A great woman she was and my teacher

 A picture of the boarding school I went to

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 she differed 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, over 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, needless to say, I did everything I could to have good grades. “This is not your best yet,” she said, looked into my eyes, 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 didn’t learn the chapter. The thought of being graded with a 6 (F) terrified me. “Why didn’t you do your homework?” 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 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, I was prepared as usual.

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 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.



36 thoughts on “A great woman she was and my teacher

  1. Thank you for directing me to this post. From a retired teacher’s point of view, I know that wonderful feeling when someone from your teaching past remembers and makes the effort to contact you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You must have made an impact on her life too for her to remember you. Teachers may meet so many students over their career, there is usually something that makes the student stand out if they do. Lovely story and a beautiful setting for a school.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fabulous story. I spent many years in boarding schools (including a Belgian Convent, while my parents were in Germany). Some of my teachers many a great deal to me. I am so glad you went back to see your teacher. When I finally decided to contact one special head-teacher, I was too late. I wish I had thanked her sooner.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful school and wonderful to read about your teacher. I recently reconnected with my school principal Sr Sheila, she sounds similar in many ways to what you write about, and she could still remember the year I graduated, she said to me you are year 1992 aren’t you? Amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautiful tribute, Bridget. I think it’s interesting that sometimes the quiet ones garner more respect than the bombastic teachers or the ones who tried to be our pals. Is she still alive, do you know? The school was sure situated in a beautiful spot. Looks like something out of the long past, a fairy tale place.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Such a beautiful story, how lucky you are to have a teacher you know taught you so much and instilled in you a love of history and learning….they are rare individuals, treasures who came and went in our lives. I can’t really say I had a great teacher, I certainly worked with a few wonderful teachers from whom I learned so much. Thanks for sharing your story its good to know you remember her so fondly…..I was always told that if I wandered around my school and kids spoke to me, not at me, then as a teacher I was doing a good job. I’d like to think I did that.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a great story and she sounds like a magnificent person. I have had a few teachers in my life that have really made an impact on the way I look at things. I still remember their names even now, although it has been 40 years since I had them as teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

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