Published: September 15th 2012September 15th 2012
Schulranzen (left) and Schultute (right) the night before the big day
It’s been a very, very long time since I wrote a blog post about living in Germany. Maybe I’ve just gotten so used to how things are, so comfortable here that I didn’t have much to say. Or perhaps I got tired of feeling like an expat and viewing Germans as “the other”. Foreign. Different. Germany really is now home, and I am getting used to how things work, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing left to learn! We are now at the beginning of a new journey: the German school system.
Yesterday, our oldest son started first grade here in Germany. In the U.S., there are big celebrations when you finish stuff: preschool graduation, kindergarten graduation, high school graduation, retirement celebration… and then, of course, there are funerals, which are more commemoration than celebration most of the time, but still mark the end of something. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, but the only thing we truly celebrate the beginning of is marriages. I mentioned this to my German friend, and she said “Oh, not here. Here, we celebrate everything, all along the way.” And now that I think of it, I do believe that Germans do
On the way to the ceremony
an excellent job of celebrating things. Not just Germans, lots of cultures, but I’m going to focus on Germany right now.
Starting first grade is a BIG, no a GIANT deal here. Before yesterday, I was baffled, and maybe even a tiny bit annoyed about this. Why do we go to all this trouble? We’ll have to sit in the gym and listen to the school principal blabber on, then listen to the town mayor blabber on some more. We have to fill up a big paper cone with gifts, we have to dress up… isn’t it all a bit much for starting school? After all, children here are guaranteed the right to go to school. But I wasn’t going to play it down and ignore all the rituals and make our son feel somehow left out. That wasn’t even an option. I was going to do whatever it was we had to do.
This started with research: asking all of my German acquaintances how it all worked. I began in May. Over the months, I gathered the pertinent information:
• The first day of school is a very big deal.
• Elementary school students in Germany carry special backpacks called Schulranzen. They are lightweight, hard-sided backpacks with pockets in certain places, a snack compartment, and lots of reflective material, as many German school children walk to school. No yellow buses here.
• Required school supplies include watercolor paint, brushes, scissors, glue, and colored-pencil sets called Federmappen.
• On the first day of school, children are each given a decorated paper cone filled with sweet treats and small presents. This is called a Schultüte. I ordered a Schultütekit from our son’s kindergarten back in May and, without looking at it, put it away until a few days ago. When I took it out to put it together, I realized that there was about 4 hours of labor in front of me. Once it was done, it was filled with tiny books, Star Wars cards, playing cards, erasable pens, gummy bears, a new water bottle, a snack box set, and some tiny books.
• Children don’t wear their shoes in school here. They have to have a set of slippers at school, which they wear as soon as they get there.
• The first day of school is a very big deal.
As the first day of school approached, pretty much every adult who learned that Kaan would be starting first grade asked if he had his Schulranzen
(school bag) and Schultüte
yet. The buildup was everywhere. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s just not such a big deal in the US. But I should not forget here that I’m an expat. I have never raised children in the US. I only have my memories of starting school in 1981, and things may have changed since then! It’s a classic expat syndrome – remembering your country the way it was when you were little, or when you left it.
On the morning of the first day of school, our son got up and got dressed at seven in the morning, two hours before we needed to be at the assembly. Once we finally left the house, all dressed up, hair done, our son proudly carrying his backpack, us carrying his giant goodie-filled cone with racecar decorations, I felt very odd. Not really nervous, perhaps a bit excited, but mostly I felt strange. I wondered if we had it
all right. I hoped I hadn’t written down the wrong day. Had I put the right presents into the cone? Were we dressed ok?
Our son had a huge smile on his face as we walked down the street. Neighbors we’d never spoken to wished him luck from their gardens. There were no other cone-carrying families on our street, but when we turned onto another street closer to the school, we joined a group of families with Schulranzen-
carrying first graders and multicolored celebratory cones. We flowed to the school, the river of families and children and backpacks and paper cones. When we got to the door of the gymnasium, all of the final-year kindergarten children from the town lined the path, our other son among them, excitedly waving a colored scarf at his first-grader brother.
Once inside the gym, the first-graders didn’t sit with their parents, but with their new first-grade classmates and first-grade teachers. As it turns out, the assembly consisted mostly of other elementary-school children singing songs and putting on skits for the new first-graders. The school principal and the mayor only said a few words, wishing the children friendship and success,
and then the children exited to dramatic music and were whisked away to their new classrooms, where they had ninety minutes of class.
The parents, meanwhile, stood in the main area of the school, sipping coffee and champagne, while we waited. How we all wished we were flies on the wall of the classroom! We were all the same – not German or Turkish or American or whatever other nationalities were there. We were all parents of first graders, wishing our children success and happiness. Eventually, we were let into the classrooms, and camera flashes went off and kisses and hugs were exchanged between parents and children. And when we were released, we distributed ourselves amongst the town’s restaurants and celebrated with our children.
The day was an absolute success. It finally clicked. I got it. I understood the pomp and circumstance. The day was a happy, exciting day to get school started on the right foot. Starting school is a big deal, it’s something to be happy about. Today was the first full day of first grade. And of course, in spite of the party atmosphere yesterday, there was still a range of
emotions among the first graders. I believe one could group them into three categories: the scared/crying group, the nervous/unsure group, and the happy group. Our son was in the happy group. My wish for him is that no matter what, he’s always in the happy group.
There are more photos below