Into nothingness — ‘Learning a second language can give you a second identity’ 

August 16, 2023 5:57 am

A second identity: “Das Verhör des Lukullus” in 1982 at West Virginia University. (Michael Brumage | Courtesy photo)

“Was bei Jupiter soll das bedeuten!?”

Translated, “What in Jupiter’s name is the meaning of this?” 

It was my first line on stage. I was playing the great Roman Field Marshal Lukullus, and I had just entered the afterlife to await my Final Judgment. The play was “The Trial of Lukullus” by the German playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht — a performance that changed my life. This was the spring of 1982, and I was a senior at West Virginia University, graduating with a degree in chemistry. I elected to take a German play class before entering medical school in the fall. We would be performing the entire play “auf Deutsch” (in German) to a live audience. 

The foreign language theater class was led by Jürgen Schlunk, an associate professor of German in the WVU Department of Foreign Languages. I remember him as a thin, short, wiry man with a big smile and heart, with an infectious enthusiasm and frenetic energy. He single handedly breathed life into this production and at the same time, inspired us to accomplish what we thought was out of our grasp.

I had grown up a shy, nondescript teenager from Fairmont, and as an equally nondescript scholar, I quietly made my way through undergraduate studies. I had done well enough to get into medical school but was still terribly introverted, although I tried my best to hide it.   

Dr. Schlunk, an accomplished actor who played in films in Germany, sensed my timidity and worked with me to mold me into the lead character. I became the mouse that roared on stage. For me, this class wasn’t just about expanding my German. Dr. Schlunk had taught me, through another language, to see bigger pictures — expansive landscapes. This was about walking boldly onto the stage of life and harnessing stage fright into a power and a presence.

It challenged me and it changed me. That confidence propelled me through a career in medicine and in the military that took me around the world. It inspired me to take leadership positions, retiring in 2015 as an Army Colonel.

We were an eclectic class of students from every discipline, including the school’s star quarterback, Oliver Luck. Like me, his interest in German culture came from his family; we soon learned that our grandfathers had been fraternity brothers in Germany. For over 40 years, Oliver and I have stayed friends. When he came back to West Virginia University as the Athletic Director in 2010 after an illustrious career, he mentioned Schlunk as a major influence in his college life. In an article in Grantland in 2013, Oliver said of Dr. Schlunk, “I remember him saying, ‘Learning a second language can give you a second identity.’” We both grieved when we learned that Dr. Schlunk died from a tragic accident in 2002 at his Maple Avenue home in Morgantown.

Today, I wonder what Dr. Schlunk’s would think about WVU dumping its World Languages and Linguistics Department.

I wonder if his immense gift to bring the best out of people would be enough to convince those making this terrible decision.

To me, it feels like a death in the family, an existential loss. I think of the incredible gift this class gave me — a gift I had no idea I needed. And I think of the countless students who will now lose this opportunity to be given the gift of a second language, or as Dr. Schlunk called it, a second identity.

I’m furious that decision-makers are willing to make penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions that will relegate the state’s flagship university — my alma mater — to provincial status.

I think of my character, Lukullus, who is judged for his misdeeds on Earth and is cast into nothingness for eternity. 

Similarly, WVU has decided to cast current and future students into the void, shrinking their horizons, consciously depriving them of part of the rich texture of a university education. This is a self-defeating and myopic way to slash budget losses that have accumulated from a combination of shrinking attendance, poor planning and abject disregard for the value of higher education by leaders at every level in the state. Brecht’s Lukullus said it best: “What in Jupiter’s name is the meaning of this?”

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