As I am approaching the age that is expressed by a large round number, I must accept the fact that my productive years are behind me. That is what the statistics show. I also see that my friends are leaving the ranks of the living in increasing number. I call out: “Guys! Are you really leaving? We have not yet finished all our debates and our grand projects!” Reluctantly I have to reconcile myself with the knowledge that I might never see Machu Picchu with my own eyes. So all that remains for me is to look back and think how I got here. There is enough to be satisfied with: my peasant ancestors became merchants, which led to me having the education that allowed me to work on the team that developed the International Space Station. How cool is that?
Who helped me set my goals and who set me on the path? Of course, my parents deserve most of the credit. But besides them who? It had to be teachers, but teachers in the broader sense of anyone who imparted knowledge to me whether or not she or he had a teaching certificate.
With most teachers the relationship lasted but a short season or a year, and in most cases was very one sided. I doubt if they ever remembered my name after the class and I barely remember theirs. But there are exceptions. Foremost in my mind is the teacher I had in a Displace Persons’ (DP) camp, whose death announcement recently appeared in this newspaper: Mrs. Heleena Koppermann. In 1945 refugees from East Europe in Germany could not return home, but the German economy was in shambles and Germany no longer needed us. The American Military gave us an opportunity to find accommodations in camps in which we were fed. My parents and I moved to a camp named Insula, situated in former army barracks complex near Berchtesgaden, Bavaria. There, among the Poles and Latvians who made up the majority of the camp, were about 60 Estonians, including three grade-school-aged children. I was one of them, a fourth grader.
The Estonians were concentrated on one floor of a barrack. The rooms had double-decker beds, and two families were assigned to a room. In time Mr. Andre fashioned dividers between the families out of Masonite (pressed wood) salvaged from crates. So the Estonian community of the camp became a very close “family” with little privacy and thus few secretes from each other. Of course there were irritations that come with such closeness, but also friendships. We were fed meals from a communal kitchen supplied by the American Army but administrated by the camp inhabitants. Given that the Poles and Latvians did not trust each other, many of the camp administrative posts were given to the smallest minority, the Estonians. But of course each nationality had its own school.
Upon urging from a larger Estonian center three volunteers were found to take on the chore of educating us: Mrs. Heleena Koppermann, Miss Hilda Laas, and Mr. Fritz Andre. They had no children themselves and had no teaching experience. They received mimeographed materials from larger Estonian centers, found an empty room in the barracks’ basement and commenced teaching. The problem with being in such a small school was that there was no chance of getting away with not doing homework assignments. Mrs. Koppermann took on Estonian literature and related topics, Miss Laas Geography and similar, while Mr. Andre taught me woodworking for just half a year, using tools in the camp workshop. In the other half of the year Miss Laas taught us how to knit. An old sweater was unraveled and knitting needles borrowed and so together with the two girls I learned knitting. No problem, I was secure enough in my manhood to endure that. Though I have never used my knitting skill since then, it taught me that I can learn even unexpected tasks!
Mrs. Koppermann was the soul of our school; she was a fiery, energetic young lady with piercing brown eyes. I was drawn to her. As a 12-year old I most likely was in love with her. What I remember most of what I learned from her was what happened on one occasion outside the class room. I had loved to brag of how I hated Russians who were the cause for us having to flee Estonia. I used to repeat, "Give me a Russian and I will wring his or her neck unless it is a very young girl.” Mrs. Koppermann heard me during one such tirade. She pulled me aside and asked me, “Arved, did you know that both my parents came from czarist Russia during the First World War, and thus I am an ethnic Russian?” I was devastated. And lesson was learned. I never bragged like that again.
