Submitted by Susanne Bacon.
Labor Day is gone. Here come fall and a new schoolyear. As we are driving through our neighborhood on our way to wherever, we encounter school buses again. Or groups of moms and kids waiting for them either to pick up one of theirs or to drop them off. It makes me reflect on my schoolyears back in the day in Germany.
First things first – yes, there used to be school buses in some rural areas over there. Not where I grew up, though, in the suburbs of a city that then counted a population of over 600,000. My elementary school was almost a mile away from where I lived. We had only moved to the neighboring suburb a few weeks before my first schoolyear was going to start, and since we did our groceries in the same suburb where the school was – and did them on foot – I memorized the way to and from school very fast. It was almost a straight line between here and there anyway, along an arterial route. No pedestrian crossings anywhere except at one crossing with another main route. And I would be walking through most of my entire 13 schoolyears (then the regular duration if you chose to graduate from grammar school for an academic career). Sometimes, in later years, I’d use my bicycle to get to my grammar school. But mostly, I preferred to be on foot. Bus rides on public transport were a luxury. And my mother didn’t drive a car. So, if I was lucky, I hitched a hike with some classmates’ parents in the morning, or I had to walk.
I still remember the celebration at the old gym that our elementary school held for us first graders that year. There were speeches. There were a theater play and skits on stage, performed by other elementary school kids who seemed, oh, so much older. My huge sugar cone stuffed with goodies seemed very plain compared to the glittery, glimmery affairs other kids had. And I remember that I only knew two kids in my class, two from our neighborhood, none of them very friendly. Basically, I was dunked into cold water, with a sugar cone for consolation. The classroom, though, looked cheerful. The building had only been finished a year or two before, and the furniture were still brand-new. The teacher, Frau Hankwitz, was cheerful and young. And the items on the list of school material we were handed that day – among them boxes of colorful wax crayons, pencils, and a set of mysterious geometrical plastic shapes called “Logical Blocks” – was quickly acquired at the local stationery store that probably did the business of its year that first week of school.
Two years later, I’d be on stage that first day of another schoolyear myself, performing in a school musical for the new first graders, among them my brother. I still remember the verses I had to say and some of the songs we sang. I also remember that we received a new teacher who was known for her strictness. My class received its first tastes of sarcasm that year, and competition grew tougher, as we knew that Mrs. Schnell would have her say which type of school would destine our nearer future after grade four.
Fifth grade meant grammar school for me. And though I was tossed in with a new crowd (they had thrown two other school’s classes into the mix, and we were more than 30 kids now), I enjoyed getting out of the labeled box into which I had been tossed in my old class, and starting over. The way to school changed and became a bit more dangerous; so, I had to be a bit more watchful. And vacations were still the highlight of every schoolyear, rare and short as they were.
Ah, how I started anticipating the beginning of school during my last years at grammar school, though! Just to meet old friends again. To fall in and out of love with boys who probably never knew. To perform as a soloist at school concerts. To act in plays on stage. To participate in some marvelous school outings that were a tradition – Paris, France, among others.
It’s funny how dreading the end of summer vacations turned into looking forward to the beginning of the new schoolyear the older I got. Schoolyears of lost mittens to be retrieved at the janitor’s office window; janitors were always a feared species, though they all were so very kind if you took the trouble to get to know them better. Of ripe apples fresh from the tree by the roadside on the way to school. Fall hikes with the class. Fall crafts. New books. Bright ceiling lights in the morning. Cleaning blackboards from yesterday’s chalk writing. Walking home to fall lunches and dinners.
It was a slow time, back then. No cellphones. No computers. Long distances on foot. Lots of time to think. To play. To communicate. Watching today’s kids by the roadside enter a bus or rushing out of one at the end of their school day … ah, all these memories return! And I don’t want to swap a single one with one of theirs.