Teaching Rüdiger by Nathaniel Barron

Rüdiger sits there and stares at me, his mouth hanging open like an idiot. I can see him thinking, scrunching up his brow and rubbing his face with a look of consternation like he’s either contemplating suicide, or taking a shit. Sadly, it’s neither.


Sigh. “What DO YOU…..DO….. EV-ER-Y-DAY?” Again, the face rubbing. It usually goes this way. They rub their foreheads for a bit, take a breath as if to speak, catch it, sit for a while longer just to be sure, then they get this bizarre look on their face which seems to say, “I know it looks like I’ve been thinking really hard for the last three minutes, but that can’t possibly be true because what I’m about to say is barely going to make sense. Are you ready?” Sure enough:

“I am today coffee drink.”

You’re a coffee drink? Goddammit Rüdiger. How did your brain manage to shit this out? It doesn’t fit with any of the English grammar rules you’ve learned, nor does it even resemble the structure of your own damn language. I could have understood if you we just translating it from German, but what is this? Are you secretly learning Chinese on the side, and then translating it from German into Chinese and then into English? You just picked five random words and ejaculated them out of your mouth at me. This isn’t Yatzee, Rüdiger, you have to put them in some sort of order. You brain is basically a glorified rock-tumbler.

“He is correct, no?”

What do you mean by ‘he,’ Rüdiger? I know you don’t mean ‘he’ as in your sentence, because I’ve told you a thousand times that unless it has a penis attached to it, you can’t call it ‘he.’ Or are you trying to distance yourself from the moronic comment you just made? This isn’t like a fart that you can blame on the guy next to you. We all heard you say it. Own up to your nonsense.

“No, Rüdiger. Not correct.”


“Not correct.”


“Many reasons.”

“I no understand?”

Yeah, well, me neither. Rüdiger, you see, is what we call a “non-learner.” His problems go far beyond the English language. He should have been classified as a lost cause long ago and then safely tucked away somewhere where he wouldn’t have to encounter words, but Germans insist on clinging to the outdated belief that every member of society has this silly thing called “Würde,” and should therefore have the opportunity to contribute. And so here we are, locked in a never-ending conversation to nowhere. Not that I would call it a conversation. More like a game of cat and mouse where the mouse is comprehensibility and the cat has only two legs and a mild form of retardation. It’s a sad, sad game that no one should ever have to watch.

“I no understand.”

“You drink coffee every day, you mean.”

“I mean?”

Jesus. “You. Drink. Coffee. Every. Day.”

“Yes,” as he smiles and nods enthusiastically.

“Good, Rüdiger,” I say, eager to move on and to ignore the fact that nobody learned anything from that exchange. The other students seem not to have picked up on what just transpired, looking at us and nodding slowly, assuming that what Rüdiger just said must have been correct in some way. I see someone writing something down, god knows what. I am 100% sure that it is wrong, but it’s a lost cause. Rüdiger is like syphilis, fucking the rest of the class with his idiocy until it takes them over and starts eating away at their brains until they are all declaring themselves to be coffee drinks.

Annett seems to be writing something; it appears, from my vantage point, to resemble a complete sentence. I know I’m grasping at straws at this point, but I decide to push my luck and ask her to enlighten us. “Annett, what do you do every day?”

“I have three answers.”

Now, normally you should be happy if your student comes up with three answers, but with these people, it’s like loading a gun with three bullets instead of one. It’s sort of like that Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter; except this time, it’s not a bunch of Viet Cong that get shot, it’s my soul. All three answers are guaranteed to be wrong, of course, but at least that I could deal with. The real danger is that they will also be inappropriate, offensive, or horribly depressing; or, more often than you’d think, all three. An actual example: “I used to have the sex with a Turkey man, but then he died,” except riddled with grammatical errors. This is one of life’s enduring conundrums: how do you tell someone that they are being racist when they can’t even completely understand what you’re saying?

“You can’t say that. You say ‘Turkish’ man.”

“Yes. Turkey man.”

“No, TurkISH man.”


“So say it.”

“I say what?”

“TURKISH man.”

“Yes. And we have the sex together.”

“Yes, I know that, but….”

“…but now he dead.”

