School daze

Nelson mandela schuleI’ve been feeling a bit remiss about how I’ve hardly written about S. I think it’s because she’s on the brink of adulthood and has a right to her privacy that I’ve been reluctant to say much about her. Returning home from an outing last night it became clear that she is the one family member who actually reads these posts. In a most good-natured way, prancing along on the sidewalk, she made gentle fun of how I’m always going on about how well adjusted C is, and how sweet little E is, but never have a comment about poor invisible S. And she’s right, and I knew it. So, a story about S.

Many friends worried, before this sabbatical, that she would be the one most opposed to making the trip—to missing 10th grade at home with her friends. But prior to the trip she was the most excited of our kids. No regrets about leaving, only excitement about going.

Before we arrived, we’d received word that the American school we’d heard so much about would be able to take our younger daughters, but had no place for our 10th grader. When people asked if we had school placements for our kids, I’d say, “Oh yes, for two out of three of them!” And this majority-rules thinking kept me going until we got here and I realized we really don’t know where she is going to go to school, and this could be a problem.

At first I was more focused on where E should go. Though we had a spot in the American school for her, she is the most fluent of all our kids. Upon our arrival our upstairs neighbors quickly encouraged us to send her to the public Montessori school across the street for a full immersion experience and no daily train commute. We took their advice and pursued that opportunity and haven’t looked back.

But S had no place. We’d been proactive early on, applying a full year before our arrival to the American school, and before the spring deadline to the acclaimed public international school. The international school required an entrance exam, which S took the first week we arrived. We were told we’d hear the results in a couple of weeks, after they’d had a chance to grade hers and those of other hopeful entrants. But school had already been in session since August 7. Everything was happening too slowly.

In the meantime, her sisters started school. I walked E to school with her new friends, and M took C on the subway to the American school, and S slept in, got up, and wondered each day what would become of her. These were the hardest days, the early days of being in a new city and not knowing what school she would attend that year, knowing her friends at home were already back in classes.

Home schooling had been an option we’d considered as a last resort, until we learned it is illegal in Germany. Not just not allowed, but actively opposed by people. We met a friend of the family who gave us some helpful tips about school options in Berlin, as well as an indication about how little homeschooling is tolerated.

She told us this story. A friend of hers had been allowing a mother and her son to stay with her. They had been running from the law, staying with friends a few months at a time, because the mother so badly wanted to homeschool her son.

The woman telling us this story said she’d felt obliged to call the police and alert them to this situation and provide their whereabouts. She said the outcome of this was that the mother spent some time in jail, and the son was removed from her custody. And she added that the son was apparently grateful for this intervention, as he wanted nothing more than the chance to go to school like a normal kid.

And what of the mother?

So much left unsaid. Perhaps the woman was unstable and not fit to parent. Perhaps the son was being homeschooled against his will. Perhaps the anti-homeschooling movement is an attempt to avoid any potential fascist nodes from springing up. Perhaps it’s a sincere belief that all children need a social setting in which to learn, experience different cultures and meet other people, and become better citizens of the world. Any way you slice it, homeschooling is illegal.

Her story was disturbing and personally worrisome. Everyone around us was asking where S would be going to school. We needed to come up with an answer.

An official government letter arrived in the mail stating that we must report to their office where S would be attending school by Wednesday of the following week, and the deadline was in all caps and boldface and it was alarming, since it felt like the authorities were on to us; how had they zeroed in on our one child with no school placement in such a short time?

Increasingly the answer was looking like she would have to fly back to the states and either go to school with her cousins in Pennsylvania, or live with a friend’s family and attend her own school back home. Either option felt like a failure, as we had planned to spend the year together to get closer as a family, not have it forcibly split up. The thought of how this year would forever be characterized—us failing to find S a spot in school, her having to leave her family because we couldn’t manage this simple task, was too painful to contemplate.

My proudest and most desperate moments as a mother were during that week after Labor Day. While M took S out to look around town and try to cheer her up, I took it upon myself to identify some more school options. The flip side of requiring all students to attend school is that some school would be required to take her. But it would inevitably be 100% in German, and we didn’t think that was the best choice for 10th grade.

Online I found the prohibitively expensive private international schools. But then I read about the state-sponsored “Europa” bilingual schools. I found one in our neighborhood and I picked up the phone. With my stilted handful of words, I explained that I need a place for my daughter in the tenth class, she speaks some German, can you help me? Preferably in English?

The woman did not wish to speak English to me, but I made it clear I wasn’t hanging up until she found someone, anyone, to talk to me in English now about whether their school might have a place for a tenth grader, and if not, then who I should call. Our neighbors had told us to be pushy, and so I was doing my best, though it’s neither in my nature nor did I have the language skills to attempt it, and my voice kept reaching higher registers as I fumbled my way through the unfamiliar German words.

My calls led me to a kind and helpful woman who spoke English and explained that S would be held back until her language skills were sufficient, and then she could join the regular classes. She said to give our international school option time, and if nothing worked out, to call her back and she’d help me through the next steps. She also gave me the names of the people at both of our first-choice schools who were required to help us find a placement should they not be able to take her. I thanked her, hung up, and cried.

On the Friday after Labor Day, M received a cryptic email from the international school inviting him to place a book order for S. It appeared we had a spot. Sure enough, she could start the following Monday.

And though she was predisposed not to like it, having toured the American school and heard a few disparaging things about this rival school, she is now having the time of her life. As we’d told her before she started, you’re going to become friends with people who are from all over the world. And she is, and it’s as amazing as it sounds.

S even asked me the other evening whether there might be any chance we could stay here another year, so she could stay for 11th grade. I looked at her like she’d grown a second head. There’s no chance in hell, I thought, Think of your poor mother, S, can’t you see that my life is in suspended animation here, and then I thought My god, how many mothers before me have had their own life choices scuttled to pave the way for a better future for their children?

I broke it to her gently that there wasn’t really any way we could stay here another year. This whole year-in-Berlin arrangement is only possible because of her dad’s teaching position, and if we don’t go back it all sort of falls apart, see? She saw. She knew that. She just needed to tell me that she’s having the time of her life here, and that this life actually looks more like the one she’s meant to be living, more than that other one back in St. Paul. At which I thought, You mean the real one? Home?  


2 thoughts on “School daze

  1. Gita Mazumdar

    What an incredible setting for those future telling and retellings of your fifteenth year, S! And you will even turn sweet sixteen in Berlin!


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