Why you should care

Because don’t throw spitballs at the sub (even if she was a member of Hitler Youth). You might learn something.

Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, the Washington Post, and Full Grown People.

No one expects much from a substitute teacher, even at a Waldorf school, with its lofty, aesthetic curriculum. But when Mrs. Ritscher took over my eighth-grade German class one afternoon in the spring of 1978, I wasn’t even counting on a bathroom break. She taught the high school students. It was going to be irregular verbs, for sure.

She stood at the front of the room and looked us over, a slight woman with dark hair and lively, sympathetic eyes in a lined face. “No grammar today for you,” she said, smiling. We brightened. This was our eighth year of German, and I was sick of verb endings. “Instead, we will sing,” she announced. There were a few groans, which she ignored.

As it turned out, Mrs. Ritscher’s plan for us did not include the children’s songs I remembered from elementary school. She had something more ambitious in mind: Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

One line at a time, she taught us the song, until we could sing the whole first stanza:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken

Tochter aus Elysium,

Wir betreten feuertrunken,

Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.

Awkward new adolescents, my classmates and I had grown self-conscious about singing in school, but I remember the way our voices rang out, how the grandeur of the words and music woke something in us.

I had been taught nothing about the 20th century, not even the story of Rosa Parks on the bus.

Mrs. Ritscher translated the lyrics, which she wrote on the blackboard in her neat, looping script. Then she turned to face us. “When I was a little girl in Germany, younger than you,” she said, “we sang this in school every day.” It was a song about a beautiful idea, she explained, pointing to the words Alle Menschen werden Brüder. “All men shall be brothers.”

Her dark eyes turned somber. “But then Hitler came,” she said.

The classroom stilled. The boy next to me, who doodled his way through every class, raised his head and stared. I was 13 years old, and like my classmates, I could tell you about Michelangelo and the human skeleton. I knew the voyages of Odysseus. But I had been taught nothing about the 20th century, not even the story of Rosa Parks on the bus. Two years earlier, when Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were running for president, my friends in public school held mock elections. Here, inside our lovely, wooded Waldorf bubble, the campaign was never even mentioned.

But everyone knew Hitler. The miniseries Holocaust had been broadcast just that spring. My family toed the Waldorf line and didn’t own a television, but I had read The Diary of Anne Frank. One way or another, we all understood Mrs. Ritscher — who was now telling us about having to join the junior wing of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the Hitler Youth, with its uniform and black scarf.

She gave us a long, unreadable look. “Everything changed,” she said. The two words dropped heavily into the quiet classroom.

“We sang instead another [song]. ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.’” She grimaced. “‘Germany over everything.’”

I glanced at my neighbor, the doodler. He looked as stunned as I was. Until now, history had been the remote realm of gods and kings and masters of art, all lodged in an inaccessible past. This, I inferred, was the only history that mattered, an impression fostered with each passing year, as Nixon resigned and the last soldiers returned from Vietnam and Viking 2 landed on Mars and my teachers remained resolutely silent about it all. Now, for obscure reasons of her own, Mrs. Ritscher had opted to speak up. What she had done felt thrillingly transgressive.

“After that, we didn’t anymore sing this song in school,” she went on. “We sang instead another one. ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.’” She grimaced. “‘Germany over everything.’ Not so pretty.” There was sadness in her voice, and anger. For a moment I could see her, a little girl, bewildered by the new regime.

We were lucky, she told us soberly. Lucky to be here in suburban Spring Valley, New York, where such things didn’t happen. When we were older, we must fight against such madness, if it arose, and not stand by, like the adults she remembered.

Then she smiled, motioning us to our feet. “But now, we sing again.”

They would stay with me, those lyrics, outlasting all the German verb endings and vocabulary I ever learned.

Two years later, at a Quaker school, peace and justice would be the central concerns. I’d learn about conscientious objectors and the civil rights movement, from adults who were quiet exemplars of activism. But none would have quite the impact of Mrs. Ritscher, the first teacher of mine to acknowledge the existence of a complicated, troubling world outside my classroom, the first to tell me my moral choices mattered.

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,Tochter aus Elysium. I remember the words rising around me that day, shadowed by the darkness Mrs. Ritscher’s story had evoked, by the lingering sorrow she had allowed us to see. They would stay with me, those lyrics, outlasting all the German verb endings and vocabulary I ever learned.

Mrs. Ritscher was my teacher for just a single afternoon, but I can still sing the “Ode to Joy.” Every word.

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