The student, who graduated from high school 35 years ago, sits on a bench in the gym and looks at the pictures on the small screen. There are some of Scottish landscapes through which students trudge after their teacher. Plus music from the tape, the teacher’s favorite music.
He’s dead, the teacher, a year before retirement, died so suddenly that no one can believe it. Seven days later the funeral service in the gymnasium. It’s full, the students are silent, young and old alike. There are seven from his first Abitur class, which he taught from 1985 to 1987. They came because he was very different from the other teachers back then. Not just because he was young, 26, good looking and wearing well-fitting jeans, but because he narrowed something like the wide world into the “Extended Oberschule Klement Gottwald”. If only because he was trying to pronounce the English words British. How could he? He was a GDR citizen and of course he had never been with the British; most likely he had never had contact with native English speakers. He took the students to the theater, Wallenstein for three hours, yawningly boring, but in German class they, or let’s say the willing ones, learned from him why Schillerschinken is relevant: under political conditions, action takes on a life of its own, morality remains on the route.
The student sits on the gymnastics bench, sees the pictures, hears the music and remembers a completely screwed up assignment he wrote 36 years ago, “Recalling Impressions”. The teacher had done everything, absolutely everything, to create impressions, he had shown slides of Scottish landscapes, the area to which he had dreamed himself away, and had played his favorite music, Mike Oldfield, “Tubular Bells”. A cassette recording he could hardly have obtained legally. Loud western stuff in the eastern school. The jeans teacher exhibited his longing and hoped to be able to create the same. He really meant well.
Of course that couldn’t work. The ten-year-olds couldn’t do anything with the music, the slides were pale and small. Either you pretended – you had learned that well – or you described the lukewarm impression and insulted the teacher. The student guessed the “expectation horizon”. He wanted to prove that, along with the adolescent message that he, the student, thought the experimental setup was absurd and knew far more impressive music. He still has the housework he squandered, he pleads for the arrogance of a 17-year-old. The last sentence: “However, the impression of the pictures could have been strengthened by a better projection of the slides and by other music – such as the Sonata in C sharp minor op. 27 No. 2 by Ludwig van Beethoven.”
The rude student, the offended teacher – two who liked each other, they later confessed at a class reunion.
It’s been five years, the teacher was invited, the student was amazed: everyone had aged so much; there was a huge leap between not-yet-20 and almost-50. But the teacher, Herr Hempler, came in with the same spring step as before, slightly bow-legged, jeans, a crew cut, gray now, but basically the dazzling fellow from back then. When he offered the student the familiar form, it seemed justified on the one hand, because he didn’t look any older than the others at the table. On the other hand, it was clear that even if he were now called Andreas, he would always remain “Mr. Hempler”.
The student told the Tubular Bells story, Mr. Hempler laughed and wondered how he could have reacted so openly back then. Then the student plucked up all his courage: “There was another thing, the study. You were really relaxed, no, you weren’t either.”
Mr. Hempler could no longer remember exactly, but the student all the more, which may have been due to the fact that things that people experience when they are just before 20 are burned in far more deeply than those that happen to them ten years later.
It was 1986. After the end of the eleventh grade, the high school graduates applied to the universities. The student didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up, he only knew that he wanted to get the military service over with as quickly as possible. If you were admitted to any course, you were drafted immediately after high school, without admission only in your mid-20s. He played it safe, chose “device technology”, so they were looking for students, he would think of something better by the time the time came.
The university turned it down, forwarded the application to another one in Jena, who invited the student to an interview. He was told that they would like to take him, but that was impossible with the attached assessment from the class teacher. They read out the crucial sentence, which pointed out that the development of the student as a “socialist personality” was not far off and that this was evident, among other things, in his unwillingness to do longer military service than required. In fact, the student was the only one of the boys in his class who was completely satisfied with 18 months.
The pupil’s parents complained to the principal, the principal summoned the class teacher and gave him a smack on the cap, because the plan was that 100 percent of the pupils at “EOS Klement Gottwald” would get a place at the university. The teacher then wrote a new assessment stating that over the past few months the student’s “personality development” had taken such a leap that admission to the course was strongly recommended. The student was accepted and, as planned, was called up for “honorary service in the National People’s Army” after graduating from high school.