Thankfully, Annett’s English is nowhere near the level of constructing a coherent sentence, let alone a racial disparagement, so I think, foolishly, that I might be in the clear. “Ok, Annett, go ahead.”

“I stand every day up.”

Bullet one dodged. Not correct, but at least it’s a German sentence structure. This I can work with. “Good,” I say encouragingly, “but we say ‘wake up,’ and ‘every day’ goes at the beginning.”

“Ok,” she says, though I can’t help noticing that she doesn’t write down anything I just said.  “Next one. Every day….I touch the dog.”

Bullet two, near miss. Clipped my ear, maybe. Inappropriate, but only unintentionally so. Humorous, even. A simple translation error, easily corrected. “That’s good! But we say ‘pet the dog.’” Almost there.

“Yes, pet the dog. Ok, number three. Every day……I……..uh….sit alone and wait for happiness.”


Fuck. Right in the forehead. Severed the cerebral cortex. Ricocheted off this inside of my skull and bounced around for a bit, just for good measure.

I am unable to reply out of sheer shock. Oh god, please nobody ask her any questions about this. I honestly do not want to take part in a discussion about this. It can only lead to bad, bad places. But what do I tell her? There are no grammatical problems here. Technically, it’s a perfectly OK sentence, it’s just fucked up. How, god, do I explain to her what “fucked up” means?

Choice A: “Um, technically your sentence is OK, but you can’t say that to anyone….ever.”

Choice B: “Yes, but that’s not something we say in English; it’s more of something we think and keep locked up deep inside of us and never let it out because it’s embarrassing and depressing.”

Choice C: “Your grammar is perfect, but your life makes me want to jump off a bridge.”

I ended up going with choice D: Nod slowly, look around at the other students to make sure they didn’t understand, and then move on. No sudden movements. Nothing happened, nobody heard anything. It was just a noise from outside. Shhhh…..everything’s good, everything’s great. Everyone’s happy. I’m just gonna sloooooooowly turn the page and…..

‘Wait. I no understand.”

Goddammit, Rüdiger! Of course you no understand. You no understand anything! You no understand any of the previous sentences either, so why this one? I think he must have sensed the panic on my face and attacked like a hungry, under-educated dog.

“Her repeat, please.”

But before I can lunge across the table to throw my hand over her mouth and tackle her to the ground, possibly stuffing her in a large sack and dragging her off to the woods somewhere so that we don’t have to discuss this question, she picks up her paper and proudly reads, “Every day I sit alone and wait for happiness.”

Rüdiger looks puzzled. It seems that he no understand. We might be ok after all. The other students seem to be doodling, or drooling, or whatever it is they do, but at least they’re not asking her questions about it. We might make it out of this without only minimal awkwardness. For once, I am thankful for Rüdiger’s debilitating learning disabilities.

“No understanded. In German?”

Ha!  She’s Polish! We’re in the clear! You’re never going to know, Rüdiger! I do a little happy dance inside, and imagine in my head that I’m prancing around the room wearing sunglasses and a sombrero, slapping Rüdiger’s stupid bald head like I’m playing a drum. My little daydream is cut short, sadly, when Annett replies in perfect German:

Jeden Tag sitze ich allein und warte auf Glück.”

You little shit. I said no German in class, for exactly this reason. Now everyone knows what it means and they’re going to chime in with their own enthralling tales of personal woe. Everyone in this class is a bottomless pit of misfortune, don’t you understand? Don’t you see? You’ve just opened Pandora’s Box of Depressing Personal Anecdotes. You’ve doomed us all to tales of failed marriages, chronic health issues, and perpetual unemployment.

Rüdiger nods once and says, “Oh. Ok. Clear.”

That’s it? This doesn’t bother anyone but me? This doesn’t ruin your day, hearing someone proclaim that she sits in her trailer scratching lotto tickets, waiting for happiness to come shit on her head? This doesn’t even phase you? I mean, of course we have people like this in the US too, but we don’t talk about it! We expect them to internalize it and funnel it into alcoholism, chain-smoking or some other pursuit, like any normal society would. It’s called desensitization, for christsake. Get with the program.

And that was it. No one even batted an eye. No explosion of self-pity, no maelstrom of horrible sadness. Just another everyday comment in my class, like “I’m thinking of buying a new washing machine,” or “I spend my whole life struggling with pedophilic urges.”

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