Erika Benn, an energetic, fast-talking 77-year-old woman who guided generations of East German students through the nuances of the Russian language, is sitting on a couch in her apartment in Templin, 80 km north of Berlin, reminiscing about one of her students—a girl so shy that, in the black-and-white group photographs Benn pulls from a scrapbook, she is barely visible, hiding her face among much taller bodies in the back row.
Angela Kasner, as she was known then, was “always an excellent student,” says Benn, but she had a problem. Some of the events in the Russian-language “Olympics” for which Benn prepared her students involved staged dialogue, in which competitors were expected to act out situational conversations, such as meeting a friend on the street or discussing weekend plans. Expressive students were more likely to impress the judges, but Angela appeared before them, staring at her feet, hands hanging limply at her sides.
“I was very angry at her, because she was so good, but she wouldn’t demonstrate codes of proper behaviour,” says Benn. “I was a very strict teacher. I wanted to win with my students. I wanted them to win prizes and be ambitious.”
This ambition included Angela, even though East Germany’s communist-education authorities in the ’60s and ’70s would have preferred that Benn encourage the children of workers and farmers, rather than a bourgeois pastor’s daughter.
Angela, despite her shoe-gazing performances, also craved success. She did the “considerable” amount of work Benn assigned her without complaint. And she somehow forced herself to be exuberant during competitions—speaking loudly, looking others in the eye and gesturing with her hands. None of it came naturally to Angela, says Benn. She did it because she concluded it was necessary, “because she wanted to win.” And she did.