“How did it happen,” the old student now asked his old teacher, “that you, no you, wrote such rubbish in the assessment?” It wasn’t a reproach, things turned out lightly. The schoolboy saw the story from the East, which was more than easily narrated, and to which he was still missing a bit. The teacher thought for a long time, didn’t remember the wording, but he did remember the situation. The place at the Abitur school was a major gain for him, who was very young and not in the party. And who, another minus point, hadn’t done any lengthy military service himself. He knew that the principal was not only watching the student suspiciously, but also him, the jeans teacher. And he had never written such assessments for the universities. He had no idea what was expected of him, how much harshness, how much flattery. He couldn’t say why he of all people had resorted to the army formulation, was it a pre-stamped phrase, a colleague’s recommendation? He was embarrassed, although the student insisted that for him the matter told far more about the corrupting system than about a young teacher’s transgression.
And finally they came to the historical point, which is worth toasting: If only the teacher had stuck to his first, bad assessment! If only he had, socialistically staunchly, made it clear to the director that this student was still a subject that had to be polished and was not yet ready for a course of study. The student would not have gotten a place at the university, so his draft into the army would have been postponed. Which, since the fall of the Berlin Wall was only two years away, might have meant that he, the student, would have avoided all the miserable grinding work. He would be greatly indebted to the class teacher.
Then the teacher hinted at another story that happened two years later that could actually have gotten him the job. It was about political misconduct and expulsion from school in the class he had taken over after the student’s. He did not elaborate further that evening; the student found out much later what had happened.
It was the spring of 1988, Gorbachev was turning the system inside out in the Soviet Union, and East Germany was dead on the spot when three of his students created a wall newspaper. Usually a chore, but here’s a case of scandalous self-empowerment. It was about the role model role of the “big brother”, “Learning from the Soviet Union means learning to win”, such phrases that were suddenly revolutionary. The Stasi determined that the three should be expelled from school.
Two other students in the class that Mr. Hempler had taken on half a year earlier turned to him: something had to be done about the reprimand! Just because they confided in him meant they trusted this teacher. There wasn’t anyone else in the school who seemed capable of that. He invited her to an interview, the result of which was a letter to the district school administration asking for the relegation to be withdrawn. That was courageous back then, so much more courageous than most statements made in our comfortable freedom today!
Things took a typical GDR course. The letter most likely played no role at all. The two boys and the girl who made the wall newspaper were allowed to stay at the school. The boys, because they recanted in the proven Stalinist tradition, i.e. publicly distanced themselves from their “craft”. The girl was brave and didn’t apologize. However, it was the granddaughter of a long-dead Minister of Culture, and the parents could obviously benefit from ongoing contacts. And the class, no, even the whole school, because word got around, received a formative lesson in Stalinism, the subject that was not part of the curriculum but which shaped the country until its fall.
Mr. Hempler was in his early 30s when the sinking happened and it was time to adjust to a new life. He was lucky with his job, he didn’t have to look for anything new. The school moved, three S-Bahn stations away. The new curricula left undreamt-of freedom. The teacher stopped showing his classes faint slides of Scotland; he went with them. And he went back to college. The training of the Eastern teachers was considered inferior; just like back then at the advanced high school, the teacher now feared for his job at the high school. So that’s why he studied again. That was exhausting, because he was still working, but it was always interesting. That’s what he told the student at the class reunion; they could have met at Humboldt University. The teacher doubted that the additional studies were necessary for his job. Because in the new German state, as he described it, many more students attend grammar schools, including the less gifted, than did EOS back then. So he could only convey a fraction of what was possible in the East. But he still loved his job. How important he was became clear to him not least when he met old, grateful students. If they remembered ambiguous stories, that meant even more: They learned something from him. And with him.
The old student sits on the bench in the gymnasium, looks at the pictures of his old teacher, who hasn’t aged at all, he hears the speeches, he knows that anyone who can say anything about Mr. Hempler should please do so, Well, that’s what the event is for. He wonders whether he should tell his ambiguous stories. He thinks, no, it would be too much of an explanation to say that this teacher, who back then, young and clueless, screwed up like everyone does, especially in a degenerate system, that he is a great teacher was. The student thinks: I will write an obituary.