A Boy in My Class (Ein Kind aus meiner Klasse)


For Hans M.

I recently ran into a boy from my school class, after so many years. It was just like in a storybook. The poor man was standing outside the fence, begging, and the rich man was inside, brushing the cake crumbs from his jacket. “Don’t you recognize me?“ asked the poor man, gently. And then the rich man recognized his former class-mate, and… I can’t remember how the story ends. Anyway, the boy from my school class, with whom I used to walk around the school playground in deep discussions, has become a government councillor. I probably won’t achieve anything respectable during my lifetime, either. And I have my doubts about afterwards as well.

Anyway, I spoke to this boy about the old days. It was a wonderful conversation, there is a book in which it is accurately recorded, my favourite book, Le Livre de Blaise, by Philippe Monnier[1], which was published in German as Blaise der Gymnast, by Albert Langen. It tells you what happens when people meet again later in life, how one only recognizes the boy, not the man, how the details of school stick forever, how one has really not changed at all, and how everything is predestined. And what does one remember? Monnier says, „Lévêque is Catholic.“ That’s all he knows about him, and it is all he will ever know about him.

I recognized him again immediately. He was still the same fine, quiet, very controlled, very pleasant person. We ate together, there were terribly famous people all around us, but I saw and heard nothing. I even let the ice-cream go past twice. I was a little boy again, strolling around the school playground, just like in those days. „Do you remember…?“ „Can you recall…? He always had such dirty hands, and read beautifully out loud.” We remembered all our class-mates, and all the teachers, of course, and I almost asked him, there, among all the fine people, “Have you revised the Geography homework? I haven’t got a clue!“

And after we had gone through them all, the teachers, the headmaster, the chaplain and the whole of the classes above and below us, I had a bitter taste in my mouth, because the boy said, in his quiet voice, “Just think, what a shame for all the wasted years!” It was the condemnation of the German school, much, much harder and more radical than the most voluble political meeting could utter it.

The lost years… I remembered things which I hadn’t thought about for decades, and now they were suddenly there again. No, they didn’t beat us, and there was nothing romantic about it, nobody shot themselves because they had to repeat a class, and there wasn’t a hint of Spring Awakening[2]. Spring awoke gently, for each individual on their own, and was put back to bed anyway. And we had no young Törleß[3] among us, either. But they stole our time. The school fees were wasted, and the years as well. There were boring pedants everywhere. Inadequate teachers, lots of mistakes, we were also not perfect, of course, but what did they teach us? What did we learn? Nothing. Not even how to think properly, see properly, walk properly, work properly. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. We haven‘t become good humanists, and not good practical men. Nothing.

He said, „If one hadn’t worked alone, for oneself, at home! If one hadn’t had a decent upbringing!” Well, I, for example, didn’t have a decent upbringing, and I envied him greatly. He said, „Whatever I have learnt about the history of art, the history of peoples or the geography of Europe, I taught myself.” Who else was going to teach us it, our school, perhaps?

Our school was not yet as nationalistically poisoned as they are today. Our teachers were not less intelligent, lazier, more hard-working or cleverer than any other teachers. It was a below-average school, but not that far below average. And what did we learn?

German: Ridiculous dismemberment of the classics; foolish essays, sloppily and ignorantly corrected; we learnt poems in Middle High German[4] by heart. Nobody had the slightest idea of their beauty.

History: A collection of meaningless and context-free dynastic data. We were never taught history.

Geography: The tributaries of the main rivers. The municipalities and boroughs. The names of towns and cities.

Latin: We crammed. I have never been able to read a latin author.

Greek: See Latin.

French: Doesn’t bear talking about.

Science: God knows what mischief we got up to, here and in physics! No experiments worked, except maybe the one of how to give an even worse physics lesson with completely inadequate means.

Maths: Mediocre.

And so on and on.

I don’t look back with hate on my schooldays, they have become completely indifferent to me. There were no tragedies at school, and no major grievances. But bad teaching.

It was similar, later, at university, but there at least the lack of teaching ability of the professors was often mitigated by their scientific achievements. But I think back a bit sadly on the school, today, now I have come to appreciate the value of time. They cheated us of our time, our time and our youth. We had no teachers, we had no leaders, we had learning officials, and not even good ones at that . I can remember asking, after the school-leaving of a friend, „And how were the tutors?” “As stupid as ever!“ he said, and there was so much matter-of-fact contempt in his voice. Not even hate.

I don’t know nearly as much as I should, there is lots missing. I can’t even think about slightly remote subjects in a scholastically trained manner, and that would already be a start. I have none of the prerequisites. What we now know, and are capable of, we have had to teach ourselves later, with untold effort, on our own, afterwards, when it was too late, when the brain was no longer so retentive as it was in those days. Maybe things would have gone better with decent teaching!

And they are so proud of their school! How the bleat when they hold their classics conferences. What great words, what tones! Has it changed at all? I don’t know what a decisive school reform would be, but I know decisively that what one is undertaking today is not a school reform. Maybe they will produce pretty good NCOs, or maybe just the desperate. They certainly won’t be educated, cultured, well-taught people.

Before the war, a memoir about the school, in which a lot of famous men of that time told their recollections of school, was published, by Count –. It was shocking to see the hate, resentment and contempt which leapt out of its pages. We just shrug our shoulders, but if the boy out of my class now has a child, what then? It will have to be put in the same schools, in the schools for which there is no money available, because we need five hundred million for our defence budget. In the same schools in which the time of the poor is stolen, and about which the rich just laugh.

We even retold the old teacher anecdotes: the one about the man who used no foreign words, so he had a ‚cylinder’ instead of a top-hat; or the ‘sweetie”; and the violent teachers, and all the poor fools. That is all over now. We are left with the unpleasant after-effects of this ridiculous education, which was no education at. If the boy in my class has achieved anything, it is despite the school, not because of it. The German school today has an ideal which we must probably be called the lowest possible; its principle, its concept, its courses, are on the lowest step of human development: they are militarized.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippe_Monnier

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring_Awakening_%28play%29

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Confusions_of_Young_T%C3%B6rless

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_High_German

Author: Kurt Tucholsky

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