Welcome Class, February 24th, 2016

Yesterday the kids were really challenging. That means they give you no rest, they answer “no, I can’t do that”, and “no, I don’t want to do that”, and “when is the break?”, and “why do we learn that?”, all the time. That’s challenging. Especially when you can’t find enough words that everybody – coming from a different linguistic background, can understand, in order to explain why. So today, I arrive fully prepared for another “we’re not motivated at all” kind of day.

Only today everyone is motivated. It was just one of these days. As it stands, I give four different sets of exercises to the class, one for each level. Some still need to learn how to write, others can already manage basic conversation. There is one Albanian kid who reacts more and more aggressively when asked to do something. He barely has any German and has been here for more than three months, but he doesn’t want to learn. He wants to go back to Greece, where he grew up. It’s not a communication problem since we have another Albanian kid who can tell him exactly what he’s assigned to do. He just doesn’t want German in his life. So now he just draws landscapes all the time. We talked to his father three times about it already, and the father is sorry about it and apologizes profusely each time. There is nothing wrong, it’s just very sad because the kid can’t express himself with words. The lucky part is that the other kids are really nice to him. No bullying this time round, although he would be an easy target as he mostly just shouts and behaves like a big baby.

Hussein, the new Afghan kid, takes school very seriously. But since he has never attended one, he doesn’t understand the rules here yet. He’s very straightforward and sometimes downright rude to me, but I can’t blame him as he only uses his limited amount of German and does his best to fit in. Today, as the others are thankfully quieter than yesterday, I get to spend more time with him. He explains to me that he grew up in Pakistan with his three brothers, and that he had no passport. That’s why he wasn’t allowed to attend school there. But school means business: the four Afghan kids that come are always dressed up really smart. They respect the teacher and expect a lot from the teaching hours. Little by little, Hussein opens up. I explain to him that when I ask him to do an exercise, he has to to it, and that if he doesn’t understand, he should never hesitate to ask. It’s so simple when you grew up in that system but so intimidating when you haven’t.

Fortunately, he sees that Syrian and Bulgarian kids come over all the time, to ask me to read, proofread, comment on their work. So little by litte, he asks, with awkwardness, but he asks. The first break happens quicker than everyone expected. “15 minutes break, everybody out!” I say. “What? Already?!”. They’re funny. Yesterday they were all staring at me blankly, or full of hope whenever they caught sight of the clock. Today they’re assiduously working and don’t even want to be interrupted. “Go freshen up the brains!” I say. They all take their smartphones and head to the stairs to play games on it. Not exactly what I meant, but nevermind.

Hussein, and Mustapha, another Afghan in the class, stay behind. I’m filling out the teacher’s book, and look up. Hussein tells me more about his family. He obviously needs to talk, so we sit with Mustapha as he explains his journey to Germany. His dad is in Australia. I wonder how he managed, but don’t ask. I would also like to know why he never mentions his mother. Again, better not to ask. The two new friends exchange their impressions on Istanbul, where they both stayed, more than six months each. Mustapha was supposed to meet a relative there. “My aunt phoned in Afghanistan and told me I had to go there and meet her. But I called her, and she had disappeared. So I waited, and waited. And she never came. So I came here instead.”. He tells me all that candidly, with his sad smile. He’s happy now. He never takes breaks at school, his head always stuck in the dictionary. Earlier on, as I was talking in Spanish with a Bulgarian (whose dad is Spanish. It’s confusing.), Mustapha had looked up at us with big round eyes. “Wow, you speak so many languages! I just speak Farsi, Dari and a little bit of German!”. I told him I’d be very glad to master either Farsi or Dari and that he would become a very good translator if he kept on working like that. This made him very happy.

Hussein explains that he travelled alone to Istanbul. His brothers will, apparently, stay in Pakistan. No matter how happy he sounds now, his eyes look terribly sad. Mustapha now wants to take his break, so the two stand up and walk out of the class. Hussein hesitates before leaving. He comes back, and repeats “My father, in Sidney”. He said that a couple of times, but there seems to be something more he needs to tell me. “I don’t have a mother. That’s how it is”, he says, looking at me, then looking down again. “I understand. It is tough”, I reply. “That’s how it is”, he repeats, softly, still looking at the floor. And he leaves.

When the kids are back in the classroom, they beg me to have an hour of sport as their teacher was absent earlier on. They want to play football. One of the Albanians begs me not to, he’d rather learn German. A first, since he always complains, about everything, German or not. Hussein asks whether we can dance. Dance? I ask. Mustapha can’t stop laughing. Hussein explains: “Yes, in the shelter, they told me you could do anything at school in Germany! especially dancing!”. If that makes him happy, we will have to look into it.

For the time being, I allow them to play cat and mouse. It’s a great group game. One kid is the cat, and needs to catch another who is the mouse. All the others have to shelter the mouse. It sounds easy, but it does wonders to group mentality. We move the tables around, and I pretend to not see that half of them are demonstrating their impressive break-dance skills, and here they are, one chasing the other, and all the other ones forming a protective circle around the mouse. Hussein can’t believe his eyes. A childish play in the middle of the classroom, and the teacher authorizes the mess! He’s successively mouse, then cat. It’s probably too childish for some of them, but they all laugh. Good laughs, coming from their guts. Kids from everywhere, all holding hands. It’s a cliche but one that is so good to witness.

Tomorrow, we will do boring grammar exercises again. But there will always be time for fun, as well, because they so badly need it.

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