Woster: That’s the way The Frau taught
When the instructor walked into the room that first day, I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life in taking college German.
No bigger than Henrietta Lang on the television series, “NCIS Los Angeles,” the instructor carried a well-worn briefcase nearly her size. She surveyed her students as if she knew we would be a great disappointment. She began to speak. In German.
Not only speak in German but ask questions of class members. I remember thinking, “Wait, don’t we get a warmup? Won’t we spend the first day or two getting to know each other?” Nope. We were going to dig into the German language, efficiently and immediately.
That’s the way The Frau taught. We came to refer to her as The Frau when we talked about her class. We didn’t call her that to her face, of course. As I think back, I'm sure she knew the name her students gave her. I doubt she minded.
Her formal name was Hilda Hasslinger, Dr. Hilda Hasslinger. It turned out, she was kind of a big deal around the campus. After she retired, the university named a foreign languages library after her. She could be a pint-sized terror if you hadn’t done the work. I never got over being anxious walking into first-year German, but I did eventually figure out that she enjoyed teaching, even kids like me. In fact, while I compared her to that NCIS character, I could as easily have said Yoda, the diminutive, wise fellow from the “Star Wars” movies. Like Yoda, she could be inscrutable and, as I said, a bit terrifying when she was in full cry. If you paid attention, though, you might see behind the bluster just the hint of a smile, mostly in the eyes. It made me think she liked her students.
I wound up in The Frau’s class because I couldn’t get into a German language course my freshman year at Creighton. Foreign language was required to graduate there. When I transferred to South Dakota State. I just assumed I still needed foreign language credits. I didn’t, not for a bachelor’s degree, not back then. I went ahead and took German anyway. Call it carelessness or academic inertia.
It turned out that I wasn’t very good at German. My only previous exposure to a foreign language came in grade school when I learned a few Latin phrases so I could serve mass. I never knew what those phrases meant but I learned them.
I did learn what some of the German words and phrases meant — not enough to be proficient, but enough to pass the course. The class did my grade point average no favors. Some of my classmates had taken two or even three years of German in high school. They were light years ahead of me. On the other hand, it didn’t hurt me to struggle to learn enough not to fail.
When the late Gov. Bill Janklow was in office, he pushed to require foreign language to get into state colleges. South Dakota kids needed a foreign language to be knowledgeable citizens of the world, he argued. Sometimes when I wrote about that issue, I would recall my German class. I didn’t learn enough to be any sort of global player. Even so, it was worthwhile.
The Frau told us we should work so diligently at the subject matter that we began to think in German. I never managed that, I learned a lot of words. I learned to speak and write a bit, if I kept the sentences simple and did some English-to-German converting. I learned to say things like, “A minute, please,” when I struggled with an answer to her question. At least I was begging off in German.
I remember a time when The Frau brought pre-school students into our class to talk German with us. I was pretty sure I would never be as good at the language as they were.
In spite of that, in spite of the anxiety and dread and hard work, I took a second year of German. The Frau didn’t seem surprised to see me again.