Sprechen zei Deutsch? Nein, nein.


When I was a kid, I thought teachers were overworked, underpaid, and got no respect from anyone, probably because I’d seen all the teacher films on Million Dollar Movie – Up the Down Staircase; To Sir, With Love; The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie; The Blackboard Jungle – and certainly none of them glorified the profession.  I certainly didn’t see myself teaching anyone anything.

But then my great-uncle Max remarried when I was twelve. The news astonished me because he had been single as long as I had known him: ex-Aunt Emily had divorced him years before I was even born and I’d had no idea he was in the market for a new wife.  It turns out that he wasn’t, at least not for just any new wife.  He wanted one in particular, a woman named Gisela, his adolescent sweetheart in Germany during the run-up to the Second World War.  They had lost each other when he fled Germany around 1938 to avoid a concentration camp and Gisela, a Catholic and in no immediate danger, remained behind.   After she and Max separated, each created a new life and married other people.  Gisela moved to a rural area in southwestern Germany while Max built his photography career in Chicago.  Eventually, both of their marriages came undone for one reason or another.  Apparently Max never forgot her and probably wondered more and more if what might have been could be still so, early in 1971, he returned to Germany to look for her, found her, married her, and brought her to America and, within a few weeks, to our house.

The visit was intended to be a mixture of business with pleasure since, in addition to seeing us, Max was due to photograph the transformers illustrating Westinghouse’s newest catalog, published by my dad’s sales support division.  That meant that he and my father would be out of the house all day.  My mother and older sister would be at work, too.  Since it was summer and I was off from school, it didn’t take long to determine that I was the one designated to stay home all day with the old German lady while everyone else scarpered off to places more interesting.  At that age, the thought of spending an entire day with any adult bored me senseless, but a foreign one who, due to the fact that she spoke no English, couldn’t even talk with me was a living death.  Besides the communication situation, there was the unwelcome threat to my autonomy.  This houseguest would keep me from doing what I loved, specifically with her in the house I couldn’t lie on my bed and read until the sun had long left its apex in the summer blue sky.

After breakfast, when Gisela went to dress, I seized the opportunity to sit alone at the kitchen table and sneak a quick read of an Agatha Christie.  I became so engrossed in the adventures of Hercule Poirot and the Clapham cook I didn’t hear her returning footsteps. At the last moment, just as Gisela re-entered the kitchen, I tried to ditch Agatha.  Because I had started too late, Gisela caught sight of the book sliding under the chair cushion.  Something about what she saw made her face open.  She pointed to Agatha, then to me, and to the book again, then to herself.  I guessed that she might be indicating that she liked to read and asking if I liked to read, too, so I nodded and said, “Yes, I love to read; it’s my favorite thing to do.”  Although she didn’t understand my words, the enthusiasm in my voice must have spoken to her because she smiled, crinkling her blue eyes, and turned to leave the room.

She returned less than a minute later clutching a book, a children’s reading primer withHans und Fritz printed on its cover.  She stood a few feet away and held it toward me with a hopeful expression on her face.  I had to stretch to reach the book, but I accepted it and riffled the pages.  It was simple story with pen and ink drawings of two children, telling of their adventures in clear, concise language designed to teach English to German children. I opened it to the first page. She continued to stand by a chair and nodded toward me with an expression more intensely hopeful than the last.  I cocked my head to the left like a puzzled squirrel.  What was she saying?  She tugged at the chair and began to motion next to me.  “What? Oh, okay.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, “ I answered her absently, nodding while I spoke.

I read the book aloud, slowly, and Gisela listened attentively.  Sometimes she tried to follow along in the book but at that distance it was hard for her to see the pages so I gestured for her to move closer to me.  Now that she could see more clearly, she followed along even more intently.  Sometimes she reached out to run her index finger across the page under the words as she tried to determine which part of the text I was reading.  Her brow furrowed slightly as she whispered the words I spoke after I read them aloud.  She appeared so engaged in mastering the words that I felt bad that it was such a short book and I started over.  Then I started again. Sometimes she gazed at me as I read the words aloud and once or twice she turned my face toward hers by very gently placing her soft, cool fingers on my jaw or my lips so she could feel the shape of my face as I created the sounds.  Startled and, at first, puzzled by the gesture, finally I figured out what she was doing – she was trying to understand how to form the strange-sounding English words that seemed to possess the same meaning as the more guttural language she already knew.

Ultimately I was able to discern which chubby boy was Hans and which was Fritz and, flattered by her obvious appreciation of my reading skill, I began to alter my voice for each character.  Then I pointed at them when the drawing indicated actions, like jumping rope, shooting marbles, slipping down a slide, or eating a meal so she could learn the verb in English representing the action she surely recognized. Eventually, I must have read the whole book through ten or twelve times.

The hours passed and my family returned home.  Immediately upon entering the house, Max walked over to embrace Gisela and he asked her in German what she’d done all day.  She smiled, and then she picked up Hans und Fritz and read the entire book aloud with mostly correct pronunciation.  I remember the amazement on Max’s face as he heard her speaking English, a little haltingly, but still speaking it, and she beamed when he hugged her.   When he asked her how she had learned to do that in one day, she reached across the table and clasped the back of my wrist.

This point is where a lesser woman would announce that this moment of interpersonal warmth and educational triumph inspired her career choice by having allowed her to discover that she was a born teacher.  Alas, life is not like the movies and I am not Sandy Dennis.

Here is also where a lesser woman would claim that this day’s triumph was just the beginning for Gisela, that she became a fluent English speaker.  That isn’t true, either.  When I visited Max and Gisela in Southern California four years later she still couldn’t speak a word of English, although she could read Hans und Fritz aloud from cover to cover, so I guess I taught her something.

Regardless, Gisela taught me something, although I wasn’t aware of it until decades later when I missed a train in Paris: she taught me that you can actually spend an entire day – rather pleasantly – communicating with someone you cannot talk to.  If only every day of my life were so fruitful.

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