Back to school, September, 5th, 2016

The summer is over according to my timetable. Not according to the weather. The sun still shines bright over Berlin as I make my way to school to start a new year. Last year it was back-to-back but always last minute short-term contracts, now I’ve got enough hours secured until the end of the year. This means that I can actually get attached and interested to the kids for a whole year, else it’s difficult to find the right balance between caring and trying not to get attached if you’re not sure you’ll see the kids again in two weeks’ time. This also means that I signed a vow of silence  non-disclosure agreement so I’ll be careful not to divulge any top-secret teaching information here and to never make the kids I talk about identifiable.

When I arrive at school, I feel more at ease than I did last year. I don’t like teacher’s room, I prefer class rooms, but I will need to know my colleagues better if I want to have a smooth year, plus some of them seem to be nice. I reach for my mailbox, anxious to see what and when I’ll be teaching. The schedule is what I asked for, it leaves me time for reporting. The content is more than I expected; on top of the welcome class, I also got a regular class to teach French and English to, for which most of my colleagues presented me their herzliche beileid (sincere condolences); “worst teaching experience in my life”, “never saw kids like that”, “what did you do to deserve them”, were among the phrases used to greet my “I’ll be teaching the X class this year!”. It got me very curious to meet them. For the time being, there are no regular classes as we have an “orientation week”. Being a teacher in the Welcome Classes mean that you get new kids and lose others every now and then, so we basically go through a year of trying to give some orientation to kids. There is a dozen remaining kids from last year’s classes, among which a group from the best class that ever existed (see previous posts). Well ahead D-day, they text me in our What’s App group to fish for information. Nope, I can’t give anything away, because I don’t know anything either, but I strongly hope they’ll be in my doomed regular class.

When the day comes to see them again, I find them in the meeting hall, next to one another, worried and waiting to be called by their new headteacher. I have just found out that I will only be teaching to one of them. Three of them will be together in another class, another one is on his own one level above. I’m as anxious as they are, but play it cool and tell them it’s all going to be alright. As they gradually disappear upon being called, I join my colleague who started a gardening activity in front of the school with the less advanced Welcome Class. This didn’t go without it’s share of protests on behalf of the kids: “So, we’re Arabs so we do the gardening?”, “Why aren’t there any German kids doing that as well?”, “We need to learn, not to garden!”. Five weeks of holidays didn’t entice them to be less grumpy about school activities but it’s good to see them again. A Syrian teen who was supposed to go to another school is finally back. He’s a troublemaker, it’s no fun to teach when he’s around as he’s constantly questioning and moaning about, but I’m happy he’s there.He’s a bright kid, he’ll manage if he puts in a bit of work. His best buddy is an Afghan boy, equally troublesome, but not a bad kid either. He still uses “Du” instead of the more formal “Sie” when addressing me so I’m careful to set strict boundaries from the onset. Some kids are mature enough to share a What’s App group with, others would literally eat you alive if you were too familiar with them. Still, I’m happy he’s back. We also got a kid from Cameroon, much to my surprise. He was there last year but had been accepted in an international (that means prestigious) school in another area of Berlin. Only his mother apparently found it adequate to turn down the offer because the son wanted to stay with his friends. Little moment of panic, we didn’t know anything about it. Phone calls are made to the central administration, where the civil servant in charge is on sick leave [here do NOT insert any comment about Beamte (civil servants) and their tendency to sick leaves in Germany]. I call the international school, but they’re only open from 8 to 10. It’s half ten. It is dealt with the day after: the kid can stay with us and has been accepted in a regular class. I fear there will be much struggle for him and he could have done better in the international school given the fact that he’s fluent in both French and English, but he seems to be happy about the outcome.

As I walk through the entrance hall, I spot a teenage girl who looks new, and lost. She’s shyly looking around and stands between a couple who I assume to be her parents. I come over to greet them, and both the father and the daughter look at each other, nodding negatively with their heads. The woman comes forward. “I’m the translator”, she says with a big smile, “Nasrin* (*name changed) is here in a Welcome Class!”. “Ah, perfect, I’m one of your teachers then”, I smile back and look at Nasrin. The woman translated and both father and daughter look relieved to find an interlocutor. They come from Iran, and arrived in Germany three months ago. I wonder which volunteers welcomed them upon their arrival. I wonder if they’re alone or if the mother is with them. I pointlessly hope there wasn’t too much heartbreak and horrors left behind. I bring them to the secretary who gives them a thick pile of papers to fill up. My co-teacher (and headteacher for the class where Nasrin will be taught) comes by and brings the trio to a quieter space where she helps them filling up all the forms. An hour later (that’s Germany bureaucracy for you), they’re done, and it’s time for the father to leave and for Nasrin to follow us. They look at each other, and it’s clear they have never been separated since they arrived. They’re both anxious at the prospect, but know it necessary. The father very tenderly he strokes her cheek, with the most caring, loving look at his daughter. No words are needed. I feel like an intruder, but a very lucky one to have witnessed such love. They’re everything for each other, and not a word was said. I wait behind, looking away, hoping my eyes didn’t get too teary. I can’t wait to interact with her and know her story. When they part, I take Nasrin to the gardening pitch. Her eyes widen in surprise, and she looks at me enquiringly. She was probably expecting seats and a black board. Fortunately, the translator is still here, so I explain to her the principle of the orientation week. She looks doubtful about the gardening bit.I hope she’ll make friends with the three Syrian girls who are back from last year.

As I see a big batch of freshly cut lavender, I rub some on my skin and see the four of them looking at me, wondering. “It’s lavender!” I say, somewhat too enthusiastically. Kids have this ability to make you feel like a lunatic every time you do something they don’t understand. Me and my strand of lavender feel very lonely; I don’t know whether they have much lavender in Syria but apparently teachers marveling at it aren’t met that often. I put my arm forward and one after the other they smell it. I encourage them to each take a bundle “home” (some of them still live in camps) for their parents. Hala shrugs “my parents don’t even know what it is!”. “All the more reason then!”, I say. Still, I’m the mad teacher happily distributing bundles of lavender to the apathetic teenage girls.

Later, busy preparing individual evaluation sheets in the teacher’s room, I hear them outside. There are wheelbarrow races and a lot of laughter as they dig, trim, prune and re-pot. It’s good to hear them again.

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