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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Wilhelm Raabe (Jacob Corvinus) (1831–1910)

Hans at School

From “The Infant Prodigy”

WHEN he was five years old Hans Unwirrsch was a clumsy little fellow going about in a pair of breeches cut and intended for him to grow into. He looked merrily out on the world and the Kröppelstrasse from his bluish-gray eyes; his nose was not as yet definitely characteristic; his mouth promised to grow very large—and kept its promise. The boy’s yellow hair curled naturally, and was his handsomest feature. His stomach was in all respects perfect, as it is with all people destined to be hungry oftener than they like. The two women—his mother and his cousin—of course did their utmost to spoil him; they honored him as crown prince, hero, and world’s wonder, so that it was well that the government interfered, and declared him old enough to go to school. So Hans set foot on the lowest rung of the ladder standing against the tree of knowledge, the door of the poor-school opened to him, and Silberlöffel, the schoolmaster, promised Cousin Schlotterbeck at the door that her “precious boy” should be neither murdered by himself nor the hundred and sixty good-for-nothings subject to his rule….

The girls sat on the right-hand side, and the boys on the left. Between the two divisions ran a passage from the door to the teacher’s desk, and up and down this passage Silberlöffel would walk, coughing at every step, without thereby exciting the least sympathy from the brats under his charge. The poor fellow was long, lean, and lank; if he looked very melancholy into the bargain, he had cause enough. Any other teacher in his place would have kept warm in the damp, chill schoolroom by lustily whipping the boys. His faint attempts to preserve discipline by that means were taken as an amusing joke; his authority was below zero. A pitiful reproach to all well-dressed people were the clothes of this worthy man, the hat especially acting a complete tragedy with its wearer. The point at issue between the two was which should survive the other, and the hat appeared to know that it would carry the day. A diabolical taunt seemed to grin from out of its boils and scratches.

Hans Unwirrsch joined the crowd of pauper school-children without any particularly sentimental feelings. After having conquered his first surprise and embarrassment, after having made himself at home in his new surroundings, he proved himself not a whit better than any other among the young scapegraces, and took part in the pleasures and pains of that noble public institution like the rest of them. He soon found friends and enemies among the boys; congenial spirits attached themselves to him, the uncongenial tried to pull him out of his views of life by the hair of his head; and in single combat, as in general skirmishes, he often came to grief, which, however, he bore like a manly urchin, without seeking refuge behind the teacher. His manliness at that stage of his life also inspired a healthy aversion toward the female sex on the right-hand benches. He was fond of putting cobblers’ wax on the girls’ seats, and of coupling them together in loving pairs by firmly twisting the ends of their pigtails together in close knots. He looked upon the girls with sovereign disdain as inferior creatures who knew no other means of defense than shrieking, and through whom the master was better informed of the doings of the left half of his school than that half altogether approved. At first there was not the slightest trace of chivalrous feeling in his bosom, but its first awaking dawn was not far distant, and soon there was one little person on the other side of the room who made her influence felt on Hans. There came a time when he could not bear to see one little fellow pupil cry, and when a nameless longing would sometimes take possession of him—not in the direction of the slices of bread and butter and cake that he saw other children nibbling in the street. For the present, however, he stuck his fists impudently into the baggy pockets of his breeches, spread his short legs far apart, planted himself firmly on his feet, and sought to emancipate himself as far as possible from the tyranny of womankind.

No longer did he now sit quietly and patiently at the knee of Cousin Schlotterbeck, and listen reverently to her teachings and exhortations, fairy tales, almanac stories, and Bible readings. To the great dismay of the good old lady did he manifest a more and more critical spirit. The almanac stories he knew by heart; no sooner did the cousin begin a fairy tale, than he would interrupt her to suggest improvements and ask impertinently ironical questions; to her well-meant moral counsel he would offer confusing objections, which more than once made the worthy dame quite angry. When, as was her habit, the good soul became entangled in a breathless row of biblical names, Hans took a fiendish pleasure therein, so that at last she would clap the book to in her wrath, and call her erstwhile “little lamb” a “saucy young rascal.” Behind her back he would play all sorts of tricks; he even went so far as to caricature her person before a select audience in the Kröppelstrasse, consisting of people of his own age. In short, Hans Unwirrsch had now reached that stage of his existence at which his loving relations with sinister looks and warning finger-shakes prophesied to the young hopeful a dark future, the beggar’s staff, the lockup, the galleys, and finally, as an agreeable conclusion, his untimely despatch at the hands of the public executioner.