Welcome Class, November 2nd, 2016

Sometimes you really, really, really don’t want to go to school. All that matters is the warm embrace of that pillow of yours (or friend, partner, cat/dog/whatever available) you’re holding on to for your dear life. The day before, you had reluctantly looked on your class’s What’s App group, in order to check which homework have to be done. Of course, you had forgotten there was a test today. Damn. Another reason not to get up. It would be so easy, except you are the one who decided there would be a test in the first place: welcome to the teacher’s world. That means that the twenty kids already hating you for planning the test would hate you even more for not coming as they have (hopefully) prepared for it.

All reluctance vanishes quickly as I have to pretend that at least one person in the room is excited to be here. Of course they whine and sigh about the questions, too hard, too long, we haven’t seen that during the course, and so forth. They’re good kids though, they try their best during the two hours allocated and duly hand in their copies. While they were writing away, I had one thing in my mind: the welcome class I’d see afterwards. It has been two weeks I hadn’t been to school; that means that chances are that there will be so many new faces to greet. Indeed, as I walk across the courtyard, I’m quickly surrounded by the advanced group. “Frau Schatz, we haven’t seen you in soooo long! where were you!!”. Hmm, let me guess, holiday anyone? It’s only been two weeks, but school is their universe, and two weeks is an awfully long time for a teenager. I’d like to hug them all as I would old friends, but we’re not supposed to, although my colleagues don’t mind the occasional “druck” at the end of the class. I for one was coerced into a secret handshake by one of my former students, which was apparently transmitted to the newbies in the class. “Schatzi, I was sick during the holidays! Couldn’t do a thing, nor learn German!”, says Hamed, from Afghanistan. His best pal, from Syria, interrupts. He too has things to say: “WherewereyouwehaventseenyouinsolongFrauSchatzwhatwillwelearntodayIdidalotoflearningduringtheholidays (…)”. I reached the keys in my bag and we’re in the classroom.

I have eight beaming faces taking off their coats and standing as they wait for me to give permission to sit. I only know five of them but they seem as eager as the others to answer a loud “GOOD MORNING” upon being greeted. After that formality, which sees them sit at their respective tables, Hamed and Anas both come back to the desk to continue telling me all about their holidays. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth come to me as if their lives depended on this particular moment: they have to tell me about the holidays. I nod and smile and nod and smile and try to fit five simultaneous conversations in my head.

They also talk about their day so far. Today they each drew something with my colleague after hearing a text describing a landscape – they had to show with images they had understood it. They want me to look at the masterpieces and pick my favourite. Hamed is miffed because I didn’t pick his. Jodi, a Syrian girl, doesn’t give up hope: “You picked this one, but are you sure you don’t prefer that one?” she asks, trying to neutrally point at her own drawing. The recreation lasts a couple of minutes, as my colleague was finishing up something in the classroom. When she leaves, I ask the kids to go back to their places. They do a military salute while doing so (that means I’m the boss), and the three new faces seem to wonder where they ended up. I introduce myself, although they already seem used to my nickname. There is a new Afghan girl, Mariam, who taught herself German during the eight months she already spent in Berlin. She still lives in a shelter and understandably hates it. She and her family live in one of those temporary dorms where rooms are only separated by a thin layer of wall that doesn’t even reach the ceilings. People hear everything others are doing, they’re woken up with the lights at 6am and lights go off early in the evening. She has to live, sleep, eat and learn in such a place, and she sure isn’t happy about it. Hamed, the other Afghan, explains that he too stayed very long in a shelter. He and his family lived in Tempelhof for three months before being allocated a flat. A year ago, almost to the day, I had briefly past through Tempelhof during a chaotic day volunteering, before it was even fully built up as a shelter and it hadn’t left the nicest memory at the time.It seems to have happened in another life.

The two other new guys are from Syria. One is almost 18, the other 15. Homs and Damaskus. No need to ask why they’re here. One is going to be assiduous, the other already shows school bores him. He’s in for a tough year as German is not the easiest language to learn. The new boys both sport round eyes as they other kids beg…to get a dictation test.

As I walk around the class carefully enunciating the German sentences, silence falls upon us. The eight kids are carefully forming their words. I hear the sound of my own voice speaking this German language that was so hard for me to learn as well. “In dem oder in den?” one asks. I repeat. Again, and it’s soothing to see them tracing the lines in their notebooks. They’re the happiest kids that go to school. Since they’re often very keen on talking about their dreams and their lives till now, the following task if for them to draw their living space and describe it with words next to the image. Again, you never have to ask twice, they all comply and get started. Except Mariam, the Afghan girl. She looks at me, sadly. “I don’t have a home to describe, I told you…”, she says. I bite my tongue. Spot on, I asked them to draw houses when most of them don’t have that anymore. “It shouldn’t make you sad!” I say, “Instead think of what you would like then, and describe it with your own words!”. That’s a lame one but the best I could come up with and she seems happy enough with that. As always with new kids, I grab a world atlas and sit next to her. She looks up, wondering what I’m doing. I pretend not to notice her, and flick through the maps until I find one with Afghanistan on it. Then I let my fingers run through the borders. I look up, she’s smiling at me. She leans forward, and her fingers run on the map as well. “I was born here, you see?” she says. All sadness evaporated. “Tell me about it?”, I ask. “I don’t remember it, we moved to Iran when I was still a baby”. We move to the next page, and her fingers trace the family’s itinerary from Afghanistan to Iran. I see the scars on her hands. There is no kid who doesn’t bare traces on their body from the hardship they’ve endured along the way. I don’t ask, she will tell, in time. Hamed is interested by the world atlas as well but a quick glance of mine tells him it’s not time to interrupt. I talk to Mariam a bit further, time to get to know her better. I show her France. “Paris?” she asks. No, further East. I show her on the map. I can see her eyes brightening at the prospect of all the cities she hasn’t seen yet.

After a while I move over to Hamed, who is all excited to show me all the cities he visited. He’s very well traveled for his age, and certainly saw more of the Middle East than I probably ever will. He too grew up in Iran, and not in Afghanistan. He traveled a lot, both in Iran and Turkey. “And then we arrived to Kos, in Greece”, he says. I don’t ask how. He’s here now, that’s what counts. As we trace back his itinerary, there is a knock on the door. My colleague, a translator, a teenage girl and her mum come in. The girl will join us from tomorrow onwards. The welcome class deserves its name: one by one, the kids, without being asked, stand out and introduce themselves: name, age, country of origin, how long they’ve been in Germany, and “Herzlich Willkommen!”. The teenage girl comes from Lithuania. The closest we’ve got, geographically, is a Polish teen, the rest of them come from further away. Yet they all warmly welcome her, especially Jodi and Mariam who will finally have a little more support for equality in our class. Hamed, flirty as usual, sees fit to add “and I don’t have a girlfriend”, after having introduced himself. General laughter, the Lithuanian girl blushes. Hamed solemnly adds “I think it’s important to say such things”. More laughter, and the girl is gone; she has more administrative papers to fill out. As the door closes, Hamed and Anas are over the moon: “Finally! We need more girls here! Especially blondes with blue eyes!”. Jodi, Mariam and I look at each other in amused disapproval. Boys will be boys, and it feels so good to see those only worrying about girls.

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