What do I remember from my first day of school in Germany ever? A big candy-filled cardboard cone, throngs of people seated in the gym to attend a welcoming program and to listen to the principal, then entering a classroom and being pretty much clueless about anything that was going on. I was able to write my name, count, and read a round, analog (!) clock. That was pretty much it, apart from knowing how to knit, crochet, sew, use scissors, dress and bind my shoes, eat with knife and fork European-style, quote short poems, bicycle, and use public transport. I was six and one of the youngest in my class.
Home was a bit over a mile from school, and after the first few days of being accompanied to school by my mother and picked up later, all on foot, I was left to my own devices. I had a cute umbrella for rainy days, and school was never cancelled when it snowed. It was your own responsibility to be on time – and you saw to it that you were, for all the classmates screamed, “You’re la-ate! You’re la-ate!” if you were. There were no school buses. There was public transport, but I rarely received the fare for a ticket. I walked most of my 13 years of school. I think there were a couple of years when I actually used a bike. None of us ever had a car – we were only permitted to drive after age 18 and having passed extensive and expensive driving lessons.
I used mostly satchels. My first one was yellow with a blue dog carrying a flower in its mouth; it had red reflectors for safety. I hated it. My second satchel was brown leather. It looked like … no, let’s just say, I hated it even more. I carried loads of books in them to and from school. We had no lockers. We had a place on a shelf in our classroom. One that practically anybody had access to. I rarely put anything in there. We needed to have all of our books and study materials at school and at home anyhow. Only when I was 15 and came back from my first solitary big trip to the US did I carry a book bag – a beautiful canvas one in beige with dark-blue handles embroidered with a band of whales. It was unique. It stood out like a fashion statement. I loved it.
Schooldays started at 7:45 am. The first three years we were in school six days a week, after that it was staggered down to finally merely five. Lessons lasted 45 minutes with a five-minute break afterwards. At 10:10 am we’d have our “big break” – 20 minutes that were used to have a snack. Most kids brought their own from home. Mine always was a sandwich and a cut-up apple, lovingly folded in parchment paper by my mother. Other kids came to school with money and bought baked goods and milk or tea either at the janitor’s window or at a table that was set up by a vendor. Lunch was at home. Always. And after homework was done, we were set free to roam the neighborhood until dinner or darkness, depending on which set in earlier.
Moving over here, I sometimes wonder where the kids are. Sure, I see them wait for or get off school buses. But I rarely hear or see any outside these times – if I’m not counting toddlers at supermarkets during the day or kids’ birthday parties at a venue in a park. I know, of course, that school buses drive everybody collectively to the places they need to be at. So, I don’t see anybody of school age walk from A to B. And, of course, I know that kids are staying at school all day more often than not. I admit, it would have driven me crazy as a kid. I remember what torture it was when we were scheduled two afternoons of school per week in third and fourth grade. Later I got over it, but never used to it.
Seeing the school busses and the lines of cars waiting behind makes me think of how I found it so tough sometimes way back when. The sugar cone on my first day of school lasted only for so long. But … I’m glad everything was like it was, and I know I wouldn’t have envied today’s kids their school busses, fancier school fashion, or school lunches. I enjoyed a freedom that children today, in Germany as well as in the US, experience less and less. And if it was only the freedom to pick flowers for my teachers or friends while on my way to school or to enjoy running through the neighborhood unsupervised in the afternoons.