“Who has heard of the Third Reich?” I ask. It’s the second meeting of my senior German class; I have colours and numbers planned for today’s lesson.
Some wary glances flick through the group. Two students raise their hands. I’m surprised. These students come from affluent families, are well-connected to local if not national politics. They’ve been attending a British school for years. In the next few years, they’ll be applying to Oxford, Cambridge, Yale.
I consult my phone and break the taboo against speaking Chinese in class. “Dìsān Dìguó?” This time they aren’t furtive. Their heads snap to look at their friends. Every hand rises, slowly.
Last year, a group of Year Eight boys took to drawing swastikas on their class books. At that age, the world is a joke. They’re starting to laugh about sex, but still ignorant of many social limits. It’s with some discomfort that I realised I was the first one to teach them that lesson; their eyes were wide and innocent as I cut a hard line in the sand.
I remembered my sixty-year-old German professor lecturing on the Nazi party, drawing a hasty swastika on the white board, then wiping it away with a shiver. “I can’t stand to look at it,” she said.
My powerpoint presentation to the seniors didn’t include a swastika. I chose one photo of Hitler in military dress, no raised fist, but posed like a statesman; and a black-and-white, grainy shot of a pile of shoes.
“This is important,” I told the Year Eights. Like the undefinable gland in my gut that spasms when I hear of another American mass shooting, I feel I achieve a different sort of voice when lecturing on murder. Ignore the grammar, the drawing penises on desks, the talking in your room after dark, my new voice says, this is important.
After discussing the Holocaust, I let my class go twenty minutes early. We were all drained, I don’t think anyone noticed the time. A minute passed. I stared at the clock and my empty classroom and realised my mistake.
Then two-thirds of them walked back in. And we talked about our favourite colours in German.