I confess that I am still reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. I find that I cannot read too much of it at once, so a page or two at a time must suffice.
In this book, Frankl describes his experiences in concentration camps in such a matter of fact and clinical way that I sometimes need to reread paragraphs in order to fully understand what it was that he has just said and allow the words to penetrate my mind and soul.
I am not a visual learner but when I am reading, I tend to visualise things in my head and I must say that the images invoked by Frankl’s words are extremely disturbing.
Last night as I closed the book and put it down, I had a sudden flashback to my sixth grade teacher.
Her name was Mrs Kugelmas.
Mrs Kugelmas was old.
Well as old as my 10 year old self pictured her.
In reality she was more than likely in her late 50’s or early 60’s. I know that she retired from teaching when I was in my late teens.
I remember her as being very short and stooped with age. Most of us in the class stood taller than her. She had a beaked nose and wore her hair in permed waves that would fluff up on wet or windy days. Her dress was generally dark. Long sleeved cardigans (sweaters) and long dresses or skirts of navy, black or brown were her preferred choice of clothing. I don’t recall ever seeing her wear something bright and summery.
Mrs Kugelmas was an ‘old school’ teacher. We learned our multiplication tables by rote and we learned our spelling words the same way.
There was a system in our class that if we did well with our spelling words, we were given ‘words in the bank’. These were written in the back of our exercise books and could be used in the times when we had done something wrong and were punished with having to write out our spelling list a number of times.
That was how light punishment worked in our classroom.
If you misbehaved, you spent your lunch hour writing out spelling words x amount of times. In the event that you had ‘words in the bank’ for good behaviour or excellent spelling then these could be deducted from the number of words you needed to write out for your misdemeanors.
I learned to ‘play the system’ and would wait until I had a good number of words in the bank before misbehaving. Generally my misbehaviour consisted of chatting to the girl seated at the desk behind me. I was a small-time classroom offender 😉
For misdemenours that weren’t quite bad enough for the ‘cuts’ (the cane administered across an outstretched palm by the principal), Mrs Kugelmas kept a heavy ruler tucked away on her desk that she would use to hand out justice.
I never received the ruler thank goodness.
However Martin did. I don’t remember Martin’s last name but I recall his greasy, stringy, long blonde hair and his smart mouth.
Martin was always in trouble and he was generally always at the front of the class standing before Mrs Kugelmas with his palm outstretched awaiting punishment.
Until one day, he decided that he didn’t wish to be punished.
There they stood in front of the blackboard – old Mrs Kugelmas with her hand on Martin’s arm admonishing him to hold his hand out and defiant Martin (who must have had a growth spurt or something because on this day he actually stood taller than her).
He stood even taller as he placed his feet on top of Mrs Kugelmas’ sturdy brown shoes and refused to get off. We all laughed (as ten year olds are wont to do at seeing a teacher in distress) and we laughed even harder as her efforts to dislodge this boy off her own feet caused the sleeve of her cardigan to come up and we saw a tattoo on her arm.
I often wonder now (as an adult) if I truly did see numbers tattooed on her arm or whether it was a trick of the light. Maybe it was my childish imagination.
I don’t know.
What I do know, is that Mrs Kugelmas had a Jewish name and in later years this memory began to make a little more sense to me as I learned more of the world and its past.
Last night I attempted to research a little deeper into Mrs Kugelmas and found her on the electoral rolls of that time in the area of my school. I discovered that her first name was Gitte and her occupation was listed as a school teacher.
I also located a birth notice for her daughter and found Mrs Kugelmas’ maiden name was Barnbaum.
Maybe I imagined the tattoo. Maybe I didn’t.
What I do know is that we gave Mrs Kugelmas a hard time without realising that she had a life outside of teaching.
Reading Viktor Frankl’s book has made me realise that quite possibly the life she had lived was far more harrowing than teaching a class of 10 year olds that included young Martin and myself.
And I am sorry for that.
I’m sorry that those 10 year olds in 1976 were so insensitive to an old lady just trying to do her job.
I’m sorry for laughing.
But most of all (if I remember that tattoo correctly), I’m sorry that humanity failed this woman.
However, I admire her courage.
It takes a very special kind of person to be a teacher that is still teaching me almost 40 years later.