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While we were still seniors in high school, my friend Starr and I signed up for German 202 at our local university. We were foreign language nuts and had already taken Spanish, Japanese, and German. Nevertheless, by the time we reached university, the professor seemed to think we weren’t ready for fourth-semester German.
“You haven’t taken German 101, 102, or 201?” he asked, looking over his roster sheet.
We shook our heads no. “But we took two years of German in high school,” I said.
“I don’t know why they keep sending me students without the prerequisites,” he said, hinting that we should drop the class. “Well, I hope you two can keep up.”
Challenge accepted! I planned to study my butt off just to prove him wrong.
The professor gave us all a story to read through during that first class. It actually did have a lot of words we didn’t know, so Starr and I holed up in my bedroom to look them all up. It would become a regular practice. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we had class, and Tuesdays and Thursdays we spent together studying after school.
It paid off. I made eighty-nine, a B, on our first test. I was even happier when I learned I had made one of the highest grades.
Our German professor, however, didn’t seem amused. “In short,” he said, “there were two Bs, one C, and two Fs.”
Who, I wondered, had made the other B? Who was I going to have to beat to prove that I belonged in this class? Looking diagonally to my right, I saw another eighty-nine — on Whip Klugerjunge’s paper.
Whip Klugerjunge wasn’t his real name. Starr and I had named him that because he was “smart as a whip.” Klug means smart in German, and Junge means boy. It looked like Smartboy was our next challenge. We had to make a higher grade than he did.
It wouldn’t be easy. Whip Klugerjunge was always trying to suck up to the teacher, it seemed. “Klitschnass?” he would ask, cocking his head sideways, “Was bedeutet klitschnass?” What does the word klitschnass mean, he was asking, in a tone of voice that meant “I want to learn!” We wanted to learn, too, and to do so, we needed to surpass him.
Starr and I added Sunday afternoons to our study schedule. The weeks passed. So did selections from Nietzsche, Kafka, and Brecht. German fairytales followed, along with passive voice, subjunctive, and indirect discourse. It was difficult, but we were learning more German than we’d ever dreamed. I loved every minute of it.
We made A on our next few tests. So did Whip Klugerjunge. No matter how hard we studied, he always seemed to be one vocabulary word ahead of us. We added extra phone-call study sessions to our schedule.
The final exam rolled around, and I passed German 202 with an A. We smiled smugly whenever we recalled the professor’s initial comment that he “hoped we could keep up.”
The only thing left unresolved was Whip Klugerjunge. I never saw him again. I heard through the grapevine that he went overseas to study for a semester in Germany. So did I. By the time I came back from Germany, fluent in German, it didn’t matter whether or not we had beaten Herr Klugerjunge. Heck, I had already surpassed myself farther than I’d ever dreamed. I could now speak German circles around my German 202 self.
A few years later, Starr enrolled in an upper level foreign language course at the university. Whip Klugerjunge happened to be there in the same class. In the intervening years he had indeed majored in German in Germany.
“Guess what he told me,” Starr said, her eyes lighting up.
“What?” I asked. It didn’t really matter anymore, but...
“He said he remembered us from 202 and that he had to do all this extra studying to try and keep ahead because...” — here she paused to mimic a male voice — “‘You two high schoolers were kicking my butt in German.’”