First Days of School

If we were back in Vermont, I’d be gearing up for the first day of school on August 31. For this one precious year, all three of my children would be in the same school, the Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury, Vermont. It’s a school I’m wonderfully familiar with: I’ve had at least one child within its walls for the past five years, and served on its elected board for the past 17 months (I resigned just five days before we left the country).

Walter would be starting his first year of “big kid” school, tucked neatly in Kindergarten with the same teachers the girls were lucky enough to have, and with friends from his preschool class. Anya would be in second grade, continuing on with the same beloved teacher she had last year. This is the teacher who offered to adopt Anya so she could stay in Middlebury this year, but who also sent us our first piece of mail here, welcoming Anya to her new home. Greta would be in sixth grade, her last year at Mary Hogan School, also with the same teacher she had last year. She’d be gearing up for middle school, but also finding closure to her elementary school years.

I would know all of the teachers, and other parents and kids (many of whom I’ve known since birth). I would know all of the rituals, schedules and special occasions. I would know whom to ask or lobby, to get my questions answered or problems solved. In short, I would know exactly how the school works. And, with a Kindergartener and a sixth grader, I’d span the age-range of the school, but I’d also be in that sweet spot of mothering school-aged children — one school, one schedule, one drop-off, one first day of school.

Instead, we decided to move to Germany for this one precious year. This decision to expose our children to a different culture, to shake ourselves out of our routinized and familiar lives, has meant that I’ve sacrificed a rare moment of mothering serendipity. In the long-run, hopefully I’ve helped solidify my children’s place as “awesome people,” as Jonathan Gray commented on my previous post. But, in the short term, I’ve merely gained a can of German school worms.

This past week, each of our three children started school here in Göttingen, at a different school, a different type of school, in three different directions. Walter led things off by starting Kindergarten on Monday. He’s at Kindergarten Schillerstraße, about four blocks southeast of our apartment.  After emailing multiple Kindergartens prior to arriving, and being overwhelmed by the dozens of options all over the city, I finally decided where Walter would go by walking to the closest Kindergarten at pick-up time, and asking a mother who was retrieving her son if there were spots still available in the school and if she was happy with the program. When her answer was yes to both questions, I called the school and booked a spot. I needed something to be simple.

Starting Kindergarten is a big deal, both in Germany and the States. But kids here, usually start Kindergarten at age three and continue on until the start of first grade at age six. So, what would have been a big deal at home, just really turned out to be the German continuation of what he’s been doing since he was eight months old. It wasn’t a given that Walter would be in Kindergarten here because of the differences between the German and American school systems, but that’s where he ended up (I’ll write more about this in a future post). The great thing is that Walter took this all in stride, relieved to avoid the fuss of a school more new than it had to be.

On Thursday, it was Anya’s turn to start school. She’s in second grade at the Albanischule, about a 15 minute walk northeast of our apartment. The school came highly recommended to us as a place that would be especially welcoming to a student from abroad. It’s not our neighborhood school, and we had to get special permission to get Anya a spot, but I’ve been told the extra hoops and longer commute will be worth it

When we arrived at our apartment, in addition to the note from Anya’s former teacher, was a note from her new teacher, signed by all of the kids in her new class. Great teachers clearly think alike! Enclosed also was a school supply list so specific that I was sure I would never be able to translate it adequately to equip Anya with the necessary folders, pencils and papers. After puzzling over the list with google translate and amazon.de, I asked a friend here who told me which stationary store to go to and simply hand them the list. Turns out that even German parents can’t figure out the exact specifications of these lists. But after a engaging an extremely efficient clerk and running to a bank machine for more Euros, we walked out of the store with what I hope is a year’s supply of stuff for second grade.

We visited the day before school started, so that I could meet with the Rektorin, and Anya could meet her teacher and see her classroom. The preview relieved some of her anxiety, but she was still extremely nervous to be left in a classroom full of excited kids who didn’t speak her language. But, she did a great job, with minimal tears, even trading silly bands on the playground during recess.

