“Not for grown-ups” says Antoine de Saint Exupery’s dedication to “Le Petit Prince”. More than 30 years ago, the book was the centerpiece of religion/ethics classes held by my teacher (and Lutheran priest) Gernot Kalk back at Justus-von-Liebig Gymnasium in Frankfurt, Germany. Indeed, the story of the Little Prince teaches all about love there is to know. It teaches the selfish love of one thing, and the universal love of all things. And everything in between. And it really is key to this book to read it through the eyes of a curious child rather than the “mature” adult’s to comprehend its metaphorical meaning, and to see the elephant in the snake’s belly.
While Germany defines itself as a Christian country adolescent students are permitted to opt out of “religion” as a subject. Which leaves the respective teachers with both the need to advertise their classes and the privilege to only deal with students who have chosen to attend out of interest.
Gernot managed not only to fill his classes, he also started what I later labeled the “Dead Poet’s Society” – a weekly evening meeting at his surreally large flat in a downtown Frankfurt townhouse, most walls covered from bottom to the high stucco ceiling with book shelves, the living room featuring a grand piano, always with a vase of fresh red roses on top. A small group of his most dedicated students would discuss philosophical texts until late at night, for which some of us (not me) got into frequent trouble with their parents because few of us were 18 yet. (And none of us even mentioned the red wine Gernot served).
It was this connection, it was Saint Ex’s view of love, and it was Gernot’s motto that raising a child means “opening the doors of life” that has since guided me through life like nothing else.
I was happy to reconnect with Gernot 25 years later at an event at the Justus-von-Liebig Gymnasium in Frankfurt. We had since been in contact again. Gernot did not hesitate a moment when, a few years later, I asked him if he would do the Eulogy for my mother who had passed away. Preparing for the memorial service with Gernot lead to a few long nights which taught me things about my parents and me that helped me tremendously deal with their passing.
Gernot was never afraid of standing up for his beliefs; he helped young men make their case to be accepted for social service rather than military duty; he helped anyone with a problem, including young criminals and drug addicts, to show them a path to a better life. Not all of them took it. Actually, few did, but that didn’t stop Gernot from continuing to offer help, even though he was repeatedly robbed and stolen from.
Gernot never stopped learning in the firm belief that the brain is a muscle requiring exercise as much as the rest of the body. We actually had plans for him to show me his unique method of teaching young people latin-based languages on which he had been working.
I was very sad to learn that Gernot passed away last night after a long struggle with cancer. I will not forget him, and his memory will live on in how I see the world and how I deal with life and death, forever NOT a grown-up.