Posts Tagged ‘School’

Grand Tour #8 – Germany. The Flying Classroom / Erich Kästner

April 19, 2017

I’ve got past form with Erich Kästner. I was so engrossed in Emil and the Detectives one evening in 2006 that I left my phone on a train and never saw it again. It would be on a train, I suppose. Anyway, with all of German literature to choose from I could have opted for one of the acknowledged classics – Werther, say, though that’s hardly original – but in the end I decided to return to dear Erich.

The Flying Classroom (Das fliegende Klassenzimmer) is a book ripe for rediscovery, published in a new translation by the legendary Anthea Bell just a few years ago with the original Walter Trier illustrations preserved. It’s a pleasure just to hold the handsome Pushkin Press edition in your hand. The translation was funded in part by the Goethe-Institut, which I remember being a useful source of Thomas Mann stuff during my A levels. Long may it prosper.

The book opens with adult Erich being nagged by his mother to write the Christmas story he’s been banging on about, only it’s the height of summer and he can’t get in the right mood, so he goes to the Zugspitze, the only place in Europe with snow. Part of his motivation for writing this story is that he has just read a book in which the children were constantly happy. Childhood is not like that, he writes, and part of the process of growing up is learning to weather the punches that life throws at you, even as a child, so that you grow emotionally as well as physically. From one of the introductory chapters:

Only when the brave have become intelligent and the intelligent have become brave will we really be sure of something that we often, but mistakenly, feel is an established fact: the progress of mankind.

The Flying Classroom was published in 1933, the same year Hitler was elected Chancellor, and Kästner saw the way the wind was blowing. The knowledge of what came shortly after its publication, the burning of Kästner’s own books by the Nazis, makes reading this one a particularly poignant experience, though the story itself is poignant enough.

I get the impression there isn’t much of a tradition of the school story in German literature. The only one that comes instantly to mind is Robert Musil’s nasty novel of sadistic bullying The Confusions of Young Törless. How I love that book; but it’s not what Kästner seems to be going for here (except in the scene where two boys from a rival school abduct Rudy Kreuzkamm and tie him to a chair in the cellar with a washing line). The school story is a predominantly British genre, and whatever Kästner’s model may have been (Kipling? Wodehouse?), he outdoes the established masters here.

The action takes place on the last few schooldays before Christmas, and centres ostensibly around preparations for a school play, The Flying Classroom, written by Johnny and performed by him and four friends. You’re bombarded by names at the start of the book, but it’s worth slowing down and getting to know each of the boys individually: there’s Johnny, the creative one; righteous Martin, the leader; smart Sebastian, the joker; diminutive and weedy Uli; and hulking Matthias, Uli’s protector, who dreams of being a boxer and is rarely seen without a piece of cake in his hand.

At the start it appears that Johnny will be the central character, but every boy has his own story, the most engaging being those of Uli, who puts himself at risk in an effort to prove his bravery, and Martin, who is devastated at receiving a letter from his mother telling him she cannot afford the train fare of 8 marks for his journey home, and so he must stay at school for Christmas in the company of a small number of other boarders. The resolution of this plotline brought tears to my eyes, which is an effect books almost never have on me.

One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Mrs Lintott, of course, in The History Boys. I always knew that teachers were human, because I’d been brought up by two of them. If you’re a child with a parent teaching at your school, the assumption is that you live in perpetual fear of their embarrassing you in front of your peers. With me it was different, my father a universally popular man, me wanting occasionally to shout at children expressing admiration for him, ‘He’s not nice and funny at home, he’s a tyrant! A TYRANT!’ (The reality was probably somewhere between the two.) Let’s return to Mrs Lintott. When I quote Alan Bennett it’s usually to make a point, and the point here is that in Kästner’s world the lesson that one’s teacher is a human, when learned, deepens rather than undermines the relationship.

The boys’ teacher Dr Bökh (nicknamed Justus for his decency – ‘I’d go to the gallows for that man if I had to!’ swears Matthias), instead of disciplining them for delinquency, tells a candid story of his own childhood, and a friendship that he regrets having lost. This brings about a revolution in the attitude of the prefect Theodor, who treats the other boys more kindly. In another episode, the children deride their headmaster for his one repeated joke, but view him newly with sympathy and pity when, embarrassed, he attempts to tell a new one. Dr Bökh’s lost friend, it turns out, is an acquaintance of the boys, Dr Uthofft (known to them as No-Smoking because he lives in a no-smoking carriage from a decommissioned train), and the boys are able to effect a moving reunion, having intuited the importance of this friendship to the two men. There’s something of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ in this demonstration of the potential of children to redeem adult suffering, and it is one of a number of moments that lift the book from mere greatness to magicality.

