Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Of Latin teachers and Hermann Hesse

I recently went out into the barn to rescue a few books from the boxes still unpacked. I found a paperback by Hermann Hesse whose pages had yellowed over the years. Its listed purchase price is $2.65; so you can guess it is a "few" years old. The title is HESSE Autobiographical Writings. Hesse's writings are dear to my heart. He was born in my neck of the woods of Germany and as so many Swabians, his roots are deeply planted in Swabia's soil even though he spent a good deal of his adult life living in Switzerland. I reread the book and realized that I couldn't remember reading it, but must have since I had copiously underlined various sections.

On this reading of the book, a totally different section in his essay From My School Days jumped out at me and brought back fond memories of my Latin teacher.

Here is the section that made me chuckle:

...I believe my mother was not at first enchanted by him as he came toward us and invited us into his den, a bent, aged man with tangled gray hair, somewhat protuberant eyes marked with red veins, dressed in an indescribably old-fashioned garment stained with greenish discolorations, wearing spectacles low on his nose and holding in his right hand a long pipe with a porcelain bowl reaching almost to the floor, from which he continuously blew mighty clouds of smoke into the already smoke-filled room.

In the third year of attending Gymnasium (7th grade in the US), our curriculum was to include Latin. (In the second year we had started with French, merely because at that time we lived in the French Zone and thus, French was the first foreign language our teachers tried to pound into us. In 1952 Germany was still divided into four zones: The French, American, English and the Russian zone, i.e. East Germany.)

Well finally six months into the third year of Gymnasium, our principal had found a Latin teacher--the spitting image of Hesse's Latin teacher. I could conjure up the day our principal came into the class room introducing him. I can't remember if it was the whole class or just a certain number of precocious little twerps (of course me included) that said spontaneously and in unison: May bug.! He was old, very old, had bug eyes, wore spectacles, had a pipe that came to below his knees, and a pencil with which to correct our work that had to have at least an eighth of an inch tip to it. Such were the goings on of German post-war education. I wish I had a photograph of him.

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