If you want to get a good idea about Middle East geopolitics, being a teacher in a Welcome Class proves to be quite the enlightening experience. This year’s kids reflect the population movements as good as any interactive map one could find. Right now, my class has five Syrians, two Afghans, two Iraqis, a Russian, a Bulgarian and an Iranian. This is susceptible to change as kids come (like now) and go (to regular classes).
The mix is unequal, there are far more Arabic speakers as there are Farsi ones, and the Russian-speaking ones are a minority. It makes it all the more difficult to enforce the school rule “No other language than German in the classroom”, when all the kids are perfectly happy to socialize in their own language.
What makes it even more complicated, is that most of them, though happy to be at school, are completely normal teenagers. That means, they generally don’t like school as such, at least not the teaching part. And that makes it very complicated to entice them to learn German. Within one week, I already had two one-to-one talks with two troublesome kids. The usual “it’s not for me it’s for you”, “you’re given a chance to build your future now” talk. At the same time, this talk is given to kids who have lived what a lot of adults don’t even experience. They have been through so much bad things in life already, that it makes it really hard to be the one telling them that now is not the time to laugh with their comrades. Most of the time, we laugh anyway. But as a teacher, the balance between allowing too much comradeship during classes and being too strict a conveyor of knowledge is sometimes very hard to find. Those are kids you basically just want to pat on the hand and hug. But it’s not the place. There’s room for being strict. Besides, most of them come from places where teachers use long abandoned and harsh methods of coercion, sorry, enticement, to work. So all in all, when I feel I’ve been too strict because I’ve asked them to be quiet, I try to remember that I for one just asked politely – though impatiently – for more attention directed towards my German-words-ridden board.
A good trick to get them interested is the coveted reward that is for them being allowed to attend regular classes. That usually gets their attention big time. For, like, five minutes. Until the next troublemaker cracks a joke in Arabic. Which is more often than not lost on me. So day after day, as they would do anything but German grammar (and we can all agree that few are the ones who wouldn’t do the same), I find myself in the position of trying to instill some new particulars of that weird language into their distracted brains, as I try to arm them with the only fair weapons they’ll ever have to use here: knowledge.
Today, as I go through one of those phases with that one troublemaker, an Afghan kid, I take him out of the classroom. I’m tired to today so I could cry out of frustration. Here I am, for the hundredth time, having to interrupt my class because of that one kid who needs attention and interrupts my class, constantly. I know he craves for attention, and I wish I could devote all mine to him and only him. But there are eleven other kids back there, and he prevents them from going forward. I tried everything. Promoting him “teaching assistant”, threatening him to never be allowed to leave the Welcome Class (and subsequently me as a teacher, the fatal blow), explaining to him in every way possible that it was in his best interest to at least shut (the f***) up if he can’t find in himself enough focus for some tiny little minutes in the classroom. Today, he looks like he’s about to cry too, as I tell him that I don’t know how to ask him anymore. This boy, this rough boy really, really just needs a parent. I just can’t be this one, and I can’t comfort him. “Look, it’s nothing about you, you are a bright boy and couldn’t be anything you like”, I say, “just not with that attitude!”. I feel like a sadistic corporal about to send a worn-out soldier back to a nasty front. Pep talk. Again. Clash of cultures. Again. But the point is, I tell him I need peace and quiet if he wants to get anywhere at all. We shake hands, he has calmed down now. He still looks very unhappy and I feel very guilty about it. Did I inflict more pain on his already burdened soul?
Back in the classroom, the peace lasted for approximately ten minutes. After that, a new kid suddenly protests “Miss, miss! he insulted me!”, pointing at another kid. The said kid looks sheepishly away. “Ok, guys, you’re teenagers now. That’s a kindergarten thing to do”, I start. The insulted kid goes on: “Yes but you see, it would be ok if he had insulted me, but he insulted my family!”. I wish I could invoke any God to get me out of this. “Guys, this is not going to work. No one is to be insulted here, none of that is ok. Besides, you all have families, right?”. The wrong thing to say to a Welcome Class. “Somewhere, I mean”, I hastily add, and go on: “Well none of them are to be insulted! how each of you would feel if something bad was said about your loved ones? isn’t life sad enough sometimes? be kind to one another! and on that note, be kind to me as well, I can’t do that without you! and I need your cooperation if you’re to learn anything this year!”.
It’s funny how young brains are quickly impressed by seemingly deep talks. The twelve heads are looking up to me, with determined and – for some – contrite looks. “We’ll do that together! we’re a team, so we’ll go through this year together, not against each other!”. Someone gets this bad American screenwriter out of my head, now. I almost hear the trumpets and see a floating white flag as the end credits appear. Classroom warfare at its best. But it works. They heard me. Probably not for long. Probably only till tomorrow, or even just till the end of our class. For the time being, they do work along, they do participate, and they seem to have agreed on a ceasefire between them, in line with the geopolitics of school they embody so well.