It must come as no surprise to the reader that upon entering high school and being forced to take a language course, I chose German. My teacher, Herr Silber, favored an informal approach to teaching, which consisted of us watching American movies in English and then, after the screening, he would parrot our favorite lines back to us in German. During the two years I studied under his tutelage, we watched Jurassic Park six or seven times. Although this brought us no closer to mastering the German language, we did have the pleasure of hearing our esteemed instructor repeat 'that is one big pile of shit,' in both English and German, more than a dozen times, after we all voted it to be our favorite quote.
In addition to American movies, Herr Silber found that the only way that he could get through the early classes of a California public school was by adding large quantities of alcohol to his morning coffee. His nose was lined with the telltale red veins that one sees in the faces of chronic drinkers, and on occasion, his eyes would well up with tears as he reminisced about his native Osterreich.
Depending on where Herr Silber found himself in the continuum of drinking to hangover, would determine the class format that day. Sometimes we cracked our books and repeated dialogues about riding bikes and traveling via bus. More often though, we would intensely debate the textbook's main character, Jens Kroeger, and the unnatural rosyness of his cheeks. Was this a mistake on the part of the color calibration department at the textbook factory, or were the German-speaking peoples indeed more flushed than we? As the only actual native German speaker that we knew, Herr Silber was our only basis of comparison, so we studied his complexion in great detail as he glowered at us from behind his podium.
It was known in the public school system that you only took a language class if you had some possibility of going to college. Two years of a foreign language was required for admission to any accredited school, so those of us who considered going to one of said schools enrolled in either Spanish, French, or German. In our class, however, there were four young men that appeared to have enrolled on a lark, rather than due to any sort of collegiate ambition. Herr Silber referred to the group as 'The Quartet,' and took their insults much more seriously than he took those of the rest of the class. There was no obvious reason for this, other than perhaps Herr Silber didn't consider them to be serious scholars like the rest of us.
By the beginning of our second year in German, we had learned how to claim 'my pocket calculator is lost!' and the Quartet had been reduced to a Duet. These two, however, were far more dedicated to class disruption than the ones who had bent so easily under Herr Silber's will and dropped the class. Travis was one of the two that remained in our class, biding his time until he was old enough to drop out of school legally. He was fond of taking my hands while staring boldly into my eyes and claiming, 'Your hands, they are so soft, they are like baby hands.' Although amusing the first time, it was apt to be repeated two or three times during any given 50-minute session. His daily routine also tended to include obscene outbursts whenever any question that was directed at him wasn't answerable with one of the two words that he knew after taking a year and a half of German.
After being sent to the principal's office several times for various offenses, Travis settled down, and ignored the class completely, even when directly addressed. He was silent for a few weeks, studying his textbook intently, and jotting down notes on a scrap of paper. Finally one day, a look of serene calm gracing his face, he walked to the front of the class and approached the instructor's podium.
'Well Travis, what do you have for me?' Herr Silber questioned him.
And then, in flawless German, Travis replied, 'Suck my third leg.' His victory complete, he picked up his books and left for the principal's office, without needing to be asked.
Only a few weeks later, we were given our quarterly progress reports. Our current grades were recorded, and the instructors were allowed to mark any of a few canned responses. Travis' current grade was the lowest possible'an F'and his comment read 'Working up to apparent potential.'
I, however, had the highest grade'an A'as did my friend Kim. This was not due to any inherent ability on our parts, rather, Herr Silber had promised Kim a perfect score on both her midterm and final exam if she would take the German exchange student, Ena, into her house. I had jumped onto the offer and suggested that I should be given perfect scores too, since I was living at Kim's house at least half-time. When I was refused, I told Herr Silber that I would report his alcohol consumption to those in authority at the school, and miraculously my grade shot up as well.
Ena had already been kicked out of her original host family's house. She was a large, broad-shouldered girl, with a propensity towards cowl-necked sweaters and a fondness for Budweiser beer. Her cheeks were as rosy as the children in our textbook, and she smoked more cigarettes than any teenager I had met previously. She didn't seem to believe in the regulatory laws of the United States either--she would light up a cigarette anywhere, whether on campus or in class, and always seemed surprised when she was forced to extinguish them. Kim had been chosen as her new host because of the extremely lax parenting in her household, and due to the fact that she lived only a block away from campus. This would allow Ena the ability to sneak back home to drink during lunch, which Herr Silber recognized was a formidable need.
Each day, Ena would sit on the diving board of the pool, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, with the phone from the house on the end of its tautly stretched cord tucked under her chin, chatting away in German. Judging from the number of phone calls that Ena made that semester, she missed her life on a horse farm in Germany very much, and found our attempts at alcoholism pathetic. We didn't actually learn any German from Ena, although she did teach us that in Germany, a sixteen-year-old can easily both look and dress like a woman twenty years her senior.
Those two years of German did help in the bid to get me admitted into college, however, beyond that, it has helped me very little. I am fluent, if you consider being able to say, 'Lick my ass,' and 'You are a pigdog,' fluency. I can also riff on pocket calculators'the possibility that they are lost, to your left or right or even right in front of you.
I've considered the possibility of studying another language, now that I am older. Were I to pick one, I'd probably choose French. During my last trip to Paris, I entered the country knowing only the words, 'yes' and 'I love you.' By the end of my trip I knew how to say 'ham.' Clearly I have a natural ability when it comes to the French language. I've also mulled over learning how to fake an English, or even possibly an Australian, accent. I think perhaps, due to my talent with languages, this may be more appropriate for my skill level. I mean, if Bridget Jones can be played by an American, I can certainly learn how to start throwing around words like 'bloody' and 'tosser.' I've been paging through travel guides, and practicing how I will say 'cheers' rather than 'thank you' when the stewardess hands out peanuts on my flight. Thusly, my language studies will begin.