RAMBLINGS • Path That Leads Through Herr Schroeck

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I’ve always liked words, especially written words. I’ve found the spoken word to be slippery; speeches, especially political ones, have been a turn-off, literally when it comes to political debates and conventions. Until recently, though, the written English language has been a comfort to read.

I don’t remember when I realized I liked writing better than talking. Kindergarten wasn’t offered in the rural area I lived in, so my formal education began with Mrs. Schaefer in first grade. I don’t think I suffered from not having gone to school when I was five (my birthday is in November, so I turned six as a first grader; I was always a year younger than most of my peers, but in retrospect that was probably a plus), and when I think about it, I wonder whether our current culture’s fascination with early childhood development isn’t necessary to meet a need created by two-income homes rather than for the welfare of the young child. I suppose that’s a rambling for another month.

Despite my passion for language, I’m not close to becoming a linguist. I took two years of Latin in high school. I did well because it required one of my then strong suits, memorization, and promoted critical thinking skills (turning abstract information into related thoughts–the “if that is so, then by logic this has to be true too” process). That process began in algebra and English grammar classes, and I’ve found it to be crucial in much of daily life. I didn’t realize that then, of course. I took Latin because a guidance counselor put it on my schedule and I liked the teacher (and the pretty girls in the class).

I didn’t take a foreign language in college until my junior year at Berea in Kentucky. Those who hoped to earn a bachelor of arts faced a four semester foreign language requirement, so I chose German (with my last name, neither French nor Spanish had much appeal). It was much like Latin in high school format-wise–remember vocabulary words to pass quizzes and translate German passages into English. That was an easy A for one with the understanding of English that I’d amassed by then.

Because of a family illness, I left Berea (it too will be featured in a future “Ramblings”) to take care of the family farm. While I was back in Pennsylvania, I decided to attend classes at a local college, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. (We held a dispersal auction of our grade dairy herd the spring dad’s lung cancer was first diagnosed, so taking care of our 80 acres wasn’t as time-consuming as it had been.) 

During the summer I took the second semester of German at IUP, and the professor didn’t make many demands on our time, as though he realized most of the students were there to meet a requirement, not to master a second language. Still, the credit transferred to Blackburn when I enrolled there in the fall of 1966. 

Judy and I had married late in August, and we had consequent adjustments to make. She was doing student teaching; I took a part-time job at Mefford Shell. We were in an apartment for the first time for either of us. Her adjustment was harder than mine because I was the chauvinist of all chauvinists (the biggest pig in the lot, some have said). She was teaching, cooking, cleaning (for two) while I was going to class and playing soccer (I didn’t take the gas station job until the season was over) and wondering about what she had to complain.

I enrolled in the third semester of German at Blackburn. The teacher, Max Schroeck, was the real deal. Vocabulary was secondary–we were on our own to learn what we needed to translate. Again, for me German into English wasn’t a big deal, though I had little interest in reading the original texts of Dieterich Bonhoeffer or Fredrick Nietzsche in any language. However, the man insisted we translate from English into German as well, and that demanded an understanding of the language that I didn’t have. The others in the class had the advantage of knowing Herr Schroeck’s teaching style from the previous semesters; they were survivors.

He had another requirement–that we go on our own time to the language lab to listen to tapes of the German language as it was spoken in Germany. Even then I could understand the request. I suspect not as many Americans today would say “I should have went” or He don’t know” had they listened to English tapes repeating the correct “I should have gone” and “He doesn’t know” over and over again. However, understanding the requirement didn’t bring willing compliance from me.

I had other things to do. I was enrolled in an interesting ethics class; I was taking argumentation and other literature-related classes I enjoyed. I had a beautiful wife waiting at home. I had first practice and later a job to go to. I’ve never liked earphones or anything else around my head; I find it almost phobic.

At any rate, Herr Schroeck and I came to an agreement; he would give me a WP (withdrew passing) if I’d no longer haunt his classroom during my junior year.

When I returned as a senior (I didn’t expect to return; having passed my draft physical in the spring as Vietnam heated up, I enlisted in the Air Force and thought I’d be in basic training. The call to report never came.) So Herr Schroeck and I met again. Judy and I were living in Coffeen, so the commute was 30 miles one way rather than 30 seconds; my soccer eligibility was gone. I had more than enough credits on my transcripts, but only one degree, an A.A. from WWJC, and that wasn’t a money maker in the job market. Doors of opportunity were closing behind me, career-wise.

Judy insisted that I earn a B.A. I had so many credits because I’d transferred often,though none of the transfers had been my fault, they hadn’t helped the degree chase. Blackburn offered the quickest path to a degree because I was halfway to meeting the two-year requirement there. (It was before the days of on-line degrees, and WWC was not yet a senior college). She didn’t say I had one more year to earn a degree or we’d be through, but I did remember her saying before we dated that she wouldn’t want to be married to a man without a degree. She believed God would direct me down the right path for both of us, and that path went through Herr Schroeck.

He and I co-existed for a semester; it was my second time in the class, and the C- (a grant more than an earn, I suspect) allowed me to enroll in the last semester. My other grades were better, though even at 24 I was an indifferent student.

The last semester became white-knuckle time. If I failed–and I should have, effort-wise and knowledge-wise–I wouldn’t graduate. Though I was told to order my cap and gown, I wasn’t sure until I walked across the stage. Herr Schroeck gave me a gentleman’s D-, and doors I didn’t even care about, to a teaching/coaching career and eventually to a master’s degree in American literature (I found at 35 I was mature enough to be a good student) were swinging open. Perhaps a marriage was saved, and in turn daughter sDawn and Jenni, grandchildren Kaylyn, Kyle, Kamryn, and more recently great grandchild Emma came to be.

I suspect that subconsciously the drama that played out in mid-May of 1968 affected my patience as I taught for the next 49 years (I retired from LLCC in December of 2017, though I was last in a high school classroom in 2007 –mercy was sometimes needed with junior college students too) in my own classroom. I wouldn’t pass an absolute slackard–the “I’ve never done any homework or in class work, and I’m not going to do any for you” type–, but I was known as a soft touch for a kid when I could sense he or she really couldn’t tell if his or her participle was dangling. I did give a few gentleman’s D- or an incomplete if it seemed warranted.

I always assumed when I made that call that it was because of Shylock’s line, “The quality of mercy is not strained” from Merchant of Venice. Only as I wrote this column (when I began my intention was to write about whistle-blowers–that’s on hold now until June) did I realize how important Herr Schroeck’s kindness has been.

I didn’t see him after I turned the last final exam in; I’m sure he would have been denied giving me a higher grade than my performance deserved so that I and my any potential family could have a rosier future. When I write the next yearly check to Blackburn as an alumni gift, however, I’ll think of Herr Schroeck.

Thank you, Sir. 

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