open letter to my teacher 4: meaning of a teacher

Dear Frau,

I would have written this letter in German, but what you’ve taught me was not only a lesson in the German language, but in life, and it doesn’t matter what language it’s in. Sure, German quickly became one of my favorite subjects in middle school, but as everyone in our small German 5 class knows, we didn’t take German this long only to learn German: we took it because of you.

A few days ago, an attendee of my graduation party observed, “Why does everyone who takes German just start speaking it to each other? No one else does that, but when you guys learn that you’re both in German, you go, ‘oh ja, schmergenkaufdkenaeionwfdion.” A few of my German classmates and I responded auf Deutsch, “Weil es Spaß macht!” and he stopped listening as we bantered on in die Muttersprache. Let me point out that we know everyone who takes German because we’ve been in the same class for 4 years together (5 for everyone who didn’t move here in 9th grade). We don’t just “find out” that someone else takes German like the observer said; we know all of them, and it’s become a conversational technique now, to say certain things in German to make them funny or secretive. We speak German to each other randomly because it feels natural after 4 years with the same kids and teacher.

In other words: you’ve cultivated a community. All of your students are proud that we make the other language classes jealous with our strong comradery and excitement for the class. Yes, being a small group helps with that, but it shows that everyone who took German at our school wanted to, even though it wasn’t as popular when choosing classes in middle school.

While in class with you, Frau, I learned that a language class is the perfect place to build a group like that. It’s not necessarily a credit we can send to college or a “core” subject needed for graduation, but it was a cornerstone of our high school career for most of us German kids.

I remember trying to teach myself German from a library book the summer before 8th grade – I learned the der, die, and das, but it got tiresome studying alone. I gave up on learning language from a book that summer because I learned it’s essential to have at least one other person to share the experience with.  (Let alone a classful!) I’ve watched videos online of polyglots, who learn languages in a few months by cramming the vocabulary and memorizing listening tapes, and while I’m jealous of that dedication and mastery of language, I can’t imagine how fun that would be. It would – in my case – be terrible. I need a teacher.

Another reason one needs a partner in studying a language is because language’s purpose is communication, and one can’t just talk to herself the whole time and expect it to feel natural. Speaking with you, Frau, in English AND German felt natural because you are genuinely interested and invested in your students, and actually give us things to talk about. One of the things that scares me about practicing my language skills on new people is that I won’t have anything to talk about – it would be sad to practice only lame small talk in German after all those years of study – but since you are a conversationalist, there is no issue.

I have seen or experienced you talking with us students about a variety of things, even home-life issues or worries about school, friends, etc. It may seem strange to talk so straightforwardly to a teacher like that, but for our little German family, it never was. It was just how we German kids worked. It was a family from the start and no one questioned it. And in the wildly changeable and bumpy ride that high school is, having that steady and genuine relationship with a class, group of students, and teacher was divine.

From you, Frau, I learned the real meaning of a teacher. She is there not only to teach one subject area and move you through school. She doesn’t even necessarily need to be a schoolteacher by trade. She (or he) is a figure of guidance, a patient listener, and a cheerleader all from just trying to get her students to see something else about life, whether it be German or English or music or what-have-you. I see you as a role model, a conversation partner, and a supportive friend, and I hope I can always ask you how your chickens are doing and how your Pissyanki turned out this year. Änder dich nicht! Ich habe dich Lieb, und wir sollen Brieffreundinnen sein. Ich werde immer “Charlotte” genannt.

Deine,

Sam, a.k.a. Charlotte

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