It must have been like dropping onto a new planet. He had been in America for a little over four months and he is German. In a small Texas town of just over 16,000 people, where the largest employers are two brick plants and the public school district, he was in fourth grade.
As he steps to my classroom doorway, I extend my hand and say hello, my name is Mrs. Strandberg, I’m your art teacher. I immediately notice his clear blue eyes and straw blond hair framing a hopeful face. He has a medium athletic build, even for a ten-year old, like a miniature rugby player and an inquisitive, engaging curiosity that beamed out from his ruddy face. His eyes light up at the Scandinavian origin of my name. I can see he thinks he’s found a European kinsman. “Are you Swedish?”, he asks in heavily accented, but perfect English. “No.” I say and register the small disappointment in his eyes. “My husband’s ancestors are from Sweden.” ” Oh.” he says, then continues, “Well you should visit there, but it is not as pretty as Denmark.” He says this without malice, to him it was simply a fact. I turn to introduce him to a room of open-mouthed fourth graders.
This was my introduction to Nikolaus (not his real name), a remarkable student whose real name was almost unpronounceable for me. “Just call me Nik.” he finally told me with an exasperated smile. Nik was born in Germany, had lived there and in Denmark and had journeyed here with his mother after she divorced. “I still have brothers and my father in Germany.” he told me matter-of-factly, “But my step-dad is great. ”
I began to look forward to his arrival each day, bursting into the room like a large and nosy puppy, full of talk. “How did you learn such good English in such a short time?”, I ask. “My mother taught me. She speaks eight languages. Don’t you speak any other languages?”, he responded, clearly feeling a little sorry for my lack. I’m reminded once again of the European custom of teaching their children different languages early in life as a necessity of living in a modern world. I wish we were that smart. “I’m learning Japanese right now.”, he continued. ” When I grow up I want to go to Tokyo and start a business.” Nik’s curiosity is a palpable thing. He curious about the pencil sharpener, what kind of car I have, how my desk chair works with a pneumatic cylinder to raise and lower the height. His curiosity is insatiable.
I met his mother at open house that year, a slender, confident woman with a penetrating look. She spoke to Nik as if he were thirty instead of ten, clearly proud of her clever son and determined to give him the best.
But the thing that impressed me most was Nik’s ability to let criticism of his newness to the Texas culture bounce off of him. He had a built-in confidence that was not overbearing. He knew who he was and what he was about. The other kids loved to hear him talk. He accepted the gentle teasing of his classmates about his accent with such a good-natured charm that before you knew it he was giving German lessons to the entire class and he was laughing at their Texas-twanged attempts.
Nik was a dedicated art student, but almost to a fault, critiquing his work in a running monologue, peppered with questions. “What was pastel made out of anyway? Did it come from the ground or the lab? Where could he get these in America?” This phrasing was perfect, not just Texas, mind you, it seemed all of America was open to him. In the midst of a papier-mâché dragon whose wings kept drooping he announced that his dragon was a sea serpent, and needed no wings. And why did papier-mâché smell so funny anyway? “My sea serpent has bad-breath.”, he says.
And then, one day, just like that, he was gone. Whisked away with his mom, for a job opportunity up north. I felt a real sense of loss and kept one of his artworks pinned by my desk, a precisely drawn geometric pastel with an oriental look to it. I know that whereever he is, he is facing his world head-on, and asking questions, always questions. It makes me smile.
I hope I get to visit Tokyo one day. I have no doubt that Nik will be there, running an international conglomerate with immense enthusiasm.