Her school is terrifically welcoming, featuring signs in various languages greeting children as they walk in, and a large wooden hippo named Susi who oversees the playground. The parents are also engaged in the school (we have already gotten an email establishing the class email list and first parent’s meeting). Anya will have weekly swim lessons, choir and the opportunity for either tutoring or challenge programs four days a week. The second graders even have an overnight trip to a nearby youth retreat site in September. I hope that Anya will embrace these opportunities despite the certain moments of confusion, and the nagging longing for the comforts of home.

Greta had the final first day of school, in fifth grade at the Felix-Klein Gymnasium (F-K-G) just three blocks northwest of our apartment. She could not wait to get things going, aware that the more she waited the more nervous she’d get. We had visited her school also, to meet with the Koordinatorin, and we found out that Greta would be in the bilingual track in the school (other options include Classic and Mathematics). The bilingual track is naturally more set-up for international students, and the teachers are happy to have a native English speaker join the conversation.

Beginning in fifth grade, German parents can chose the type of school they’d like their children to attend for the equivalent of their middle and high school years. The Gymnasium track is for kids who are likely to be university bound. Fifth and sixth grades are often separated, making a sort of junior high school bridge, thus all the fifth graders are new to the school, so it was a good opportunity for Greta to not be the only new kid.

The first day of school included a large gathering of all the new students and parents in the school auditorium, complete with an orchestral opening and welcoming remarks from various officials. Then each child was called to the stage to greet their new teachers before exiting for a class photo. They then lined up for a parade to the “Kleiner Felix” building while kids in the rest of the grades lined the sidewalks to cheer them on. It was quite an event, if not a bit overwhelming for a child who had just arrived in the country 18 days ago.

Greta then went on to have a fabulous day, making friends, communicating with her burgeoning German, and having fun being with people her own age. When I picked her up at the end of school, she was all smiles and excited for more.

So, while I don’t know every ritual, schedule and special occasion these three schools will engage us in this year, and I’ll feel a whole lot of mother-confusion this year, I think these three schools will help us embrace the confusion, as Jason likes to say.  I hope the sacrifice of serendipity will lead to the strength to face more first days in the future.

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8 Responses to First Days of School

  1. Shannon Stewart says:

    You are such a good writer Ruth — thanks for letting us enjoy your experience (or experience your experience) vicariously! Have fun!

  2. Great updates! Send all the children a big hello from Katie. Sounds like all is going very well.

  3. Corinna Noelke says:

    Oh Ruth, I have tears in my eyes – so wonderful to hear that the kids are taking it in strive (and your are in the background encouraging them!

  4. Jen says:

    Wonderful, Ruth! The kids look great and it sounds as if they’re doing so so well with all of these changes!

  5. KT says:

    Isn’t it amazing that they’re able to take these huge changes in stride so easily? Actually, I’m not all that amazed, knowing your kids. You and Jason have done such a stupendous job of raising well-adjusted and curious individuals that I’d expect nothing less. I can’t wait to hear about the parent meetings, etc.
    How are you, my friend? Love to all of you.

  6. Jane Shepard says:

    Loved reading about the first days at school. Greta’s school sounds perfect for her. Are there other native English speakers in her group? I’m sure her German has come a long way already. Today is my first day back at school, trying to get the room in order and making plans for when students arrive next week. Let Greta know that I’m thinking of her and am anxious to hear from her.

  7. Clara Hardy says:

    It has been great reading the blogs. Got an e-mail from Greta stating that she likes school and is making friends. She also mentioned that she has a piano to play!!! Happy Anniversary to you and Jason (tomorrow)!

  8. So glad to read this, yet also somewhat traumatized as it took me back to the first days of new school I suffered through. Never fun days, but if Walter, Anya, and Greta can survive them with chin up, the rest gets so much easier. And never underestimate kids’ fascination with a funny accent — it was always my best help in having people want to befriend me 😉

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