In an earlier incident when we were still in Tallinn, a teacher saved me and my parents from getting into serious trouble. In 1940 I was in my first year of school. The Soviet Union had just claimed Estonia for itself, and the country was in a rapid transition. The flying of the Estonian blue-black-white flag was forbidden. On the front wall of the classroom hung a picture of Stalin in place of our deposed president Päts. My grade school was part of the seminary that allowed teachers in training to practice their skills. One day a student teacher handed out a mandarin to each student. Next the teacher told us that Stalin loved children and understood us because he himself was trained to be a teacher and thus sent us these mandarins. We were now told to write an essay thanking Stalin. I do not remember what I wrote but I remember that I drew Estonian flags around it. After I handed in my richly illustrated essay, the teacher came to my desk, and whispered in her squeaky voice that the illustrations were not allowed and I should take the essay to my parents. All I remember of her is her weird voice. At home my father subsequently kept his blue-black-white table flag mounted on "Pikk Herman” in a locked desk drawer. Who knows what trouble this teacher kept my parents from by not informing the authorities, as she was required to do?
Some learning experiences were negative. Perhaps the earliest that I remember was when I was six years old and our maid was tasked with making me practice reading in preparation for an entrance exam for grade school. To enter we had to be able to read. It was the word “but” which challenged me. In Estonian it is “aga.” The maid told me “read it!” And I would read “a-ge-a.” This went on until I was in tears, but I held my ground. Subsequently I mastered reading and passed the exam.
After the escape from Estonia to Southern Germany in September 1944, I ended up in a village grade school. I remember the teacher by name, Miss. Birnbaum and her shrieks when a student had not met her expectations. When shrieks were not enough to make her point she resorted to her bamboo sticks, which were about foot long. The offending student had to hold his or her hand out and she would hit it with a stick. After a while the sticks would splinter, but that was no problem for her, for she kept an ample supply of them.
I too got hit several occasions, with the number of hits measured according to her schedule. This occurred during oral math exercises. She would yell out two four digit numbers, then point to a student who would have to repeat the numbers and then quickly call out the sum. I could speak German fairly well but remembering numbers was confusing for me. For example in German twenty two is spoken as two-and-twenty. So she caught me several times not responding quickly enough.
My worst of memory of Miss. Birnbaum was from the time when she decided to make an example of a kid who was occasionally late. The fact that he had to walk to school a great distance did not matter. In front of the classroom was a life-sized framed picture of der Führer, Adolf Hitler, whom every student entering the classroom would have to salute with a loud “Hail Hitler” while throwing his right hand out straight. This had to be done even when the class work had started. Of course, latecomers were very disruptive. One time when the boy had once again defied the clock, Miss. Birnbaum called in the principal, Mr. Furtmayr, a former army officer who had lost a leg in the war and walked with a crutch. He entered and in front of the class, beat the boy mercilessly with his crutch while yelling. Needless to say, I was never late.
When the war ended Miss. Birnbaum was released because of her Nazi party membership. She was replaced with Mrs. Baumbusch, a kind person. I remember her because of the contrast with her predecessor. I continued to go to the village school until my parents and I moved to the aforementioned DP camp. After I left Mrs. Baumbusch encouraged her students to write me in the camp. I appreciated that and responded with a letter.
I have more complete memories of teachers from my years in gymnasium before emigrating to the US and of high school after emigrating. After leaving our unique small grade school in camp Insula we moved to the city of Geislingen, where over 4000 Estonian refugees were housed. Here I entered the Estonian gymnasium which I attended until emigrating in the middle of my sophomore year. I have written about my experiences in the gymnasium in the album “Geislingeni Eesti Gümnaasiumi Õpilaste ja Õpetajate Elulugusid,” (“Life stories of students and teachers of the Estonian Gymnasium in Geislingen”) a compilation of experiences by 260 students and teachers that I edited. Here the contact was less personal between the students and teachers. The teachers were professional and their teaching was targeted. Still there were inspiring moments like when our geography teacher Paul Lannus drew the profiles of Africa and South America on the black-board and showed how the shorelines matched! The land masses must have separated! Only much later was this fact substantiated by of research done on the Atlantic Ocean floor, but I accepted it as fact already in 1948 in Mr. Lannus’s class.
