It’s a fairly well-known fact that I speak German, and love all things German too: film, culture, food, beer, you name it, if it’s German, I’m there. The result of my learning and loving not only the language but also the culture of Germany is the result of one teacher’s intense drive and passion: Donald Kjar, my high school German teacher.
Don Kjar was known lovingly as “Herr Kjar” at my school (in German, this is pronounced as “hair care” (which is ironic, because hair care for him was a Flowbee)). As both a man and an educator he has impressive credentials: He was the teacher who single-handedly created a nearly 25-year exchange program with a school in Oldenburg, who taught countless students who passed through both Eden Valley, Watkins, and Kimball, Minnesota, and announced the high school football games as well. Despite being an obviously important figure in local society, this is the same man who would get in front of a whole classroom of 30 students (none of them ever slow to mock a teacher) and start to sing, dance, do whatever he could to explain the strange guttural language he was trying to teach them.
This last part is what I vividly remember. He would try his best to mimic or show exactly what he was saying–often exaggerating the movements to try and express his meaning. I doubt he thought his job would include sign language, but it was a critical part of trying to teach us (he avoided speaking English whenever he could in class). Walking slow versus walking fast, making ice cream, grilling and cooking, and everyone’s particular favorite, dancing–tanzen.
In showing us how to tanzen, he would stand in front of the class, point with both of his hands next to his head, and then shuffle his feet and move his hips around. It was a very, erm, distinctive move–as students, we at first flensed him mercilessly for dancing the way he did; but later on we’d come to both like his way of trying to transmit language information to us, and in fact think about it intensely to try to learn what he was showing us. It became a critical part of how he taught us, this shameless tanzen he did in front of us.
Our community is well known for having strong-backed German genes that let 16 year olds grow to heights typically above 6 feet. Herr Kjar defended his shorter height at least once a week, calling himself ‘normal’ (in German of course). He made (and I suspect he funded with his own money) spaghetti ice, ice cream pressed through a spaghetti maker and served with over-sugared toppings. Delicious on a hot summer afternoon when all you are thinking about is leaving high school. Herr Kjar was one of those teachers that took rough, unlettered students and taught them about a whole new world, thousands of miles away, even when the present world was shouting for your attention.
His classroom was an outward expression of himself. It was filled with memorabilia from Germany–including a brick from the Berlin wall–much of which he could instantly recall and tell a story about. He permitted students to paint on the walls–I did at one point, painting the Solar System and their German names (they weren’t so different from their English names). Student recreated pictures of posters of Broadway musicals, graffiti from the Berlin wall, and memorialized characters from German fiction all were on the normally whitewashed walls. The first time I walked into his classroom, as a young 8th grader, I was stunned to see such color and vibrancy, and this small man bouncing on his heels in front of the class.
When 9th grade rolled around and it was time for me to pick a language to learn, I immediately wanted Spanish. (What?) Yes, Spanish, as all of my friends were going to be taking Spanish. Historically I was the dividing line in the class between A students (above me) and B students (below me). But sadly, I was the odd number out–Spanish filled up with all the A students, and I was stuck in German. No amount of protesting to Larry Peterson, principle at the time, would work–German it was. My attitude changed almost entirely once I found that German was actually a lot of fun, and that I was surprisingly good at it. Though I strongly doubt the last part, as I think that it was purely his educational method that connected me to the language and the culture.
Through Herr Kjar I met Marlena, my German exchange sister who I am still good friends with, and who I consider my older sister. Her family in Germany (her father, mother and three sisters) were a joy to visit and I still love hearing from them as well. He also introduced me to Tobias, as well, the German student I stayed with when I visited Germany in high school. Herr Kjar brought me and likely hundreds of others to places we would never have imagined in our youth: Paris, concentration camps, the North Sea islands, Amsterdam, a small German high school. Through him I experience a different world than I would have otherwise.
Unexpectedly, I owe Herr Kjar thousands of dollars, as he also set up the College in the Schools program for EV-W. I was able to get nearly 36 credits of college course done, no cost to myself, and save myself more than a year’s worth of college. I graduated in three years primarily due to the work of this happy-go-lucky, expressive man. I never asked him about this, but I suspect he would have declined any sort of monetary offer, and instead have offered more spaghetti ice.
Herr Kjar was not afraid to speak his opinions, either, but in the times that he and I did talk in my senior year (when I started to get political and critical thinking was developing), he showed himself to be a rational, moderate man who would gladly put his brain to a topical political or social topic. In this he showed great wisdom; many teachers will speak wryly or hint at their opinions, but because his were so sensible, he had nothing to really skirt around. That helped a lot with the radicalism I was presented with in early college, from both sides, and showing me that the path of wisdom isn’t so narrow as some describe it.
Herr Kjar died this week, after a long fight with ALS. His wife, Nancy (also an educator) and their two sons will be people I will console and see today, as I haven’t done even a remotely good job of staying in touch with him or his family. In looking at his life, I just can’t imagine the effort involved–married for 40 years, two well-off sons, announcing every football game, teaching countless students a language and a whole other (often misunderstood) world–but in knowing Herr Kjar, I know that he would have thought there was still more to do, still another student to teach. He was not one to rest on his laurels, and he had many, many laurels.
I’m not one to give gradations to people around me–best friend, mentor, worst coworker, best style–but if I could give one to Herr Kjar it would be mentor. I want what he had–a family that was strong and well-to-do, loved in the community; respected and loved as a teacher; and most of all, he left an indelible impression of both education, moderation, and exploration that countless students will have experienced. Even as a grown man these days, I don’t have the gall to stand in front of a class of students, start speaking German, and then begin to mime and express my way through an hour’s worth of content. Some might say that he was able to do it just because he had been doing it for so long; but I think that every time he got in front of a classroom, he got just a little nervous. And then did it better than anyone else anyway.