Professor Richter

The year was 1996, and I was finishing my associate's degree in a community college in Washington state. This included three quarters of German language, led by Bernd Richter, who had just returned from some teaching stint in Japan.

I remember Professor Richter as a tall man, but I think that was partly because of the way he stood, partly because I was still just a kid, partly because of the way he ranted and shouted when somebody obviously did not come to class prepared. He held two doctorate degrees -- though I didn't know this at the time, and he asked us specifically not to call him Doctor. He came from East Germany -- this in itself was a topic of interest, since it was only a few years after the fall of the Wall and the Soviet Union, and most of the people in the class had never met anyone who grew up in one of the former Communist states. He was not an old man, not long over forty, but his hair was already shot through with white. He wore a ponytail and these enormous bullet-proof glasses that probably came from the Eastern Bloc with him.

Now, some of the stuff Herr Richter did in class might seem a little assholish. Some of it, well, was assholish. The opinion of students on campus were sharply divided on him: some people hated him and some people loved him. But I think you have to look at things from his perspective to understand it.

Professor Richter was a highly proficient speaker of three languages, and certainly had a working knowledge of a few others. He, naturally, knew that the limited amount of time he had to work with us was not enough to produce a good understanding of the German language. He knew the only way any of his students was going to succeed in German was by seeking out further German input on their own, outside of class. And in the USA in 1996 -- years before YouTube or MP3s or BitTorrent, when most people didn't even have Internet access either at work or at home -- that was going to take some special effort to come by.

He also knew that a lot of his students weren't going to be sufficiently motivated to do something like that. Most were products of American public schools and hadn't had any sort of foreign language instruction before. Most were taking the course simply because there was a foreign language requirement for their degree, not because of any great desire or need to learn the German language.

From his perspective, you see, he knew most of us were hopeless. He could hope somebody would be interested enough to learn more on their own. It was his job to help spark that motivation, in whomever he could. That was really what his courses were about. He didn't say that then, but later it became obvious, to those of us who thought about it.

I remember some of the things he said introducing himself, those years ago:

"My name in German means 'judge'. That's what people -- or the men, anyway, back then women were considered worthless -- in my family did, long ago. It's an appropriate name for a teacher. I will not judge you unfairly but I will judge you strictly.

"The best possible outcome, if you learn to speak German from me, is that you will sound a lot like a hick, because I come from East Germany and that is what my accent sounds like. We are sort of the hicks in Germany. Some people speak Hochdeutsch, but I speak Hickdeutsch."

He drilled us admirably hard, considering this was not a particularly motivated class.

He told us lots of stories about his life -- about watching smuggled American videotapes, about his adventures speaking Russian in Russia, about crappy Soviet electronic equipment and the associated fire hazards thereof. Whenever he thought he could get away with it, he told his stories in German. He was one of the strangest lecturers I've ever met, but he was an engaging one.

Sometimes he got the weirdest crap from the more clueless students -- one person I remember was absolutely fascinated with how the Christians were treated in East Germany, and at every possible opportunity asked him some question about it. I think she thought the Communists bricked them up in walls or something. It was pretty irritating.

Of course, Professor Richter encouraged anybody to bring in German content they had found on their own and share it with the rest of the class. One day somebody came in with the URL of an FTP site that had full-episode "Simpsons" dubs in German. This was back when Yahoo! was still a new thing, and the fact that you could actually download video from the Internet (if you were crazy patient and had a higher-end computer with enough disk space and enough RAM to actually watch the things once downloaded) still felt kind of ridiculous. German videos, no less. Good Lord! What a world!

There was one particularly memorable episode I have to tell you. It was the Friday of the the last week before finals, German 101. It was a sunny day; the sky was blue and cloudless. Class had begun. We had just finished the material in the textbook. We expected, I suppose (you didn't expect much in this class), some kind of quarter-end review.

Professor Richter instead told a joke in German, something about a polar bear. Then, he sat on the desk, sighed, and said: "You know, class, it's a beautiful day outside. And you guys I am certain are well prepared for the final exam. So say fünfhundertfünfundfünfzig and then you may leave."

And that was possibly the best thing ever to happen in any classroom anywhere. Immediately the room broke out in murmuring madness. I heard almost as many choking sounds as speech.

Professor Richter walked up and down the classroom, listening to us as we attempted to successfully reproduce this mouthful. He gave us some helpful feedback:

"After you split your tongue it gets easier."

"You can get it, but you'd better stop saying that first."

"No, now, that's the same wrong thing you said a minute ago."

"No, like you're killing a small animal with your tongue!"

A couple times he did nothing but stand in front of a student and laugh.

I was lucky! I was the first one to escape -- sometimes listening to other people's mistakes helps almost as much as listening to the teacher. I produced something deemed sufficiently accurate, and Professor Richter pointed to me and said, "Good. Now go." It took me about three minutes.

Now, you should know that, on this campus, you entered all of the classrooms from the outside. Every classroom had one wall that was basically just a big window and a door. People outside could easily see what was going on in the classroom.

I went to the espresso bar in the student commons and bought an Americano -- I had no money and it was the cheapest coffee they sold. It was one of those gorgeous days where the air itself is cold but standing in the sunshine is enough to keep you warm. I still had the better part of an hour before my next class, so I thought I'd go into a park nearby to study.

On my way there, I saw a few of my classmates from German, sitting on a wall just outside of the classroom.

Mind you, this was now about ten, fifteen minutes later.

