Albert’s leaden footsteps echoed through the deserted halls of the Luitpold Gymnasium as he trudged to the direktor’s office. He was most definitely not looking forward to this meeting. He had little respect for the teachers who insisted he waste his time going over elementary rote information. Of course, if things went as he hoped, he wouldn’t have to be here much longer. But for now, he had to put up with the formalities.
Arriving at the office, he was greeted by Miss Schmidt, a pleasant forty-something woman dressed in tweed, with dark hair plaited tightly to her head. Sitting at her small desk in the anteroom outside the direktor’s office, she welcomed Albert with a sympathetic smile. “Good morning, Herr Einstein. Please sit down,” she said, indicating the small settee across from her desk. “The direktor will call you after he has reviewed your situation with the Academik Committee.” She looked at Albert, her expression not unkind. “We know your parents are not in Munich, so the direktor requested that Colonel von Wiesel and Frau Thomas serve in their stead. Your instructors, Herr von Achen, and Herr Hamlin are also in with them.”
Like a helpless animal caught in a snare, Albert felt trapped by the situation. But putting a good face on a bad situation, Albert mustered a smile and made a slight bow. “Thank you, Miss Schmidt, for your kindness."
Inside, he was not smiling. Why is Johann’s mother here? She is fragile and has been through so much. Albert remembered her compassion.
After the funeral, she had taken him aside and, despite her loss, had offered words of advice about his school situation. “You must treat your teachers with respect, even if you know more than they do. I know it must be hard for you, Albert, but doing otherwise will only get you in trouble.” That scene faded from his mind as he thought about the other adult who was supposed to advocate for him at this meeting. That anti-Semite von Wiesel is supposed to take my father’s place? What did they think when they chose him?
Albert stared at the tall mahogany doors to the direktor’s inner office, wishing the ordeal was over, and he was walking back out through them heading home.
On the other side of the doors, Albert’s future at the school was being decided by the direktor and the group he had assembled.
Frau Thomas was once happy and vivacious, but the loss of her son, Johann, had shattered her life into a million pieces. She looked frail and lifeless. It was as if the light of living had been extinguished in her. Still, she had come to the meeting to support Albert. Johann would have wanted her to be there for his best friend. But it had taken all the determination she could summon merely to get out of bed in the morning. Nonetheless, Christine had bathed and washed her ginger hair with pleasantly scented castile soap, then wrapped it in a soft, graceful knot secured with a Spanish comb. Declaring herself presentable, she made her way to the Gymnasium.
She sat at the table, clutching a monogrammed handkerchief in her hand, a birthday gift from her son. The soft cotton made her feel as if he were somehow there to give her comfort. She prayed for strength to get her through this. She hoped Albert would comport himself with respect.
Earlier, Headmaster Braun had welcomed her and sincerely thanked her for standing in support of Albert. He had said that he knew she would be an excellent advocate for the boy. Her spirits lifted slightly at his compliment. Then he had commented about how remarkable her son had been and how much he regretted what had happened. His well-meaning condolences only reminded her of her loss, and the gray fog of depression, her constant companion since the funeral, settled once again around her.
The headmaster, Stefan Braun, had a reputation for being fair. Personable and intelligent, the fifty-ish man had plenty of experience, and could himself have made the decision regarding young Einstein. But he wanted the views of the teachers and other adults who knew Albert in hopes that he could find something that would be more in Albert’s favor. He thought Albert was basically a decent boy, though perhaps a bit too smart for his own good. So far, he didn’t see how he could resolve the instructors’ complaints in a way that would allow Albert to continue at the Gymnasium. And that troubled him.
The five-person panel sat around a circular table. Colonel von Wiesel sat on the direktor’s right side and Frau Thomas on his left. Von Achen, the physics teacher, sat next to Frau Thomas and Hamlin, who taught history, sat next to the colonel. An empty chair for Albert sat across from the direktor.
“I want to thank you all for coming,” Direktor Braun had said, opening the meeting. His quiet gaze touched each person. “I have invited you here to determine whether Herr Einstein is to continue as a student in our school.” Hands clasped on the table, nodding to the two teachers, he continued. “Our teachers have brought to my attention the issues surrounding the boy in the classroom. And I have heard gossip of behavior that has me concerned. So, I would appreciate each of you sharing your experience.”
Von Achen jumped right in, his feeling clearly expressed in his frown. “The boy is insufferable. He’s arrogant. He thinks he knows more about mathematics than I do.” The man’s anger grew, and his volume increased with each word. “I ask him to repeat what he has read in the textbook, and he goes off on a tangent not only unrelated to the topic but making no sense to anyone.” His chest heaving, the instructor, paused. Then, as if his words had spewed all the anger he held, the balding man seemed to deflate into his chair.
