She walked into the classroom, put down her briefcase and wrote her name on the chalkboard. I was watching her -tried to figure out how to pronounce her name correctly- when she turned around and greeted us all.
She was an older Lady and she was different from the other teachers; she didn’t fit in – neither did I. This was a school for privileged kids and I was just a farm girl. It was a girl’s only boarding school in the South of Germany, more than 3 hours away from the little farm that I called home.
I was 12 years old and in 7th grade when I met Frau* Dr. Barbara Bienczyk for the first time. She was going to teach German language art and history, two classes that I didn’t care for. I found history profoundly boring and I already talked German, so I really didn’t see the point in learning more about it. (*Frau=Mrs.)
At lunch that day the girls were talking about her. “She is ugly,” one said and I could see why one would think that. Her hair was cut short, she wore jersey pants and old, woolen cardigans. At an age, where we all started experimenting with makeup and nail polish, to define a beauty that we had in mind, she stood out.
I don’t know how she did it, but we were always quiet when she entered the classroom. We respected her, didn’t dare to misbehave. She spoke softly; she made us pay attention and she made us listen to every word she said -she challenged us. I liked her, but I didn’t dare to admit it to any of the other girls.
She taught us about the Second World War; shared with us her own story and the story about of her family. She had been in Poland and Berlin during WWII and for the first time, we heard about the Warsaw ghetto and the uprising of the Jewish people there.
The horrors of World War II came into our lives that year, but we also learned about the heroic acts of simple men. She guided us through the turmoils of a war that had killed millions of people, just two decades before we were born and helped us to understand our family history. We read and saw things that shook us to our core and made us cry, we heard stories about heroes that made us proud.
She didn’t just teach us, she made us question everything and she taught us how to think on our own. She didn’t teach by the book, she went far beyond that. German Language art and history became my favorite classes and I did everything I could to have good grades. “This is not your best yet,” she said and she was right and I tried harder.
One day she came in, looked in her little book and called my name. That meant I had to get up; she would ask me questions and would grade my answers right then and there. I wasn’t prepared at all. I hadn’t been feeling well the day before, had slept all afternoon long, hadn’t spent the afternoon in class doing my homework, like the other girls.
I didn’t even try. I told her I wasn’t prepared and the thought of being graded with a 6 (F) terrified me. “Why aren’t you prepared?” she asked and I told her.
“Did you go down to the nurses’ station?”
“No Ma’am I didn’t, I stayed in our room.”
“Why didn’t you go to the nurses’ station when you felt too sick to learn?” she wanted to know and I told her the truth.
They would have called my Grandmother to pick me up. We lived 3 hours away from the boarding school, and my Grandma could not just drop everything and leave the farm each and every time I got a cold. It was close to the weekend anyway and I would drive home by train the next day.
“Sit down,” she said and I almost died. I had blown it; my good grades had just gone down the drain. For the rest of the hour, I tried to do the math. Even if would get straight 1’s (A’s) from now on, this would jeopardize my scholarship.
She didn’t give me a grade that day. She called my name up again just a week later and that day she GRILLED me for about 1/2 hour. I didn’t mind it then, I was prepared.
Frau Doctor Barbara Bienczyk is one of the hero’s in my life. She awakened in me a love for languages and history, that I have until this day.
A few years later as a newlywed, I drove by the boarding school. I was moving to the U.S. and I wanted to walk these halls one more time, knowing that I would never come back here. I greeted the nuns and the teachers that day and felt disappointed -my favorite teacher wasn’t working that day.
I knew where she lived; we had walked by her house numerous times on our walks. I have no idea how I got so brave, but I drove by her house, parked my little Beetle and rung her doorbell.
The minutes until she came to the door felt like hours. I was sweating bullets inside, wondering if I had lost my mind.
She opened the door and smiled. She instantly recognized me, “I am so glad you stopped by Bridget,” she said and asked me in.
She made fresh coffee and we spent an afternoon together like friends. I am not sure if I told her how important she was to me; I hope she knew it without me saying it.
She was never married, didn’t have any kids and so I might be the only one ever writing about her. Frau Dr. Barbara Bienczyk was my hero, the best teacher I could have asked for. I always wanted to write about her, today is the day.