Advice for the Lovelorn ... Teacher

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Chapter 3

I met Anita first, the semester during which I turned 40. She was beautiful—thin, with a beautiful olive complexion, almost like milk chocolate. She was inquisitive, eager to please. But, she spoke with a very thick German accent. I just couldn’t understand that. I had never been to Europe, but I did know two Germans, one being my aunt. A true Aryan, blonde hair and blue eyes. She was born in 1938 and did have memories of Nazis, albeit from a child’s perspective. I do remember her talking about “high German” and “Low German”. I’m not sure if that mean the dialect or the accent or the color of their skin. I thought Germans were all white. Maybe Anita was a “low” German, from near the southern border. After all, in the southern United States, many people do have darker skin, whether they’re blacks or Hispanics. In my mind’s map of Europe, the border was the mark between Germany and Yugoslavia or something like that. I didn’t know any Slavs at the time, so maybe I was right. It took a few days before I discovered the truth.

She wasn’t German.

This didn’t solve my problem—it only exacerbated it. It took another few days to get an answer.

Her husband is German.

Argh! So, how is it she speaks with a German accent?

She lived in Germany with her husband.

OK, that makes some sense. She lived there for 10 years; after 10 years, you would start to pick up the accent. I can understand that.

But, she explained, German wasn’t her main language, it’s her third.

Uh huh.

English is her fourth. The first two are Spanish and Portuguese. She’s from South America and “everybody speaks Spanish or Portuguese.”

Fourth?? How can I teach her anything—she’s smarter than I am!

Anita was born in Brazil. Anita grew up in Brazil. Anita met her husband, Fritz, in Brazil. The company he worked for in Germany sent him to Brazil to work on a project and that’s where he met Anita. When his job called him back to Germany, Fritz married Anita and she moved with him to Germany.

I must keep repeating and emphasizing Brazil because, the untraveled Midwesterner that I am, confuses it with Argentina and forces me to break out into song: “Don’t cry for me, Argentina …”. Basically, Anita is from somewhere in South America. All those places look alike from here.

But they’re not.

And I must keep repeating Anita’s name because I keep calling her Evita. And then immediately break into song with even more dramatic emphasis, raising my right arm, palm facing upward, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina …”

That’s probably why I keep thinking Anita is from Argentina. I love that song. Any old excuse to break out into showtunes, I guess.

As a professor, I live and die by my seating charts in class because, point blank, I’m bad with faces. Names I can remember, but visually matching that name with the proper face doesn’t happen, at least for the first six weeks. In general, when you see people less than an hour every other day or even just once a week, it’s hard to keep them straight. And for some reason, it’s worse with men. They all look alike. And God help me if they actually take off their John Deere (or Yankees, or Bears, or whichever team they’re rooting for) hat. I have no idea who these people are. I feel like I’ve just been blindfolded and I’m swinging the bat for all I’m worth, but that piñata is no where to be found.

And it’s worse when you have multiple classes and the students all have the same name. There was the one year I had three Michaels in the same class, and of course they sat next to each other. Then there was the year of the two Tylers, in different classes, but they sat in the same seat. And there was enough of a physical resemblance where I had no idea which one was which. And then the class with a “Karissa” and “Corissa”. So the seating charts are a must.

Students find it hard to believe that a teacher may not easily recognize them and I am always reminded of what a teacher of mine told our class one day when he couldn’t remember a name:

“There’s one of me and I have 150 of you to remember. Give me a break!”

So for the first several weeks, if I’m not looking at the seating chart, I will often inadvertently call people the wrong name. It really isn’t intentional. I want to keep the energy flowing and I think I can remember simple names.

Famous last words.

So, in my brain, it’s all the same. Brazil and Argentina, Anita and Evita.

Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.

The lady from South America did not agree.

Maybe that’s why she calls me by my last name all the time.

In my defense, I did try referring to students by their last names such as Mr. So-and-so and Miss What’s-your-face until the semester all of the students, to quote my colleague Erin who had a class earlier in the day than I did, reported that “Everyone this semester is from Poland.” When I checked my roster, it was true. Many last names had a lot of consonants with the pairing of the “sz” and ending in “ski”. That was also the year I met Greta, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

But Anita was (and still is) a perfectionist. But this is in a good way. She puts in the effort to earn this status, she doesn’t blame others when perfection doesn’t magically appear. Anita soaked up everything, especially when it came to her writing. The more corrections I made of her work, the happier she was. As her writing got better, and she had fewer mistakes, she was sure she was failing the course because of the lack of fixes.

“But you got a 97 out of 100. This is the highest score in the class.”

“Ack, I zdon’t know about zthat,” she modestly replied in her thick German accent. “But, zSmith, are you szure this word is correct?”

And then the task of trying to explain auxiliary verbs … And this was how I began to notice when an ESL student was in my class. They would have perfect grammar and punctuation, but incorrect verb form.

And yes, I know the term “ESL”—English as a Second Language—is now politically incorrect. And I know it’s been adjusted at least twice since then. I think one less-offensive variation was “ELL”—English Language Learner. But you get the idea.

If only the American-born students had such a grasp of the language.