Colonel von Wiesel shook his head. “Insufferable is a good description.” His face turned bitter. “Those Jews think they are better than anybody else!” he spat. The man’s piggish eyes swept the assemblage as if daring anyone to contradict him.
Herr Hamlin responded calmly in contrast to the colonel’s vitriol. “Excuse me, Colonel, but I am Jewish. I think it’s more accurate to say we of think of ourselves as determined, not better."
He cleared his throat. “Be that as it may, it’s true that young Einstein doesn’t follow the rules. He thinks he can do whatever he pleases. He stares out the window and will not cooperate with the plan we have established for the class. I have tried all the techniques I know, and I’m afraid I just don’t know what to do to keep his attitude from disrupting my class.”
Frau Thomas came to Albert’s defense. “I know it must be upsetting for you when you are just trying to teach our children. But remember, Albert becomes frustrated and doesn’t understand why other people are not as smart as he is. He doesn’t follow the rules because he doesn’t understand their value or why they have been imposed.”
Von Achen pounded his fist on the table, and Frau Thomas flinched, nearly bursting into tears. Red in the face, the teacher shouted, “The rules were not established for him to understand! They were put in place by those who know better, and he must follow them whether he comprehends them or not!”
Direktor Braun raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Please, let’s stay calm.” He looked to each participant as he spoke. “I agree with Herr Hamlin that being Jewish is not the issue. And Frau Thomas makes a good point that Albert’s conduct is founded on his not understanding.” He turned his gaze to the two teachers. “However, your comments are also valid, gentlemen. Perhaps Herr Einstein himself can give us some sense of a solution.” The colonel sighed, surrendering to the necessity of being in the same room as the boy, and von Achen frowned.
The headmaster rose from the table. He strode to the office door and turned the brass knob. Looking into the adjoining room, he nodded to Albert. “Please, Herr Einstein, would you come in?” Albert stood stiffly and straightened his clothing. With as much dignity as he could summon, he walked into the direktor’s office. The animosity in the room was palpable to him.
The Advisory Council members kept their silence as Albert entered the room. Frau Thomas smiled in vague encouragement at the boy, and Hamlin maintained a neutral expression. Von Wiesel and von Achen openly scowled. The headmaster gestured to a chair for Albert, but instead of taking his seat, Albert remained standing and pulled an envelope from his coat pocket. He extended it toward the headmaster. “If you would, Herr Direktor, please consider this in your discussion.” With a puzzled look, the direktor took the proffered envelope.
Frau Thomas shook her head and held her breath as Direktor Braun opened the envelope and read the letter aloud.
Dear Direktor Braun,
I have examined Herr Albert Einstein and have concluded that he is suffering from nervous exhaustion, exacerbated by the death of his friend Johann Thomas. It is my professional recommendation that he be given a leave of absence from his classes at the Gymnasium for an unspecified period.
Thank you for your kind consideration in this matter.
Dr. Joshua Talmud, MD
Munich University Clinic
Thoughtfully, the headmaster neatly folded the letter and placed it back in the envelope, relief clear on his face. He turned to Albert and said, “We will undoubtedly factor this into our deliberations, Herr Einstein. Do you have anything else to say?
Albert shook his head. “I do not.”
The direktor took in a breath and slowly exhaled. “Well then, thank you for coming in today. We will let you know what we decide.”
Albert nodded to the direktor and then to the others seated at the table. He spared Frau Thomas a brief smile, then walked from the room.
As the door closed, the direktor eased himself back onto his chair. “Well, this changes things a bit.” He read the letter to the group again and then said, “With your agreement, I will write a letter to Albert and his parents confirming that it is in the best interest of the school and Herr Einstein for him to be excused from his studies. I will suggest that during his time of recovery, they find a school that better suits his educational needs.” At the nods of the others, he said, “Then it is settled. Since we have a doctor’s diagnosis of nervous exhaustion, I can make sure his school record does not indicate any misconduct so it will be easier for him to find acceptance in another school.”
There were more nods around the table, though Colonel von Wiesel did not look happy. He had been expecting a more severe punishment for the Jew but decided to hold his tongue. At least for the time being.
As Albert made his way home, all he felt was a relief. He was confident that he would never return to the Gymnasium. Max’s letter gave the direktor the out he was no doubt looking for, and it released Albert from the stifling insipidness of the classes he had been forced to endure.
For the first time since Johann’s death, he began to hope that there might be some brightness in his future. Despite the gray day and biting cold, as he considered Switzerland and what the school there might be like, Albert slowly began to smile.
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