No-Smoking linked arms with Justus … ‘I’ll ask you at this moment, which I hope is a memorable one, not to forget your own youth! That may sound an unnecessary reminder now, while you are still children. But it isn’t unnecessary, believe us! We have grown older and yet we have stayed young. We two know what it’s all about!’

Dr Bökh and Dr Uthofft looked at one another.

And the boys privately decided, in their hearts, never to forget that exchange of glances.

I fear that out of context this reads as sentimental. Kästner is not a sentimentalist. He writes early on of communing by the slopes of the Zugspitze with a butterfly called Gottfried and a calf called Eduard. So far, so whimsical, you might think, but at the end he relates that Gottfried has died and Eduard has most likely been made into schnitzel. Everything has a season. The Flying Classroom isn’t sentimental, though it’s often gemütlich, in the best way. Reading it ought to be a Christmas tradition, like watching Fanny and Alexander or having a fistfight with your aunt.

It’s not sentimental, and it’s not soft. It’s robust and riotous and archly, absurdly funny. Sebastian scoffs at the sixth-formers taking dancing classes with girls. ‘They ought to read what Arthur Schopenhauer has to say about women,’ he rails. Professor Kreuzkamm, on learning of his son Rudy’s kidnapping, openly reprimands Rudy’s parents before the class. There are typographic jokes and puns, and always those warm, endearing illustrations. It’s a sad and joyous book, and I loved it.

Advertisements

I remember 4

September 18, 2016

I remember being scared of going on downward escalators when I was about nine or ten, and being ashamed of it as I knew I’d been able to go on them when I was younger.

***

I remember light pink fluoride pills.

***

I remember hearing Chopin’s Funeral March on the radio when I was ill and thinking how beautiful it sounded but wondering if it might just be delirium.

***

I remember making a boiled egg for my father, perhaps because it was his birthday, and dropping it into the pan, under the impression that it would float, never having done it before, and the egg cracking on the bottom of the pan and the albumen emerging from beneath, and him being angry.

***

I remember a Year 5 Music lesson where I became aware I couldn’t see the board because I didn’t have my glasses and hoping desperately that I wouldn’t be asked by Dr T to read anything out because it would have meant admitting I couldn’t see.

***

I remember wrinkled fingertips.

***

I remember my little tin of blue Humbrol enamel paint that I bought to paint a model perhaps but ended up just opening every so often, prising the lid off with the end of a teaspoon to see the magical blue inside.

humbrol

I remember visiting Hinkley Point and being given blue plastic earplugs which I kept for ages afterwards.

***

I remember eating and enjoying tongue, without acknowledging to myself what it was.

***

I remember assuming ‘several’ meant at least seven or so, and coming only slowly and stubbornly to the realisation that it might mean, say, three or four.

***

I remember praying for God to kill me.

***

I remember the big yellow metal train in Welshmill Park with the graffito on saying PENIS LOVERS MEET HERE FRIDAY 8PM, and wondering what went on at such meetings.

***

I remember an awful assembly at St John’s in which I was part of a presentation on hair, explaining that people had straight hair because of flat follicles and curly hair because of round follicles, and not understanding why flat and why round, which I still don’t. And then saying of Charlotte M the line ‘Her perm won’t last long,’ not really knowing what a perm was or why anyone would want one, and dimly sensing, perhaps, the absurdity of parroting words I didn’t comprehend written by some teacher who had no idea what children were.

***

I remember Mr P saying it was always worth having a go during oral exams even if you didn’t know the word, as a pupil of his had once had his Brummie-inflected ‘a bee’ taken as ‘abeille’ and accepted.

***

I remember feigning that I’d expected Gianluca Vialli to be sacked as Chelsea manager, though I hadn’t and it upset me.

***

I remember Maths Circus.

I remember 3 — back to school edition

September 6, 2015

I remember Miss D reading out a piece of work by Holly in which she wrote that she missed Hong Kong (or was it Singapore?) and didn’t like England, and I felt sorry for her, not because she was homesick but because I sensed she was mortified at having it broadcast to the whole class, being shy anyway and not having friends yet. What you submit to a teacher should constitute a secret contract. Miss D was an inspirational teacher, but she made some bad decisions. She did the same thing to me on two occasions.

***

I remember Mr R putting Nikolai, the new Russian boy, next to me in Maths. I was a bit shy of him, partly on account of his being cute. We were working on playing cards and probability, and he asked me ‘What is club?’ and I did a drawing but it was a bad one because it’s difficult to draw a club even if you’re not nervous and I’m not convinced the message got through.

***

I remember Harry faking an epileptic fit to play a practical joke on Mr S, the supply teacher, but it didn’t work because Mr S wasn’t very observant.