The gymnasium had the no-nonsense curriculum of prewar Estonia. Our texts were brought from Estonia by fleeing teachers, retyped and mimeographed. The human side of my experience included watching Mr. Laan, our language teacher, pick on a student called Maise-poiss, whose attendance was spotty and class participation not up to Mr. Laan’s standards. Mr. Laan kept picking on him until he quit coming to school. Mr. Laan did something else that I never could quite understand: he took our skull dimensions, one student at a time, and made some kind of judgments based on them.
My best experience was in the Religious education classes with Rev. Johannes Aarik. He allowed freewheeling discussions in class. Rather than conducting the class from the front, he leaned against the window ledge on the side of the class room which I believe was symbolic. The discussions were frank and engaging. I declared myself an atheist in the process but also formed a lifelong friendship with him. After his return to Estonia upon his retirement I visited him every time I went to Estonia at his home in Nõmme, until his death in 2011. I found it flattering that he would engage me in deep religious topics, but then again he himself was a bit of a rebel. (His articles have appeared in this newspaper.)
In 1949 we immigrated to the United States, and found temporary accommodations in a summer cabin near Bethel, Connecticut. Despite my broken English, I was enrolled in Bethel High school’s tenth grade after only a week. This experience was a very new and exciting one. I recall how kind all the teachers and students were to me. Perhaps they wanted to compensate for the deprivations of the war, but whatever the reason, people bent over backwards to make me feel welcome. I recall names of teachers I never got to thank: Mrs. Carroll (Literature), Mrs. Bishop (Chemistry), Mr. Pointen (Shop) and Mr. Peachy, the principal. Whenever I knew the answer to a question they pointed out how smart I was, and if I did not, they said, “Oh well, he does not know the language”.
By my senior year we had moved to Danbury and I attended the school there. My next classroom “wow” moment occurred in the Descriptive Geometry class. I doubt that many people lay wake in bed and contemplate the boundaries of our existence, but for me the breakthrough happened in this class when Mr. Parsons explained the concept of infinity. Most students had such a hard time accepting that you can count numbers 1, 2, 3… and never stop – that there is no final number. I at last accepted at last this concept of time and space without limits and what it says about our importance or unimportance in the universe.
I continued my education at the University of Connecticut, and for this my thanks go the taxpayers who subsidized it. No way could I have afforded to go to any other university on my earnings from my summer jobs. This being a land-grant school, the only obligation I had was to participate in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). We marched once a week in uniforms in an open field for a couple of hours and those who chose the Air Force (AF) option had to take a course in Geopolitics. Of course this was no problem to anyone that came from overseas and I “aced” it. I still feel gratitude being able to afford an education.
Perhaps I should also feel gratitude for the instructors and professors, who did not cut me slack for my less-than-perfect English. It was a rude awakening that I had to compete for grades on the basis of what I produced on paper. That D grade that Mr. McGrew gave me in English Composition dashed my hopes of getting onto the honor roll and earning a scholarship, despite the fact that all my other grades that year were A’s. But it was also was wakeup call for me.
For setting my ultimate goal of making a career in aerospace engineering, credit goes to my AF ROTC instructor Capt. Lang and his staff in my undergraduate years. Whatever they saw in me they took me along on their proficiency flights from Westover A.F. base. I loved to look down from 5000 feet through the twin-engine trainer’s glass nose. At the same time my fellow cadets saw something in me and elected me Commander of the undergraduate AF ROTC student organization called Command Squadron. No doubt in part due to this I was accepted into the advanced AF ROTC program in my junior year despite the fact that U.S. citizenship was prerequisite. At that time I had not been in the country for five years and therefore was not yet eligible to become a citizen. All these experiences caused me to set my sights on a career in aerospace engineering. This I achieved and after 44 years in the industry I retired from the team that developed the International Space Station.
Looking back at my learning experience I have been blessed by having been under the wing of Mrs. Koppermann, Rev. Aarik, Captain Lang and many other good teachers, not including Miss. Birnbaum during the last days of Nazi Germany.
What can I conclude from this? There are no “self-made men.” We grow on the shoulders of so many around us and with a “little help from our friends,” parents, teachers, mentors, and our society in general, we can achieve our dreams. I am deeply grateful to so many, and I wish I had thanked them all in person.