Life Lessons from my German Teacher

Or ‘The Worst Books I have Ever Read’


As a first year student I remember borrowing a plastic skull one day and having it sitting on my desk. It seems that Keir Starmer the Labour leader went through a similar time as a student (but he took drugs). There have been photos of him posing with a skull in the media recently. Strangely my family’s history has played out a little like Hamlet, and the props and themes from it have significance to me. We don’t speak now so all those reminders from the props come back to shock me from time to time. In fact my abusive father passed away just prior to the pandemic. I had hoped that my father’s life story would be more of Lear’s (no idea if he ended up with Alzheimer’s but if he did then that could be why he didn’t face a judge), but his cigar fug and the small antique leather cigar case I got him were unfortunately hinting at Hamlet.

The phrase from Lear – ‘. . . Oh how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child. . .’ was occasionally trotted out by mother on rare visits to the family home when I was a new young mum myself. Much later on the memory of that made me feel guilty as a mother to my own son due to projection of my mother’s neglect onto me.

I was anxious not to be like her in many ways, but especially as my son approached his teens when I wanted the focus to be on his achievements and opportunities. I would never ever say or think something like that to my learning disabled son whom I can never give enough unconditional love to. He cannot say anything at all, but often the support staff project resentment onto him as if they are implying that he is ‘a thankless child’. They don’t allow him to express much emotion, so resentment and rejection don’t really figure. At home he was allowed to express a lot of emotions, good and bad, even though non-verbal, and I gave him a broad palate of emotions to feel through his wide ranging music interests. Now, I am just grateful for a bit of eye contact occasionally.

I always resented my mother studying at the same time as me (she took her eye off the ball), and my status in the family was made into that of a doormat as I became the cleaner as she had to give up her help, who was also the babysitter, and I also became my father’s secretary – something he clearly had a thing about. I hoped never to take the limelight away from my son’s needs, nor to detract from his exploration of the wider world, eg going on more interesting days out, holidays to London, or from all his ambitions and aspirations as he went through adolescence. That is why when unemployed I only did a low level one term teaching course and no more.

His education was not what I had hoped for him and Shakespeare’s four hundredth anniversary fell towards the end of it. It was difficult to avoid all those dramatisations everywhere at that time. And two years later my son had several eye operations, so perhaps we, as a small family unit, are in the middle of King Lear. I really hope that I wasn’t that selfish, selfish, selfish person (towards my son) that a primary school teacher used to call us each school lunch time, and which a judge and a few social workers seemed to be accusing me of. Culture is very important for private family life and I am grateful for my education which was a distraction from the horrors at home, and later on in life for sharing occasional opera visits with my mother – even though now those have far more significance than they should. Perhaps my mother was trying to remind me of the time when we were stopped by the police as we drove back from the opera in Leeds in the middle of the period of abuse by taking me with her when I was in my twenties. Perhaps she suspected (or knew) that my father was abusing me and wanted me to go to the police. There was one evening when the sitting-room was full of policemen when I was off sick from work with a nervous breakdown and there had been a traffic incident, but I was not thinking of the abuse at the time and was just being a dutiful daughter blocking out the abuse that had happened in the previous family home.

I would like to give my son the opportunity to enjoy his higher functions of cultural and spiritual or emotional experiences which he used to have when at home with me. And I am grateful to my mother for having given me cultural opportunities. However I will be phobic of certain films forever as my father took me to see them, eg James Bond.

Shakespeare was very difficult for me for many years due to my adolescent experiences and the traumatic form teacher who took us for English at the end of every afternoon at the time of the abuse. He was venomously terrifying and shamed me in front of the whole class one day, just as he had done to Rosemary many many times. Admittedly the burly rugby lads at the back who beat up the choir boys were in need of that kind of strong discipline but it was always the girls he singled out. I only got back into Shakespeare aged twenty-one when I saw an outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet in Germany.

The book my trendy German teacher, Mr Foley, from school had recommended us to read for drugs education in sixth form, Kristiana F. (or Kinder Von Bahnhof Zoo in film) had a skull on the front. I bought it with my first student grant. I read the book and it was the worst thing I had read up to then. It was a bit of an education and put me off drugs entirely.

Another book we were recommended by him to read was about war at the time of the cold war and many nuclear threat moments, and I would also put that in the category of worst book I have ever read still. It was The White Hotel by DM Thomas. A deeply disturbing book about the holocaust if I remember.

My learning disabled son is obsessed with books but he doesn’t have free access to them, and sometimes they get lost or stolen where he lives. I got him an illustrated Bible in the pandemic. But it quickly became lost, and a second-hand hymn book put in the cupboard containing his personal possessions instead. He can’t ask to have access to his books which are kept in the locked cupboard. Although the key is on a hook in the main room. My mother is a ‘Ki’. She was probably making a lot of expenses from drug dealers in her magistracy days. I doubt if she has ever taken drugs herself, but it shocked me to be told details of her court cases sometimes when I was a new young mum. She herself was a teenage mum, almost, and smoked and drank heavily for much of my childhood, and probably during all her pregnancies. I can’t blame the alcohol for what my father did to me, but being permanently dosed up with gin or red wine was a feature of their lives, and when I tried gin aged sixteen, I never liked it, and I was not fond of my father’s homemade wine at Sunday lunches, or the sip of wine that I had when I was six. It’s because of the abusers in my life who drank too much that I don’t drink.

A book I read when my son was a baby is also contender for the worst book I have ever read, ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, by Marjorie Pearce. My brother gave it to me when I turned thirty, and it was one that I had heard of from my feminist friends. But when I got round to reading it – at the wrong time – I was deeply upset by the scenes of psychiatric abuse. Perhaps I am lost in literature now, as my life has ended up similar to Woman on the Edge of Time, in that I have lost my son to the courts. (Obviously a power thing with my mother, could it be Electra?) We have to pay attention to the subconscious in our lives. If we don’t turn to that which is right and good for us, then we can just find that a ‘sting of the tail’ past experience becomes our reality all of a sudden.

Why may you ask have I not succeeded in finding help from official sources, eg a specialist lawyer. Well, I can’t find one that is right for me. And in the eighties when I was a legal secretary I was on the edge of a scandal involving some prominent solicitors. That and my mother and father (whose best lifelong friend was a solicitor) mean that I struggle to trust them. They do cost a lot of money, and if you aren’t used to that rate of expenditure per second, minute, hour, then it is impossible to interact clearly and confidentially with them. Like my typing, I have a bit of verbal diarrhoea, and cannot think clearly when accused and having to defend myself, but just dig myself into a deeper hole. That to me is a fault of the social skills of the solicitors as they look at all cases of people in care homes as if they are elderly with dementia, and all mothers with problems with social services as negligent and teenage drug addicts. Life does not imitate art, or we would live in a dystopia.

Published by simplyme841

How I got through it I really don't know, but I did a vow of silence for learning disabilities for a year a couple of years ago. I had wanted to do it for three or four years beforehand, after finding out about an Australian who did it for the animals. But the timing was never right. It was difficult but during the silence I learnt about John Francis, the environmentalist and author, who did it for seventeen years whilst walking barefoot across America playing the banjo. I had to make sure I drank enough fluids and had plenty of exercise so that my respiratory system didn't collapse, and learnt new things and read difficult books to keep my mind alert. It is very tough again during lockdown too, but immensely difficult for those with learning disabilities. I began writing my poetry last spring in the first Covid pandemic lockdown, and it poured out of me. But as you can tell from my readings my voice is still weak.

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