Herr Josef* was my German teacher and the most terrifying person I knew when I was 12. He looked normal enough, 45ish and sporty in his pleated chino shorts, but was sometimes mistaken [by me] for having Tourette syndrome when he would yell words in German that I didn’t understand. He had a smile reserved for that gleeful moment of triumph after he made a student bawl hysterically. In addition to German, he also taught social studies. And tennis.
It was a volatile trifecta of sorts.
Sometime during the 7th grade, Herr Josef became a germaphobe – a real live germaphobe in an era before antibacterial hand sanitizers. It became a class mandate for every student to have a handkerchief on his or her desk at all times. There was only one rule: if you sneezed, coughed, or breathed loudly without covering your mouth, you would die a humiliating middle schooler’s death. Sweet.
This birthed some interesting pre-class rituals, like robbery. Some kids actually stole handkerchiefs from their fathers, and they’d proudly pull some sort of plaid, snot-crusted piece of threadbare fabric from their pockets before class. A handful girls thought this would be a good excuse to go to Sanrio (that store that sells miniature Tupperware and lead pencils, and then plasters them with pictures of creepy talking animals), and they bought tissue packets with stars and bunny rabbits on them. The rest of us – the slackers – frantically ran to the bathroom minutes before class to grab a square of 1 ply toilet paper. High pitched wails of agony could occasionally be heard from the bathrooms during toilet paper shortages.
It was a rainy day, and all 30 7th graders were acting like we had forgotten to take our Ritalin. Herr Josef started the lesson by scribbling maniacally on the chalkboard. He would attack it so ferociously that it always brought back sweet memories of that the time I saw a girl clawing at another girl’s face during a mall fight. This was problematic – ferocious chalkboard writing creates chalk dust, and chalk dust makes children sneeze.
And children who sneezed without handkerchiefs faced the Wrath of Herr Josef.
On that day, poor Alvin* was the most unfortunate of students, being the only person without a handkerchief, bunny rabbit tissue, or piece of toilet paper. He was also the only kid with perpetual allergies. As if it was in slow motion, I watched as Herr Josef swiped at the board. The dust particles danced into poor Alvin’s nose, and then – ACHOO!!
Boogers sprayed everywhere, creating a massive booger shower, and the room fell silent. All of us stared at each other. First at Herr Josef, and then back at each other – it was obvious that we had all forgotten how to blink. Not unexpectedly, Herr Josef threw down his wooden pointer stick (not good) on the poor kid’s desk, screamed something about dirty cold virus infestations, and stormed out of the room. Then he stormed back in, realizing that he, not Alvin, should be in the room. He kicked Alvin out, but not before tossing a detention slip at his back.
It was frightening, but I prevailed. Herr Josef taught me a lot about confronting fears, finding inner strength, and doing what’s right in the face of adversity.
Oh wait – that was Harry Potter.
*Not really his name.