Locking the Door During the Lesson

by Cindy Marie Jenkins

From my blog on July 15, 2009 | diary entry from Summer 1999 

I just finished a grant.  But that’s not what this post is about.
The grant made me think about 1999, when I traveled through Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia to study theater.
To say it changed my life is the epitomy of minimization.
But I was really thinking about this woman on the plane.  Direct lift from my diary:

Wed., 6/26 (continued)
I’m on the plane now and sitting in between two of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.  The gentleman to my right is a native Argentinian, though he claims that Buenos Aires is the most European of all the Americas — North, Central & South.  He started learning languages at the age of four, and now knows five.  He teaches at a university in Germany (I think) and is disgusted that when he enters the amphitheatre (his word) that the students do not say “Good morning” back to him.  The three of us got into a heated discussion about how you really cannot blame the children today for their actions.  When the only examples they have of life come from music, TV, video games, etc., where else can they turn to?  He said that they need a family, and gangs provide that sense of family.

The woman–goodness, I don’t even know her name–and I have been chatting for a good portion of the three hours of the flight so far.  She is from Germany originally, but has spent forty-one years in the U.S.  Her father was a German colonel, and the only way she could rebel was to marry an American GI.  But he charmed her father, so it didn’t end up being much of a rebellion.  She had a self-professed American fetish.  When she learned English in school, her teacher hated her work, because she snuck in listening to American radio.  So when she was called on in her English class, she would use American slang.  Now her teacher was an Oxford graduate and he would get sooooo angry that she was slandering the English language.  The other children loved it, and egged her on.  But the teacher couldn’t give her a bad grade, because she did know her English.
So she married this GI who was quite a charmer–which led to their eventual divorce, actually [from me in 2009: Ah, the hindsight, if only I had paid attention] and he was stationed in Florida, then Mississippi.  Man, oh man, did she hate that place.  Besides the constants bugs and gators, what she really despised was the blatant racism.  She would be walking down the street, and a white man was in front of her, also walking.  An 80 year-old woman coming the other way, who was black, had to get off the sidewalk and walk in the street.  She would apparently go home raving.  They only lived in Mississippi from January until June, when they were then stationed in Illinois (two hours outside of Chicago), her husband would joke that he had to get her out of there because she wouldn’t keep her mouth shut.
Then she said that the US had just held the Nuremberg Trials at this time.  All she could think was: take care of your own problems.
When she talked about how important it was to vote, she discussed how Hitler got into power because no educated person took him seriously.  She believes (as do many) that Hitler fed off the cultural discontent started by Versailles.
Many people have asked her how could you (the German people) have “let the Holocaust happen?  Didn’t she know what was going on?” And she had to say no.  “You Americans, born and raised,” she said, “don’t understand what it’s like to live under a dictator.  As many problems as it has, democracy is still the best government around.  But dictators….well, no, we had no idea what was happening.  We didn’t know what was going on until bombs started to drop.  And I don’t know why they only talk about the Jews who were killed.  Anyone who spoke up–priests, men, anybody — were hung from the nearest tree.  And that’s when the people started realizing how many trainloads of people were being taken away.  And then I was eleven years-old when the war was over.  Our teachers were ordered to teach the children collective guilt.  We were all, every single German alive, responsible for what happened.”
When I asked her how they could teach that, she answered, “That’s what they were told to teach [I assume as part of the terms of ending WWII] : collective guilt.  One of my history teachers, though–he would lock the door during his lessons and explain in more detail.”

I raise my glass to teachers never having to lock the door–to the flawed but great democracy in which we live.
Except it’s really a republic, not a democracy.
But I suppose that’s a blog post for another day.

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