I had wrapped up my lesson on immigration with the fourth form of the electronics department, and as agreed upon at the beginning of the lesson, I partook in small talk with the students for the last five minutes of class. I maintained optimism that the students would share too much about their classmates’ and their own personal lives during the casual class conversation, especially since their teacher had left me alone in the class to go prepare tests for his next class.
“Last weekend, Mr. Maierhofer went-a to-da disco in Wienna,” Paul immediately shouted and pointed at Lukas from the back of the class. “He made a big party there, but he kissed a wery ugly girl.” The entire class burst out in laughter, and Lukas shot back that the girl Paul was dating reminded him of the pigs his father raised on his ranch. I shook my head and waited for the class to calm down.
“First of all, Mr. Maierhofer…” I paused and held a stern gaze over the eager faces of the sixteen year-old boys until the very last second. “…Congratulations on your first ever kiss.” I let my students lose their shit for another half minute before continuing. “Second of all, guys, what have we said about this ‘makin-da-party’ and ‘Wienna’ nonsense?”
“You have tell us we sound like Elmo Fudge.”
“Right, Elmer Fudd. Remember how I keep telling you guys not to pronounce the ‘V’ like a ‘W’?” The students nodded their heads wistfully and cracked bashful grins among themselves. The Austrian education system had managed to drill the correct English pronunciation of “W” so hard into its students’ heads that they overcorrected their “V”s. “Making party,” on the other hand, was a direct translation from German that, despite how frequently it is uttered, hadn’t registered as a mistake to the students.
“Anyone else want to share any interesting stories? Perhaps some of you went on a little vacation during the long weekend last week?” Jakob, who sat at the front of the class and wore thick-rimmed black glasses raised his hand.
“Take it away, Jake.”
“Well, my family and I went to watch a… very… nice play that weekend.”
“Very cool! And what was the play?”
“The play was called Pygmalion.”
“By Shaw? Oh, that’s fantastic. And where did you watch this?”
“Wienna, of course.”
The students howled, and the lunch bell rang. I left the classroom defeated and headed over to the teachers’ lounge. When I walked inside, I found myself in the middle of a shouting match between Sabine, an English teacher I work with, and Jürgen, a mathematics teacher. Sabine was in the process of calling Jürgen “a clueless, fucking idiot,” and Jürgen was screaming back at her in a Burgenland accent that was too thick for me to understand. I stepped aside as the red-faced Jürgen stormed his papers and folders under his arm and cursed Sabine from the hallway before slamming the door shut.
“Is this a bad time?” I asked.
“No, no. Not a bad time at all,” Sabine replied, brushing her long, brown hair out of her face. “I just need a moment.” She sat down in a chair closest to her, took a couple of deep breaths, and closed her eyes. I waited in front of the door, my hand placed on the door handle in case Sabine changed her mind. After a minute, Sabine opened her eyes and bade me to sit down in one of the chairs and apologized for the scene she and her colleague had caused. I assured her that it wasn’t a big deal, but she shook her head and repeated her apology.
“Jürgen and I were arguing about a situation regarding the upcoming open house night. The administration decided that the English and German departments will not get a room to showcase ourselves to the parents this year.” Sabine grit her teeth as she spoke. “I believed that that’s a mistake on the administration’s part, and Jürgen – well, he disagreed.” I watched Sabine put her head down, sigh, and look over at her desk, where the tall pile of textbooks and homework assignments resembled a Jenga tower that had been knocked down. I asked Sabine if there was anything I could do, but she shook her head listlessly and mumbled to herself about remembering to write tests for her upcoming classes this week. I then reminded her that she had called me in to discuss the schedule for this week’s lessons.
“Right, right,” she murmured. In the midst of walking over to her desk to grab her calendar, however, she stopped and turned around to face me. A woman in her mid-thirties with a toned body and a sharp, attractive face, Sabine charmed her way into asking for favors, and her smile carried a hint of mischievous playfulness that her married male colleagues publicly complained and privately relished as flirtatious. She gleefully trotted over to me and stood close enough for me to take in her perfume and count the freckles on her Roman nose. I remembered how she had mentioned during the first time we had met that her grandmother on her mother’s side was Irish.
“You want me to do something, don’t you?” I asked. Sabine folded her arms and tilted her head slightly to her left.
