“You are rude and disrespectful!”
That line was often bellowed at the top of his lungs in front of a classroom full of seventh grade students who were always a little rude and disrespectful. It is part of being a seventh grader. That line would always bring whatever was happening in the classroom to a complete stop. You never kept going once Mister Germanowski started yelling. Those six words could stop talking, notes in mid-pass, or any other shenanigans. More often than not they were also the start of a fusillade condemning the action that triggered the words, as well as the thought process that must have preceded the action. No matter what was happening, those 6 words stopped the class and whatever wasn’t supposed to be happening immediately.
We were crazy kids back then, but probably not as crazy as I remember. I don’t think we could hold a candle to kids today. Some of my friends are teachers and the stories they tell make those long ago days seem innocent in comparison. Casey Cahoon wanted to boycott school because there was too much homework. He wanted to make signs and walk a picket line in front of the school in the morning. He was all for it and we were with him, right up until realizing we were too lazy to make the signs. I used to use newspaper delivery money to buy candy from the corner store on the way to school and sell it to the “cool girls” for a quarter a piece. All of the boys tried to wear shorts to school in June because it was so hot and the girls could wear skirts. That one actually worked, the school changed the rule to let us wear Bermuda shorts. We all looked ridiculous in flower patterned shorts that had to touch our knees, but a win was a win. Really, we did kid stuff; but we were just kids. There were no drugs, cigarettes, or really ANYTHING back then. It was just silly innocent kid stuff that never meant any real harm. We weren’t perfect, we were just typical seventh graders in the 1980s.
Mister Germanowski wouldn’t put up with any of it. When you went into his classroom, you went there to learn. End of story. There would be some fun times. He taught science and would do experiments in the front of the room. It was the first time we had ever seen a Bunsen burner. Most of the time it was Mister Wizard style experiments. He would demonstrate osmosis or chemical reactions that would change colors that would grab the attention of young minds. There were painful lessons too. There was nothing worse than multiplication tables. We would have to sit and listen as he read multiplication problems and write the answers down. 6 times 7. 8 times 4. 10 times 12. This would go on for up to fifty problems. Then we had to trade papers and correct our friends work. There was nothing worse than being the person that had to correct your friend’s bad quiz. It still surprises me that none of us really cheated when we were correcting. We were probably too scared to get caught to take the chance. We were too scared of hearing those words!
“You are rude and disrespectful!”
Mister Germanowski was a force of nature once he got started. There was no arguing, there were no explanations. You could try, but nothing you said would make any difference, and would probably make whatever punishment he was going to issue much worse. We all tried to lessen his wrath the first time it was directed at each of us, and we all failed. We all learned that it was best to say “Yes sir” or “No sir” when he asked questions and take our medicine. Even trying to argue mitigating circumstances would often double detention.
I hated his classes. I have a mind that naturally bends itself towards the artistic academia. I will never truly be a scientist, even as I work in the environmental science field. I am proficient at my work, but I will never have a passion for it as I do for literature, history, music, and film. Memorizing multiplication tables and defining mitosis was a slow daily torture for me. I coped by daydreaming and acting out which caused endless confrontations and almost daily doses of the Rude and Disrespectful speech. I longed to escape to music class or even across the hall to English class. I thought what I was learning was a complete waste of time. I probably sounded like every After School Special.
“I will never use this stuff in my life!”
“Why do I have to do this?”
Of course I do use that stuff every day of my life. It is very important to have a basic understanding of science. I actually relied on many of Mister Germanowski’s lessons to help me through my college science courses. I still think of him when I can multiply or divide numbers in my head. I don’t think I had a math teacher that could explain the concepts to me as effectively as he could until my junior year in college. I don’t think I always remember who taught be 12 time 12 is 144. I know I learned it somewhere and I am glad I knew it, but most of the memories of what he taught came back to me as I was thinking about what he really taught us.
The man who always told us when we were being rude and disrespectful actually helped teach us how not to be those things. Our parents taught us how to act in public, but this was slightly different. Each of us thought that we could do whatever we want as long as our parents didn’t find out. We could walk the line with no real consequence until we stepped over it and got the dreaded letter home. The letter home that detailed your offences so your parents knew and had to be signed and returned. That was the ultimate punishment when I was in middle school. We never really thought about it, but we all knew that if we didn’t cross that line then what we did at school wasn’t that big of a deal. Until Mister Germanowski teachers would yell at you and then move on unless you did something bad enough to get the letter. They didn’t send you to the principal like they did in elementary school or give you detention. Mister Germanowski would give detention. If you rode the bus home you needed to find a ride. Your parents would find out because you weren’t home when you were supposed to be. He wouldn’t send you to the office, but he would do other things. Chores instead of recess, presentations in front of the class, extra homework for you, or worse, for the whole class were all part of his arsenal. Suddenly each and every action had a consequence, even away from our parents. They didn’t have to find out for us to suffer some very real punishments. He taught us that we chose to act a certain way, and those choices would have consequences. He also taught us that by admitting fault and answering respectfully with a “yes sir” and not making excuses you could avoid more trouble. Try to get out of trouble by denying your responsibility or blaming him and you would make it worse.
These real lessons are the reason I will always remember him. I can still see him in his shirt and tie, eyes flashing behind his thick glasses, angrily telling me what I did and waiting for me to say “yes sir”. These are lessons that I tried to pass on to students when I worked in Residence Life at two colleges. You chose to act, and by those choices consequences are determined. It is not the fault of authorities that you find yourself in a bad situation, it is yours. These are the lessons that I will try to pass on to my son. I can only hope he finds his own Mister Germanowski to complete the lessons. He will teach him that even when I am not there and won’t find out about it, that each choice has consequences.
We used to complain that Mister Germanowski was too hard on us. He was mean and punished us for no reason. We hated and feared him because most of the other teachers would let us get away with acting up. Twenty five years of perspective have taught me that he was choosing to be a hard teacher, but it was for our own good. It was not the easy road we thought it was as kids, it was an incredibly difficult choice to make and live with. It was one that could only come from caring about your students as human beings enough to help form their character as well as teach them multiplication tables. Teachers are amazing people and the good ones even more so. Their students never know the real lessons taught until they are adults and it is far too late to say thank you. I am going honor my teachers by treating my son’s teachers with respect and kindness, and to never be rude or disrespectful to them.
I had planned to write this before the events in Newtown, Connecticut. The selfless actions of the six staff members who lost their lives that day show that Mister Germanowski is not alone in his belief that the students are the most precious trust imaginable. Thankfully heroes like these are still there for our kids every day, teaching and protecting them.
Joe very thought provoking. Good job.