A Challenging Teacher


Dr. Petzel, our seventy year old German teacher, fled from East-Prussia, when the Russians approached. Dr. Petzel seemed ancient to us girls. Instead of teaching German, he would often tell us about his experiences on the road from East Prussia to Berlin in the bitter cold of winter. I was amazed to hear, that people were able to continue walking even after their toes were frozen! How did they do it? How could they walk for hundreds of kilometers with frozen toes or worse? I really felt sorry for all the refugees. The sub-zero temperatures affected just about every one of them, especially babies, whose nappies all too often froze onto their bodies. I don’t know, whether under those circumstances any baby really had a chance to survive. Often babies were just left at some Red Cross station, either dead or dying.

But back to Dr. Petzel. He was of very small stature and had hair like a hedgehog. What little hair could be seen, looked grey. He often made remarks, how important it was to get a good education. ‘Look at me’, he would say, ‘I lost everything because of the war. But one thing no-one can take away from me, is, what is in my head.’ Another one of his favourite sayings was, that he studied German at university, that is he studied ‘Germanic Languages’, but still cannot say, that he knows German . ‘There is so much to know about the German language’, he said, ‘no-one can really know it perfectly.’ Before he started on this elaboration, he went around the class, stopped in front of one student, then another one, and another one. He asked each of them, whether they knew German. Of course every-one answered with ‘yes’. Finally Dr. Petzel informed us quite gleefully, they were all wrong, since we did not know very much German at all, neither did he, even though he studied it.

 At High School all the teachers in those days, rightly or wrongly, had the habit of looking up in the files, what profession the students’ parents had. Then they picked on those students, whose father or mother had acquired a doctorate. One girl, Irene Flemming, had a mother, who was a medical doctor. Other than that there were only two girls in our class, whose father had the title of ‘doctor’. I was one of them, the other one was Franziska von Kopp. Irene, Franziska and I were often singled out by Dr. Petzel (and other teachers as well) as being the daughters of academics and therefore, naturally, we had to be smarter than the rest of the girls!

It so happened that I found it relatively easy, to understand grammar as well as punctuation. Needless to say, that was something for Dr. Petzel. One day he asked a difficult question about grammar, that none of the girls were able to find an answer for. Then he said to me: ‘Frl. Spickermann, can you give me an answer to my question?’ I stood up in order to say, what I had to say. Dr. Petzel walked very close up to me. He looked me straight in the face, standing on tip-toe to make himself as tall as I was. And believe it or not, I was able to provide the right answer!

When the lesson was finished, some of my friends came up to me, saying: ‘Gee, how come, you stayed so calm, when Hedgehog came right up to you trying to look into your blouse?’ I was surprised, that they thought, this had been going on. I think I was only thirteen and had hardly any bosom to speak of yet. And honestly, I had not felt threatened at all. I think my friends admired me for my so called ‘coolness’. To me it felt great, that my friends thought my behaviour was admirable.

4 thoughts on “A Challenging Teacher

  1. Sometimes it’s the challenging, difficult, quirky teachers who taught us the most, inspired us, or for whatever reason, pushed us to be better!

    1. Yes, you never know what sort of influence he may have had on my life. In any case that I still can remember quite a bit about him shows, that he must have made some kind of an impression on me. He could not go on teaching for very long. Ill health caught up with him. And he was rather elderly, probably well past seventy!

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