Two stories in our anthology dealt with “cultural illiteracy”—how little we (21st century Americans) know as a culture about history, geography, anything really. Late-night television shows often have segments of their shows featuring the program’s host stopping random people and asking them simple questions, like how many moons does the earth have. Answers would vary wildly. (And the correct answer is ONE.)

But one particular story in our anthology had 20 questions right off the U.S. citizenship test. It was always a fun lesson (well, at least for me) on the day when I would give my class a pop quiz on those little tidbits of information.

Here they are:

What are the colors of the American flag?

How many states are there in the union?

Can the Constitution be changed?

For how long do we elect the president?

How many branches are there in the American government?

How many senators are there in Congress?

What is the Bill of Rights?

Who said, “Give me liberty or give me death?”

Which countries were our enemies during World War II?

Who elects the President of the United States?

Why did the pilgrims come to America?

Who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

Who was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence?

What special group advises the president?

What is the minimum voting age in the United States?

When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?

What kind of government does the United States have?

In what year was the Constitution written?

Where is the White House located?

What is the introduction to the Constitution called?

Simple, n’est ce pas? *

I would jokingly begin, after they had written their answers down, by saying, “OK, let’s see how many of you we’re shipping back tonight.” There would be some very nervous laughter. You could see them mentally preparing their packing list. As well they should have—some of them should have been sent back they knew so little about their country. But—if this is a good enough test for new citizens, shouldn’t the natives know this information as well?

As the semester progressed, Anita invited me to lunch.

This was a first for me. No student had ever asked that of me and when I was a student, I never would have asked a teacher to associate in a social manner. I guess I’m very “old school” (no pun intended). Classroom decorum doesn’t translate to human status. And you hear so many stories about inappropriate relationships … it’s very definitely something to think twice about.

But I liked Anita. I was honored to think she would want to be my friend. I thought about it and told her I would prefer to wait until the end of the semester and after the grades were submitted. As hard as she was working for her grade, I didn’t want even a whiff of favoritism to be associated with either me or her. Of course, she earned an A and we made our plans. (And when I say she earned the A, I mean just that. As I tell students—I don’t give grades, you earn them.)

She invited me to her home and there were four of us: Anita, myself, Anita’s son, Don, and Phyllis, who was also a colleague of mine at CHU. She taught French at the university but she also volunteered as an ESL instructor at the local library, which is where Phyllis met Anita. I knew Phyllis on sight and the most we ever spoke was more in passing (either she was arriving for class and I was leaving, or visa verse). Don was 8 years old at the time and just a pleasure to be around. He was intelligent and articulate and very respectful of adults. (Note to American parents—follow this advice! Trust me, your kids are not as cute as you think they are.)

Anita had studied art while a young student in Brazil and took a few courses when she lived in Germany. Examples of her work were plentiful in her home. What a talented woman! Oil paintings of all types of subjects were on display in the beautiful home. They were not overpowering in color or placement, but very subtle. They just blended in perfectly with the décor of each room. Many of the scenes included mountains and rivers, some reflecting the landscape of South America, some reflecting the landscape near her home in Germany.

Our “quick” lunch lasted for more than four hours. It was one of those pleasant June days in Indiana where the temperature was warm, the breeze was gentle, the sun was bright, and the humidity was low. The conversation flowed and the laughter was plentiful. What a wonderful day and a wonderful end of the semester for all of us. Anita had survived her first semester as a U.S. college student. She had already registered for the fall semester and was nervous.

“I jhuzt don’t know how I will manage all of the reading for these courzes,” she sighed as she showed us her schedule. Psychology, Sociology, Introduction to Business Practices, World History, and English Composition 201.

Phyllis and I looked at each other. “Are you insane? You’re taking five classes?” Odd, that sounded like my voice saying those words. Did I speak that out loud?

“I muzt be,” Anita agreed. “I almost lost my mind this zemester.” She showed us her grade report: English Composition 101, Calculus, U.S. History, and Public Speaking. Straight As.

Phyllis and I again looked at each other. Anita has a beautiful home, immaculately clean. She cooks three meals a day from scratch for a family, she has a young son and a husband, she’s carrying a full load of classes, and she’s aced every last one of them. I wonder if I can bottle her?

But looking back, I must smile. We had this exact same conversation every single semester she was a student at CHU and even as she worked on her MBA. Each semester, Anita called me the first week after she had attended her classes and received the syllabus for each of the courses, with all of the work spelled out. The conversation had a familiar pattern to it: the classes were the hardest she had ever taken, she had no idea how she would survive the courses and what was she going to do?

And every semester, she had the highest grade in each class, she made sure Don was more active with extra-curricular activities (and Anita attended every last one of them), and her home was still immaculate. I don’t know how she did it. I was just in awe of her.

And I still am.

OK—stumped by the citizenship test questions? Here are the answers:

1.Red, white, and blue.



4.Four years



7.The first 10 amendments

8.Patrick Henry

9.Germany, Italy, Japan

10.The Electoral College

11.For religious freedom

12.Francis Scott Key

13.Thomas Jefferson

14.The cabinet


16.July 4, 1776

17.Republican (I personally accepted bicameral, but this is the answer the Feds want. Just in case you really need to talk the test.)


19.Washington, D.C. (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW)

20.The Preamble

*N’est ce pas is French, roughly translated to “isn’t it”.

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