A new year has started at school. It also means to plug back the alarm clock at an insane hour again. My first hours are spent with my regular classes. The kids look as if they have been sleep deprived for days on end. They sport dark circles around the eyes, and struggle to keep them open. All elbows are on the table, supporting rolling heads. They make it through the class, bravely. Comes the time of my welcome class. Some of them will leave for a regular class by the end of the month. I’m not looking forward to it as I’ll miss them but at the same the quicker they leave the welcome class, the better for them.
For now, there is a joyous banter as they enter the classroom. Hamed, an Afghan teen, already complains about a faint ray of sun perking through the window: “Oh but my eyes can’t stand it, it stings, I’m allergic!” he says, as I refused to close the curtain on the only ray of natural light of the day. I smile: “I’m disappointed, you’re no Panjshir lion then!”. He laughs at our private joke. We had talked about Ahmad Shah Massoud. He knows I referred to his nickname. “Well I’m not from Panjshir, that’s why”, he replies, laughing. I close the curtain. I don’t want him to go blind either.
As I greet them all with New Year’s good wishes, I ask what they were up to during the holidays. Some of them did their homework, they invented fairy tales as I asked them to. I will come back to that in another post, it’s not as weird as it seems. Or maybe it is. For now, I have half the class fighting over who will talk first about his or her holidays. Some order is needed so I assign some tasks to the beginners and go sit down with the advanced kids. I figured I needed to do some targeted teaching during those last classes we’ll have together. Hamed complains again: “But we always write stories and do dictations, it’s boring!” I’m miffed, are my courses boring? I begin: “Well, that’s not true, we also do plenty of grammar!” Somehow I’m not convinced by that one either but his eyes light up as he exclaims “Yes!! Grammar!”. Obviously, only a traumatized mind would rejoice upon a grammar lesson. On a more serious note, it’s true they hadn’t had a proper grammar lesson for a couple of weeks. As they insist, I agree on the grammar course. I ask Mariam, the other Afghan, to please come and sit with us. “No thanks”, she answers. Ok, I should have skipped the “please” part, I was misunderstood. “Mariam, I would actually like you to work with us, it’s a request, not a suggestion”, I say, trying not to laugh.She sighs and shrugs her shoulders but gets up and brings her chair to the table where I already sit with a couple of other kids. Even kids from the welcome classes can be moody teenagers at times. Before we start, they want to tell me about the holidays. Anas, who came alone to Germany a year ago, forgot to do his homework, which is very surprising as he is the kind of kid who taught himself German within a month upon arriving here, and learns dozens of new words each day on his own, after school, in the flat he shares with other underage refugees under the supervision of the Berlin Senate. So much so that when I hear him beginning to ask a question I always panic as I assume he would know better than me anyway as his German is so good already. I ask him about that homework story? He has troubles with his guardian. “I wanted a pet, and she disagreed, but I got myself a goldfish anyway”, he explains. “So do you like pets?”, I start. “Yes, I used to have birds in Syria but my mother got rid of them because they were too loud. I got new ones though so I could keep them for a while. And now I just got a goldfish so I don’t see what’s the big deal, it doesn’t even make noise!”, he says. I completely understand the need for a pet, as a pet lover. I understand it all the more so that here’s a kid who lives in a foreign land, surrounded by foreigner, without a single soul he can call family. However, I also understand that people living with him and supervising him have a right to disagree to him owning a pet. And I tell him so: “Hey, I get that you want that goldfish, but if your guardian said no, it’s no wonder that it created tensions if you brought a fish in the flat anyway you know? When one lives in a group, one has to respect the rules…”, I say. He nods, but adds: “I know that…but she doesn’t live with us, and I got my fish on my pocket money, so I don’t see why she had anything to say about it”.
Errrr, doesn’t live with us, what does he mean?
I enquire: “Excuse-me…but you share your flat with three other teens don’t you?”.
“And…no one lives with you…?”
“No, but the guardian comes once every day…though sometimes she doesn’t. And she never comes during the week-end.”
“So…no one is actually supervising you and there for you when you wake up, go to school, come back from school…?”
“No, no, it’s really cool, we’re completely on our own!”, he says with a broad smile. Of course he would. Sixteen and home alone. You bet.
I’m speechless. I wonder how much more I don’t know about my pupils’ lives. In my naivety I had assumed that underage kids were (well) taken care of in the sense of being supervised full time, not just allocated a room in a shared flat with a sporadic, visiting guardian and a spot in a school, far away from the flat at that. I try not to look too shocked/dismayed/surprised/sad/all of the above as I want to find out more:
“Anas, do you cook?”
“hahaha. No, of course not.”
“Hmm. how to you prepare yourself food then?” I ask him and keep in mind that two other kids from my other classes live with him and subsequently are in the same situation.
“Oh I don’t cook, I eat sandwiches, mostly!”
On that, another kid vouches for him: “yes he does! there is no woman so he doesn’t cook! Mariam, you should come over and cook for us!”. The three boys at the table laugh, Mariam looks at me and we exchange a “boys…whatever” look before I retort:
“Well for one, guys, now that you are in Germany you’ll be pleased to find out that women don’t belong to the kitchen and that your two hands can come in quite handy to cook for yourselves!”. They stop laughing: “But…who will teach us then?!”, they enquire.
“Your mother” comes to mind as the obvious answer but not all of them have her at hand, especially not Anas who lives on his own with his family stuck in Turkey. I ask further: “So, do you eat properly at least? fruits, veggies?” He laughs: “No way! I never eat those, I avoid to buy them in the supermarket”. Now that he says that I realize his complexion is really pale. I curse myself for never having thought of nutrition. Well, I did, but the other way round, for two fat kids whose parents give crisps and chocolate bars galore as snacks by all times. Naturally as a teacher you can’t really interfere with that. But in Anas’ case, no one is there. No one to tell him what to it and he’s a teenager, happy of course to live on kebabs. So here I am, playing the apprentice nutritionist and explaining to him (and incidentally speaking loud enough for the two chubby kids to hear as well – you never know…) the benefits of vitamins, carotene and good calories. “But no one told me that!” he protests. Hamed the Afghan adds: “Each day, I bring two pieces of fruit for him to have one but he doesn’t eat it!”. Hamed is here with his family, he’s looked after by his parents. And Anas, I think, has no one to tell him that one apple a day keeps the doctor away. Arguably there are worse things in the world than a bad diet, especially when the teen is alive and well, but today that’s my worse thing in the world. Because he doesn’t even have an adult supervising him. Not even a family member, just a bloody guardian who is never here and who doesn’t give a damn about getting her boys to eat properly. There is not much I can do just now so I say: “Money isn’t the problem right? So from now on I want you to eat at least two pieces of fruit a day and you have to introduce vegetables to your meals”. Anas looks bewildered: “But I can’t cook vegetables!”. I compromise on that. “Ok, then at least the fruits”. He agrees. Hamed adds quickly: “Well, don’t eat too many bananas. Because bananas, they make you…Well, just don’t!”. Both boys start laughing at that. I go on, pretending to be oblivious to that: “And I want proof. Send me pictures of the meals on our What’s App group. Starting today.” You would think that as a teen he’d tell me to shut up and walk away on that. But no, he’s really happy someone cares. He tries to negotiate a next week start for his new diet. No way. We agree on tomorrow.
So tomorrow, instead of asking the kids about those irregular verbs, I might well suggest some mean vegetable soup recipes for them to try their hands on this winter. Maybe a call to the Youth Ministry will be in order too, and I’ll have one thing or two to say about goldfish, vegetables and supervision.