not common in our area. Much of the time, we had no idea what he was telling us. My grandmother translated them for me at home. He came from the southwest of the country, not far from the Black Forest, where she had spent her childhood. This man, Knauf was his last name, was very moody. He never seemed to like anybody. When he was fed up with us, he stopped the class ten minutes early and kept us in the room, so we could think about our shortcomings. He also had a habit of disappearing during class while we were supposed to read, write, or draw something. Much later, it occurred to me that he was probably an alcoholic who had to get his drug from somewhere. Knauf was unpleasant, but harmless. One almost felt sorry for him.
Far more dramatic were a few characters who taught at the Realschule I visited in grades five through nine. This type of school was meant to prepare you for specialized professional colleges, and after that it was work. My parents didn’t feel the Gymnasium or high school was right for me. They wanted me to take over the shoe store, and learning Latin and other useless knowledge was not required for that.
At the Realschule, some teachers appeared to be mad, or at least in permanent distress. I remember Mr. Palutke, a short, broad-shouldered math instructor who always dressed in blue suits, silver and gray ties, and shiny black shoes. He had wavy brown hair and a large, almost cube-shaped head. His small, grey eyes peered out of an always tanned face that we found puzzling—how did he manage to look this way? Palutke was always impatient when students did not catch on immediately; when he was impatient, he often became very angry; when he was angry, he would scream. His words were unremarkable: He told us we were stupid, useless, a waste of resources. But his delivery was extraordinary. Palutke shouted so loud that in summer, when the windows were open, you could hear him rage in a classroom at the other end of the building and two floors up or down. His face turned fiery red, his voice broke, and often he stormed out at that point, sometimes throwing a book or a ruler or a box of chalk against the wall. We were all afraid of him, but he never hit anybody. However, when he marched up and down the aisles between our two-person desks and scream at the top of his lungs, he was frightening. We didn’t learn much from him, because he was too distracting. Rumor had it that he ranked quite high in the Nazi military and spent many years as a prisoner of war.
Tossing books, eating animals
A teacher named Reuter, another short, but fat man with white, yellowing hair, always in the same rumpled-looking gray suit, also had an anger problem. He taught biology, or rather, he had us read aloud or copy from the textbook. To us, he was a comical figure, and we were bored. We talked amongst ourselves, played games, or read comics. We quickly figured out how we could set him off to prompt one of his displays. He did not scream, but he waddled through the classroom, grabbed books and pencils and fountain pens and whatever he could find on our desks, and tossed them around the room. Sometimes, he threw books and stationery out of the windows, and we picked them up in the schoolyard afterwards. “Be quiet, just all be quiet,” he sometimes moaned, but often he did not speak at all. He just threw things.
After one of these episodes, Reuter would become quite friendly, giggle to himself, and tell anecdotes from when he was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. The equivalent of his suffering Mary was a train ride through Poland and Ukraine that he described dozens of times. The prisoners were extremely hungry during that transport. Sometimes, that brought Reuter back to his subject, biology, as long as the creatures being discussed were edible. In that case, he would go on at great length about the joys of preparing and eating carp, boar, lobster, deer, or other animals that were mentioned in the textbook.
I have often wondered how war-broken men like Reuter and Palutke maintained themselves in their jobs, but they were civil servants, which, at that time in Germany, meant lifelong job security unless you committed a serious crime. Also, the principal at that school was in no position to reign them in. He was close to 80, a fragile, trembling, sometimes incoherent man who for some reason had not retired and still taught math. After Palutke, he was a relief. But he had a nasty way of calling on individual students and calling them names when they did not perform well. “You are a bushman,” he would say—that was the worst insult he could muster, and our nickname for him. He never did this to me, and some of the mental calculation tricks and shortcuts he taught us I still recall. But I don’t remember his name.
Slow, drunk, distant
These were the extremes, but there were others. The English teacher who only got through five of the year’s 24 textbook lessons, morbidly going over the same matters. The arts teacher who was often so drunk that she reeked, could not stand up in front of the class, and sat at her desk napping after she told us to draw whatever we liked. The English teacher who preferred to leave her fur coat on and never looked at anybody. All of these people were clearly unhappy and did not enjoy the company of their students. Why did they teach in schools? I believe they enjoyed a highly structured environment with a level of control over other people, and they felt they had a certain skill they could rely on. They probably never were fired, and eventually retired from teaching without finding a replacement for the activity of so many years.
Later, I did go to a Gymnasium and graduated with Abitur at the end of grade 13. Fewer truly awful teachers were on the loose in the higher grades. In fact, some of them were extraordinary, resourceful people. I will write about them another time.