Mrs. Lane was my third grade teacher at Christ King School. Unlike my first grade teacher, Mrs. Lane actually liked me. (Sr. Shawn Marie, my second grade teacher, also liked me and was kind, but I figured that was her job since she was a nun and so I didn’t “count” her when I reflected on my Likeability Factor.) Mrs. Lane was a dear lady, but she was very old, and I suspect that by the time I came along, her best teaching days were behind her. On those rare days in class when I would tune in to hear what was going on, Mrs. Lane would invariably be telling the class about her husband, and about their beautiful love story, and about his tragic death. These stories were actually more interesting than whatever the class was supposed to be talking about, and I would often stay in the moment to listen to her sad and beautiful tale. Despite the fact that I learned very little, I have fond memories of Mrs. Lane.
Third grade was the year we began the study of Foreign Languages at Christ King School, and for us that meant German. Frau Mittmann came in three times a week to teach us German. Most schools added Spanish classes to the schedule, but at Christ King the decision was made for German, perhaps because Milwaukee was a heavily German city at that time in its history. In any event, Frau Mittman was hired.
I loved her. She was a big, fleshy woman with fat strands of greasy gray hair pulled back into a sloppy bun affixed with a black headband. I don’t know how old Frau Mittman was when she was our teacher, but she seemed to us quite aged and world-weary; she had large, technicolor varicose veins and wore shapeless house dresses to class, paired with thick socks and rubber-soled lace up shoes. From Frau Mittmann we learned every single word pertaining to the weather and to Easter. I don’t know why Frau Mittmann was so passionate about Easter and weather, but she must have had good reason. Maybe she decided that this was the vocabulary we would need one day if we travelled to Germany and were in a pinch. Perhaps she thought this combination of Weather/Easter would give us precisely the conversational flexibility we needed. We would be able to say helpful things to native German folk such as, “Jesus, it’s hot today,” or “I require chocolate eggs when it thunders.” In any event, I have fond memories of standing at our desks three mornings a week when that bulky gray figure entered the classroom and saying in unison, “Guten Tag, Frau Mittman; Wie Gehts?” before settling into our lesson. Frau Mittmann’s answer to our polite query was always in English, and always the same: “Lousy.” She would emphasize the “s” sound dramatically, which made the word “lousy” sound more like “LOUSE—Y.” We believed her.
After teaching us a thorough vocabulary of weather and Easter words (this took up about the first ten minutes of our lesson), Frau Mittmann would spend the rest of the hour reminiscing about her childhood. She was a child during the First World War, and we could tell that being German during the Great War was no picnic. Fat tears rolling down her plump grey cheeks, Frau Mittmann would describe riding her bicycle to school only to have a bomb fall on the street and open a crater in front of her. She told us that she came home from school one day to find no home at all—just a hole where her house had been. That story always had Frau Mittmann’s whole frame shaking with tears, and I sometimes teared up right along with her. It certainly put our petty American first world third grade problems in perspective.
I cannot imagine where the Powers That Be at Christ King School found Frau Mittmann, but after several months of these compelling lessons, someone must have said something because our regular teacher, Miss Weinfurt, stayed in the classroom for German instead of ducking out for a coffee break. Shortly after Miss Weinfurt observed class, Frau Mittmann disappeared and was replaced by a thin, nervous woman whose name I do not remember and who told us no stories at all.
Later on in college, I became a History major and surprised my professors with my empathy for the Germans in World War I, arguing that they might have been the “fall guys” rather than the pure villains they were portrayed as being by the rest of Europe. I owe that to Frau Mittmann. She was at Christ King School for less than a year, but she was one of the very few teachers I paid attention to. The other German teacher spent much more time on vocabulary, but to this day the only German words I remember are “gewitter,” “blitz,” and “chocolaten eye.” And when Frau Mittmann made it to heaven, I hope she didn’t look around, roll her eyes, and pronounce it “LOUSE-Y.”