***

I remember Ben asking Mr O in an English lesson how to spell ‘hisself’, as he wanted to use the word in a short story, and Mr O saying there was no such word, which struck me as very unhelpful because it could have been dialogue, and people do say ‘hisself’ even if it isn’t grammatical.

***

I remember joking that Oliver Twist was an OK book but it didn’t have any of the songs in it, which made Neil laugh.

***

I remember being pleased when Kat objected to something she perceived as homophobic in a story we were reading in English, even though it wasn’t really necessary. The rest of us who cared about it wouldn’t have been bold enough to speak out.

***

I remember thinking my history teacher Miss L was beautiful.

I remember thinking she liked me more than the other pupils because the marks she gave me were disproportionate to the quality of my work and the effort I put into it, and anyway she just did.

I remember Miss L played the flute and was quite shy and had translucent skin and sometimes blushed.

I remember Miss L correcting me gently for my anachronistic use of the phrase ‘conscientious objector’.

I remember David, who was normally quite boisterous and disruptive, toning things down for Miss L, probably because he secretly liked her too.

***

I remember Mr T telling Helen that she sounded like Kenneth Grahame, and I realised he meant Kenneth Williams and felt bad for him, though I was the only one in the class who’d have known.

***

I remember Mark coming in one morning and telling me his cat had died the night before, and hanging around with him during break and lunchtime feeling sad together and not really speaking. I think a member of staff asked if we were OK and I explained. I wrote a piece of music in memory of Mark’s cat, though I never played it to him or even told him because it would have been embarrassing.

***

I remember devising a signature based on Miss R’s, which is still essentially my signature now.

***

I remember, when we were about twelve, Jamie euphemistically describing Luke to me as a ‘flower’, and me protesting because of my conviction that being effeminate did not equate to being gay, though Luke did turn out to be gay, and so did Jamie.

***

I remember Mr W banging his fist on the table during a play rehearsal, knocking a cup of water into his bag, and Paul having such a laughing fit that he had to go to the toilet to recover for so long that I wondered if I should go looking for him.

***

I remember taking a penalty in football and striking the ball very poorly but scoring because the goalkeeper was even worse than me.

***

I remember a student Music teacher correcting my use of ‘symphony’s’ to ‘symphonies’ in a piece of written work about the Minuet and Trio from Schubert’s 5th. I approached her after the lesson to explain why she was wrong.

***

I remember Tim being shocked at how late I went to bed and telling me the late nights would catch up with me, and thinking what a bore he was.

***

I remember Rachel asking me, possibly earnestly, if I was on drugs, probably because I liked to go around with my eyes half closed and sometimes walked into things. I wasn’t on drugs, I was just tired.

***

I remember feeling flattered when Max punched me repeatedly in the arm, and when Jake gave me this personalised message, because they amounted to tokens of friendship, albeit oblique ones.

Message, c. 1998

I remember 2

August 8, 2015

I remember going to a children’s concert at Jackdaws in Great Elm and the programme giving the name of one piece as ‘Vaginia Reel’.

***

I remember the happiness of going to National Trust properties and, against the odds, not being bored, perhaps because of the shop or the tea room.

***

I remember playing the word COON in a Scrabble game because I’d got it mixed up with ‘coot’, and sensing from the grown-ups’ reactions that I’d done something wrong, though no one said anything.

***

I remember feeling inhibited about waving my arms when we sang hateful evangelical songs in school like ‘We are climbing Jesus’ ladder’.

***

I remember feeling embarrassed by my unbroken singing voice.

***

I remember the sickly smell of breakfast in Barry: pineapple juice and Weetabix.

***

I remember D saying confidentially to me that there was someone in the changing room with awful BO and my suspecting that it was me. Perhaps he was trying to be diplomatic. He wasn’t an academic boy, but he was kind, like Piggy in Lord of the Flies.

***

I remember seeing a comma butterfly in Welshmill Park on an inset day.

***

I remember stroking my tortoiseshell butterfly until its wings fell off and all that remained was the abdomen.

***

I remember the summer when I went down the road to the petrol station to buy a 500ml bottle of Sprite and the lid was a special one that meant I won a free bottle of Sprite and it happened several times in a row so the people on the checkout began to get suspicious.

***

I remember Tiger Tokens.

***

I remember reading The Great Gatsby and picturing the gas station as the one at the bottom of Weymouth Road.

***

I remember a boy shouting ‘Queer’ at me from a window, and realising he’d only shouted it because I happened to be there, but also half thinking, How does he know?

***

I remember Miss Davies showing us Blackadder the Third in class to explain about rotten boroughs.

***

I remember getting shyer as I got older.

***

I remember feeling absolutely indifferent to cars.

Tortoiseshell, July 2015