Here I Stand
by Ute Carson
34th Parallel Magazine, Issue 37, June 5th 2016

Maria was a shy 8th grader. When called upon to read aloud, her throat turned dry, her stomach queasy. Going to the blackboard in front of the whole class terrified her. She was a good speller but when asked to write on the board, her hand would shake and the letters would tumble all over themselves. Maria was happiest bent over her blue-lined notebook earnestly composing stories about rabbits and horses and the antics of her puppets.

Maria’s small body was topped with a head of full brown hair which her mother harnessed into two thick braids and, when time allowed, then coiled them around her head. The braids were a temptation for many of Maria’s classmates and when someone ran by her, a quick yank was inevitable. Maria’s dreamy dark eyes filled with tears when the tugging was too harsh. "Please don’t do that," she would plead.

Classroom seating was arranged so that the tallest pupils sat in back. Tiny Maria ended up in the very front row. Short, chubby Heinz sat right behind her. He was smart and, as an only child of wealthy parents, spoiled. He believed he could get away with any prank, and nobody seemed able to curb his nonstop talking.

Physical punishment was permitted in German schools in the 1950s, though not all teachers used it. Mr. Bankwitz, a history and gym teacher, was the exception. When a girl misbehaved Mr. Bankwitz had her stand at her desk with outstretched fingertips which he smacked with a slender reed. The boys he took to the hallway and gave them a stinging lash or two across the bottom with a leather strap.

Maria grew up in a loving family. Her parents had repeatedly petitioned against corporal punishment in the school. "It’s simply wrong," her mother exclaimed. Maria had never even been spanked, and she winced every time she saw the swollen fingers of her girlfriends. When a boy received a whipping, the sound of the strap made her recoil. She leaned very close to her notebook, her nose touching the pages, and covered her ears. She disliked having her hair pulled but knew that if she reported it, she would have to witness the perpetrator’s punishment. Being bullied was bad but the whippings were worse.

Heinz got a laugh out of the class every time he pulled Maria’s braids. When she let out a plaintive "Ouch" he beamed triumphantly and turned to his approving audience. But he tormented Maria only before the start of class or after the closing bell had rung.

Mr. Bankwitz was a canny observer who often arrived early on the school grounds and then lingered in the hallway. Several times he had watched Heinz from afar. One day when Maria’s hair was fluttering loose like a horse’s mane Heinz had more fun than ever wrapping a few strands around his fingers and squealing, "Snagged you!"

When Mr. Bankwitz entered the classroom everyone scrambled to their seats. Slowly, he put his briefcase on his desk then took out the book for the day’s lesson and placed it face down. Peering over his glasses, he said firmly, "Heinz, do not do that again."

About halfway through the hour, Mr. Bankwitz, while writing on the blackboard, glanced over his shoulder momentarily just as Heinz took a quick pass at Maria’s hair. Without a show of emotion he put the chalk down, walked to the cupboard, and retrieved the strap. "Heinz," he called out in a stern voice, "Step outside."

Heinz, who was unaccustomed to being disciplined, could not believe what he heard. He tried to explain, "I only brushed Maria’s hair aside because it was blocking my view of the blackboard."

"Step outside!" Mr. Bankwitz was clearly irritated.

Suddenly the situation seemed serious. Heinz began to shake, "I will never do it again, Mr. Bankwitz. I promise."

Mr. Bankwitz was not a patient man. "For the last time, Heinz, outside!"

Heinz lost his composure and sank to his knees. "Please, please don’t."

Mr. Bankwitz got hold of Heinz’s shirt and lifted him like a limp kitten, steering him into the hallway. Heinz howled so loudly and pitifully that other teachers emerged from their rooms to see what was happening. When Heinz returned to the classroom he hung his head and did not even wipe the tears from his cheeks.

Witnessing Heinz’s humiliation, courage surged up in Maria’s fearful heart and her mother’s words echoed in her ears. Before she had merely been an observer but now she was implicated.

Mr. Bankwitz opened his book and was about to pick up where he had left off when Maria’s faint voice made him spin around. "I ha...hate spankings," she said haltingly.

"What did you say, Maria?"

"I hate spankings" she repeated, her voice quivering.

Mr. Bankwitz was incredulous. "Apologize, Maria," he demanded.

"I can’t," she said and stood up. Her words were clear, her voice steady.

"You can’t? Then take your seat and be quiet." Mr. Bankwitz’s ears turned red with anger and he seemed to lose his bearings. That a pupil—especially a girl –would dare to question his authority!

"I can’t do that either, Mr. Bankwitz." Maria was composed now, confident.

Mr. Bankwitz took several steps toward her in a failed attempt to intimidate her, then suddenly turned, gathered up his book and briefcase and left the room without a word, slamming the door behind him.

A pencil rolled off a desk and clattered to the floor. Ordinarily someone would have picked it up. Instead the pencil rolled and rolled until it bumped into the far wall. Nobody moved a muscle. Maria remained standing, immobile as a statue until the bell rang.

Everyone rushed out except Heinz. He approached Maria. "Wow," he whispered and then touched her hair ever so gently before running outside with the others to spread the word.

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