There was a new teacher on faculty my sophomore year in high school. Her name was Ms. Wasserbauer, and she was hired to be the German language teacher. I’m not sure what happened to the old German language teacher. Maybe he left or maybe the school needed a second teacher because of the amount of students enrolled in German class. I don’t really know. I didn’t take German. But Ms. Wasserbauer also taught World History, and I was in that class.
At the start of the first class of the year with this woman, she introduced herself. “Hallo und begrüßt meine Klasse. Mein Name ist Frau Wasserbauer, und ich bin aufgeregt, um Sie als meine Studenten zu haben.”
Everyone in the class just kind of looked at her in silence. We all wore the same expression on our face. You know the one: that confused look with polite smile that says “OK, this is strange. What the fuck is going on here?”
Ms. Wasserbauer spoke again. ”Verstehen Sie mich nicht? Nicht?”
Another awkward silence permeated the room.
Then, badly acting as though she reached an epiphany, Ms. Wasserbauer said, “Oh my. This isn’t my German class. This is World History. I apologize. Let me start over. Hello and welcome to my class. My name is Frau Wasserbauer and I am excited to have you all as my students. Before I learn your names, I’d like to tell you about mine. I am of German descent and my name, Wasserbauer, means ‘water farmer.’ Even though this is not German class, I would like you all to address me as Frau Wasserbauer.”
It was painfully obvious, even to a 15 year old, what she was trying to do: Start with a joke in order to warm up the audience. The only thing was, this wasn’t particularly clever or natural. And it fell very flat.
I don’t know what her experience as a teacher was, but she did not come across as a teacher who knew how to handle a class of 28. It felt like she was a substitute teacher and her class was just something to do before going to the next, real class. And it continued to have that kind of feel for the whole year.
One fine day in World History class, she asked us to put our notebooks away and get our textbooks out because we were going to read and talk about Darwin and the theory of evolution. As I put my textbook on my desk, I noticed my pen cap was in the groove at the top of the desk. I grabbed it to put it on my pen which should have been in my bookbag, but I couldn’t find it. I moved the books this way and that and I tried to feel around underneath them but no luck. I became so engrossed in locating my pen that everything else became secondary. I felt my pockets and looked around on the floor before returning to the bookbag on the floor. I took the notebooks and books out one by one looking for the pen, and I was vaguely aware that the teacher was talking about the lesson but at that moment I was all about locating my pen. I continued to dig around in my book bag, and checked the small zippered compartment on the side. I looked all around my desk and felt my pockets again.
My attention was jolted back to the classroom and I slowly straightened up in my chair. “Yes?”
“Perhaps *you* would like to explain the theory of evolution to the class?”
Now…I hardly did any extra-curricular activities during my 4 years of high school. For me, it was enough to just be there for 6 hours each day. School newspaper, debate team, band, student union, student council…I didn’t do any of it. On several occasions, the gym teacher had suggested that I think about trying out for the track team or the baseball team but I never entertained the idea for even a minute. The time that I had between dismissal and sleep was mine and I didn’t want to abandon it by continuing to be associated with school for several hours after classes.
However, I *was*in the drama club my sophomore year. I got involved with that because my girlfriend was in it and, like all that are young and “in love”, I thought it would be fun to hang around with her as much as possible. They play we did that fall, which a few of my Facebook Friends were also in, was “Inherit The Wind.” If you’re not familiar with the play, it is a fictional account based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, which resulted in a teacher’s conviction for teaching evolution to a high school science class, which was against Tennessee state law. I was cast in the role of “Howard”, one of the students who had been exposed to the lessons of “eviloution.” At one point in the play, my character was put on the witness stand to testify as to what he was taught.
Without missing a beat, I confidently answered Ms. Wasserbauer with my lines from the play. “Well, at first the earth was too hot for any life. Then it cooled off a mite, and cells and things begun to live. Cells are little bugs like, in the water. After that, the little bugs got to be bigger bugs, and sprouted legs and crawled up on the land. All this took a couple million years. Maybe even longer. Then came the fishes and the reptiles and the mammals. Man’s a mammal.”
People laughed and Ms. Wasserbauer’s face became a shade of red that I’ve never seen in any box of Crayola crayons. She screamed and stormed out of the room, slamming the door and breaking the transom window above it as she departed.
An unspoken directive seemed to permeate the classroom. Surely someone some other member of the faculty was going to come to the room and it would be very bad if we were out of control and having “social hour” after what just happened. So, when Sister Collette entered the room she found a room full of quiet students silently working on class assignments as if it were a study hall.
Sister Collette was an old woman. It wouldn’t have surprised me at all to one day hear, during morning announcements, the sad news that she passed away over the weekend†. She was rail-thin and had a staccato pattern of speech, each word being clear and distinct.
She surveyed the room a moment before asking the class, “What. Happened. Here?”
I raised my hand an offered the explanation. “She asked me to explain the Theory of Evolution to the class. I did. And then she ran out.”
Several of the other students in the class confirmed my explanation and Sister Collette said, “Treat. The. Remainder. Of. This. Class. As. A. Study. Hall…..Work. On. Something. Quietly.”
She sat at the desk to supervise us for the remainder of the period. I don’t know if Ms. Wasserbauer resumed her teaching duties for the other scheduled classes that day, or if those classes became study halls. But she did return the following day. I was amazed that she never addressed the incident in any way, shape or form. Not to the class. Not to me. She behaved as if it never happened. This, I suppose, was the best way to handle it.
I never had her for a teacher again after sophomore year. To be honest, I don’t even know if she returned the following year or not. But I’ll never forget the water farmer.
†As of this writing, Sister Collette is still employed at the school and working in the Alumni Office.