Teachers and Terror Part 2
by Meg Curtis, PhD
No one in that German class was more confused than I was. After five years of Latin, I thought in Latin. I translated English into Latin and Latin into English with a confidence born of daily assignments and weekly memorization of passages from Virgil, starting with 12 lines and working up to 24 lines. I was a linguistic ace; I knew my Latin backwards and forwards, but I didn't know German worth spit.
When the semester started, I was so lost that I couldn't have found my ego with a GPS unit or the help of the NSA. I whined my way from my dormitory to that German class, and started talking to myself. Finally, I heard myself whining, and it actually sounded funny. There I was at a first-rate college, and all I could do was complain. Suddenly it dawned on me: Every language is a new code system.
Every language required me to realize that I was a beginner, no matter how smart or accomplished I was. Once my brain accepted that fact, I got down to business. Out came my 3" by 5" cards, every single one decorated with a word on the front, and a definition on the back. Those cards went with me wherever I went: to the dining hall, the shower, even into phone booths. German became my constant companion.
After a single year of German, I knew that I wasn't an ace yet, but I had absorbed the most important lesson I would ever learn as a student: The pursuit of knowledge turns all of us into beginners. The pursuit of truth is even more challenging. My German professor displayed rare wit when she evaluated my German essay: "You grasp literature, but your grammar is metaphysical," she said with a smile.
Truer words were never spoken. I had tortured and twisted German grammar to convey the meanings in a work of German literature which I could discern but barely explain. That professor not only read my German essay; she even read my mind. She knew I was a poet. She even probably knew that I would write this tribute to the German lioness who revealed to me the German base of the English language.