Dr John Long passed away last Sunday. He taught me German in high school, which sounds a little trivial, but his teaching had a big impact on my life.
As a naïve pupil, you dehumanise teachers a little. They become the prison officers of childhood as you wait for the euphoric release of the school bell. Dr Long wasn’t like that: he loved to teach, and I loved to learn. He was a reserved and humble man – I didn’t realise his full credentials until I read the notice on the school website, and they are impressive – but in the classroom, he fizzed with excitement. He’d put on accents when he read through Der Besuch and Andorra, go off on a tangent about Verfremdungseffekt and Brechtian theatre, agonise over what exactly Frikadellen were (he authoritatively described them as ‘rissoles’). He was often deep in thought: another former teacher described him as “by far the cleverest man that he had ever met”, and that sounds near enough the truth.
Although he displayed impressive levels of patience, like when someone in the GCSE German class asked what “die” meant, I remember one time he got really angry. A pupil asked if the day’s topic of discussion was going to be on the exam, and Dr Long was incandescent with rage: “you’re not here to pass an exam! You’re here to learn a language!” He was right, but more than that, in his classes you learned how to learn. Meaningful knowledge, that which we retain and cherish, comes from passion and understanding – it’s more than mere rote learning. Those German classes were a process of wisdom transference. Even a decade later, I can still read German and speak a little with colleagues, although my accent is pretty terrible. That’s not just mandatory state school training: that’s a gift.
I made two mistakes when I moved to Edinburgh: I ceased studying German, and I lost contact with the man who taught me. I’d bump into him every now and again when visiting Northern Ireland, but I should have kept in touch. I had always meant to write, as one always means to, until one day I received the news that he had suffered a stroke, and he never fully recovered from that. But this is not a mistake we need to learn for ourselves: just grab some crisp paper, your favourite pen, find a quiet place, and reach out to people. Reconnect with them before it’s too late. Letters are objects of surprising power.
I have many fond memories of Dr Long, from the way he’d edit your childish prose into a masterpiece of idiom (ein unvergessliches Erlebnis, as he would say); to the time he caught a friend and I smoking on the way to the bus station, smirked and said “Ich hab nichts gesehen”. Thank you for the knowledge, but thank you even more for the gift of learning. Not to be confused with the Gift of learning, German speakers.
One day I’ll finally visit Berlin, and I won’t need a phrase book. Ich freue mich schon darauf.