“Are you teaching any lessons next Thursday?” I told her that I wasn’t, and she clasped her hands in front of her. “Wonderful! All I want you to do – and it’s not really a big deal – is break a few rules for me.”
That next Thursday, I sat at a small, square desk in the school library while wearing a cowboy hat and waving a miniature American flag. A paper placard hung from the desk detailing my name and job title, and Martin – the American English teacher – had neatly folded and placed his signed, Super Bowl XLII New York Giants jersey onto the desk next to mine.
“If anything were to happen to my baby right here, I’ll harvest your kidneys,” he had warned when he dropped off his jersey earlier in the morning. “No, seriously. Austria has a thriving black market for kidneys, and I will sell your fucking kidneys on the corner of Badgasse in Oberwart faster than crackheads in Harberg offer to suck dicks.”
“That’s oddly specific.”
“And you wouldn’t want to find out why, would you?”
Sabine had instructed me to sit at my desk and entice the parents at the open house to come over and ask questions about my role as a language assistant. If any questions about the language department were to arise, I was to send them up to the café on the second floor of the adjacent building, where the English and German teachers awaited to answer further inquiries.”
“Purely by coincidence, of course,” Sabine had remarked that morning during the final run-down of instructions.
“Naturally,” I concurred.
“Don’t feel too pressured by any of this.”
“I’ll bring you lunch at around 12:30.”
“You don’t have to.” Sabine rolled her eyes and laughed at my answer.
“Of course I don’t,” she chirped. “Good luck!”
I stared out at the hallway that stretched out in front of the entrance of the library, where faculty and the HTL students hustled and bustled in their attempts to pimp their school. Wearing white polos and slacks, the students led parents and prospective students on tours around the school and brought them into their classrooms to talk about how wonderful their curriculums were. The teachers, who wore suits and a black ribbon around their arms to signify they were faculty members, shouted out orders, and if young enough, hopped from one location to another to show their enthusiasm. Despite the activity happening outside, however, no one seemed to want to approach me in the library, where one of the lights had begun to flicker in the back and I began to notice the musty smell of books that clung onto to the room. For the first three hours, I sat and read the book of crime of stories and ignored the hustle and bustle. Around 12:30, as promised, Sabine showed up with a sandwich and two pairs of parents.
“Here’s your lunch. And these parents – Mr. and Mrs. Sammler – wanted to ask a few questions about what you do. I have a few things I have to take care of, so I have to leave. I’ll stop by again!” Sabine shoved the sandwich in my hands, said goodbye, and I began my best to explain to the parents through English, German, and hand gestures my role as a foreign language assistant. The conversation between the Sammlers and me lasted for thirty minutes, but the cautious Austrian parents who had ignored my presence in the library earlier began to stop by. Within an hour, I had a steady stream of people walking up to my desk, asking what my job was like, and what my goal as an assistant was in a classroom. I was in the midst of explaining to a group of parents the incredible experience of being able to teach such curious, well-behaved students when Paul ran into the library.
“Hans, Hans!” Paul made his way through the wave of parents and slammed his hands down on my desk. The startled parents looked at each other, then at Paul, and then at me. Looking past the crowd of people, I saw a group of Paul’s friends trying to contain laughter out in the hallway as they looked on.
“This is, uh, Paul. One of my students. Aren’t you supposed to be working right now?” Paul waved me off and told me that he was on a much-needed break. He was fumbling for something in his back pocket, and he grinned as he snatched a piece of wrinkled printer paper. “Oh. A surprise. Is there something you want to share with us, Paul?”
“Yes, yes,” he panted. “Remember you tell me I must practice meine Aussprache.” I nodded, wary of any teenager that looked remotely happy having to work. “Well, I wroted down a phrase to help me practice pronounce the “v” in the right way.”
“Aha!” I exclaimed. “Well, in that case, how about you read it out loud for us?”
“Of course, of course. That is why I come here.” Paul looked back at his friends who looked as if they were having silent heart attacks, cleared his throat, and spoke.
“I love… vast, welvet, vacuous, wirgin vaginas, very much.”
I watched Paul’s friends fall on the floor laughing and the horror-stricken parents’ jaws drop. After Paul had run off to join his friends, I turned to the stunned parents and mustered up all the German I could find.
“Their pronunciation needs a bit of work, I think.”