I walked over and immediately realized what they were doing. If you sat just there, maybe ten feet in front of the window, you could hear this quiet, unearthly droning coming out of the classroom. Most of the students were still in there, having not produced the number 555 to Professor Richter's satisfaction. Every now and the droning rose in volume -- enough of the students aligned in their mutterings, I suppose, that it gave the sound some extra force, some harmonic resonance.

Fuhrmfherfunnfellfurndret... The murmuring rose and fell like a wave. Fuenfundderundfunffzikunffelzegunffahrhunner... It didn't sound like human language.

And you could see everything going on in the classroom. Herr Richter at this point was kneeling in front of some poor student. He was pointing in his own mouth (I assume explaining how to properly split your tongue for German, and how to most efficiently stop the bleeding.) Another student at the other side of the classroom had her head folded in her hands. Every minute or two the professor would point wildly at somebody in the room, and they would bolt up and leave, thanking whatever deities they still believed in.

Since most classes were in session, there wasn't much foot traffic on the campus. At one point, a student did walk by the classroom. He was hurrying along at a brisk pace until he reached the "murmur zone" right in front, upon which he immediately came to a dead stop and stared inside. He looked back at us, sitting on the wall: he looked perfectly confused and slightly horrified.

"German," I explained. "With Herr Richter," added one of my classmates on the wall, a lady from Hungary who worked repairing bicycles, and always wore these colorful leather outfits that looked like the eighties threw up on her. She said it as a warning -- or perhaps, as an invitation. It could have been either. It really could have.

There is something important to carry from this episode. It was pretty assholish. He stood there laughing at people. Anybody could have simply walked out of that classroom, and nobody would have blamed them. Somebody easily could have complained about this, I'm pretty sure he would have been in trouble. But nobody, not a single person, left that classroom, not until they did what they were asked. And almost everybody came back for German 102. That's the way it was.

He tried "vierzig Pfirsiche" on us shortly after that in the next quarter, the sadistic bastard. We had got wise the first time though: we were prepared for him. I, the lady from Hungary, and a few of the other students who gave a crap were trading audio materials around outside of class, along with a few videos, phonetics texts, and whatever else we were able to find in the libraries and the language lab and the Internet that we thought could help. As a result, "vierzig Pfirsiche" was only merely difficult instead of impossible. And Professor Richter picked up on that, and I think that made him genuinely happy. "Hickdeutsch" my ass, he knew exactly what he was doing. Now that's some teaching.

At the end of that second quarter, he finally gave us all some encouragement: "You've done well. You speak the language about as well as five year old German children." I loved this guy. He was horrible, he was clever, he was stern, he was funny, he was from a different world. He was one of the best professors I've ever had in any subject.

Every quarter he'd ask if I was coming back for his next class. The answer was always 'yes'. I fully intended to take it as long as he taught it.

I'm going to admit something, straight up: I was, at first, one of those students who was only taking his course because it was a requirement. It wasn't my first or even second choice for a foreign language course -- my first two were both already full when I tried to enroll. I didn't have any particular interest in the German language when I started. My encounter with Professor Richter was entirely accidental.

That doesn't mean I didn't give it my best effort, and strange things happen when you make an effort, especially when you have somebody like Professor Richter beating you on.

You cannot possibly learn a language without listening to other people, and listening a lot. You have to want to listen. You have to possess some degree of interest, or some degree of empathy.

Professor Richter was a weird duck, but that was because, in these circumstances, he had to be. He couldn't possibly teach a single one of us to speak or read German with any great faculty, not by himself, in a hour a day over three quarters. He might be able to, if he tried really hard, produce enough light for us to see a little by, just enough for us to know that there is much more, just enough that we might become curious, and stumble forward searching for more, and his last words to us, urging us onwards, could be Goethe's: mehr Licht! That was all he could do. He knew it. He acted like it. He was a sharp fellow.

The last time I saw Professor Richter was about ten years ago. He was still alternately torturing and teaching students in the same community college. I was thrilled that he was. His students were all lucky people.

I wish I could say I thought of him much since then; only occasionally, usually in the context of some German turn of phrase that amused me. My life I find is full of all sorts of noise, containing less intelligible meaning than the first fünfhundertfünfundfünfzig, things that are ultimately distractions, mistakes we make before we do anything right. I think I spent too much of my time during the oughts fixing other people's bugs. I'm a lot poorer nowadays but a better person, I think.

A few weeks ago I looked Professor Richter up; I wondered if he was still teaching, if he had retired, if he had moved somewhere else, if he had taken another job or learned another language.

No. He disappeared one day in November of 2005. He went out for a walk and never came back. They didn't find his body for over a month; he was lying in some abandoned barn with multiple stab wounds. It was supposed a suicide, and that is that.

I still don't really know how to process this information. The few people I've told this story to didn't really understand why it hit me so hard, why it made me so sad -- again, I took this man's German courses almost twenty years ago, I hadn't seen him in a decade. It is true I didn't know Professor Richter, as a person, very well. But perhaps this will clear something up: when I finally did read Goethe, it was mostly in Bernd Richter's voice. The same guy who told me all these alternately insipid and inspired stories about his childhood in the DDR, about his fishing trips and his first visit to the USA, about how Beethoven and Shakespeare changed his life, how he longed to read Shakespeare in his native English, but didn't have to learn to appreciate Beethoven because Beethoven spoke everybody's native language already -- even about his uncomfortable experiences with Japanese toilets -- he was ultimately the same guy who told me about Goethe's Werther and Faust, in his Hickdeutsch. He put that light there. He bled to death somewhere alone, not far from my house.

God, the world is a horrible place.