Back to School—German Style

By Stacey Walz

“Well, how are you doing?” my friend, Anne, asked as I entered the main lobby of the Dresden International School. She had tears in her eyes, too. It was the first day of school for our children and I knew it would be emotional. I had cried that morning to my husband, telling him that I would miss our children, Riley, 8, and Maggie, 6, my little traveling buddies. It’s funny how moms are…when our kids drive us crazy, we think, “I can’t wait until school starts.” Then when school starts, we are filled with mixed emotions. During the summer, I enjoyed their company, grateful that they gave me a reason to explore our new European city, asking me each day: “Ma, what are we going to do today?” I was going to miss them.

It’s been a month and a half since our family moved to Dresden, Germany, relocating for a year because of my husband’s job. Being a teacher, I am very familiar with the school setting, but standing in my children’s new school—foreign territory in more ways than one—I felt clueless, scared, and sad. I was very lucky to have taught in the same school that my own children attended, so I never had to worry about procedural items; I had to introduce them to my kindergarten families each year.

What a difference in their new school! Here, the children have “house shoes” that they leave in their lockers. They put on these shoes before entering the classroom so the classroom floors stay nice and clean. House shoes are a part of life here. “Where do I get house shoes?” I asked Anne. “Oh Stace, you’ll see them, believe me. They have their own aisle.”

Anne has lived in Dresden four months longer than I have and is a wealth of information. Her husband works with my husband, and her five year-old daughter has been the perfect playmate for Maggie.

Another surprise: when I dropped the kids off in their classroom, I noticed that each student had a snack box, a mini lunch box, to hold a snack. Who knew? I had sent my children off with yogurt, not even in a baggie! Their yogurts were placed with their classmates’ snacks, looking lackluster and colorless amidst all the colorful snack boxes. “Anne, I had no idea about snack boxes,” I lamented. “How am I supposed to know about this all!” Anne quickly reassured me, and told me where I could buy snack boxes at a store near our apartment.

Another big difference…they serve beer and wine at school functions! We had attended the school’s welcome BBQ that prior weekend, and we were amazed at the bar they had set up in the gym! My husband quickly went to the bar to get his German beer. Me…I was afraid that one drink would make my already naturally outgoing personality even more peppy than usual, especially before meeting all these new people! I won’t need to coax my husband into attending any of this year’s school functions!

Earlier that morning, we attended my daughter’s Zuckertuten Ceremony. This is an East German tradition in which first graders are handed a big cone filled with candy and gifts. These big cones graced every retail store during the late summer months. We bought her a Barbie zuckertuten and filled it with candy and little toys.

At the ceremony, the first grade teachers presented the children with their decorated zuckertutens, one at a time, while the children sat patiently listening for their names. People clapped, grandparents cried; first grade is a big deal here in Germany, since it’s considered the first year of formal schooling. We were excited to experience this tradition with our daughter.

I know my children will thrive in this school where they can take advantage of classes in dramatic arts and, of course, German. Physical education includes swimming lessons, while after school clubs offer singing, dancing, gardening, piano, and other enrichment opportunities. And they have the chance to meet children from all over the world.

After dropping off our children, I joined Anne and our new friend, Jenny, for a coffee at Starbucks. (Yes, there are a couple of Starbucks in Dresden). I was suddenly relaxed in my newfound freedom. At home, I listed all the things I now have the time to do. Exercise is big on my list. Meeting friends for shopping trips. Going to Poland for the day. Taking aimless walks around the city. Learning how to take the Euro rail. Taking a German class. Volunteering at the school. Reading. Writing. Visiting farmer’s markets. Maybe be more domestic. I now have time to pursue other interests, something that hasn’t happened since….when? Before kids? Before my teaching career began? When did I lose myself? When did life get so busy, that I forgot my other interests and passions?

The kids being in school confirmed two things to me: 1. My kids can survive without me. They are strong, independent children. 2. I need to be inspired by my own children, and start being strong and independent by taking risks and going out of my comfort zone to see what else life has to offer. So that’s what I’m going to do…

Stacey Walz will be writing about her year in Europe, contributing travel articles and her thoughts on what she is calling her own Eat Pray Love journey.

4 Comments on Back to School—German Style

  1. I love this piece… great information about how adjusting to a culture that is different from ours can be challenging for a family, and clear that the process will have great benefits to all. It is way better than the self-absorption of Eat Pray Love, in my opinion!

  2. Great article!

  3. What a wonderful article! I work in international education for School Choice International and we spend a lot of time thinking about the small differences (like house shoes, snack boxes and zuckertutens) that make huge differences. Stacey, is there anything you would have done differently?

  4. That’s a good question! I felt lost and everyone experiences cultural shock when they move somewhere new, and my cultural shock is with the school. I think because, I myself, am a teacher, I already have expectations of how things should proceed. I emailed the school’s secretary everyday for a week about something…where do I get the gym shirts, how do I cancel school lunches when my child is sick when the person answering the phone speaks only German. I wasn’t aware that when your child is sick for 2 days in a row, you need a doctor’s note to be allowed back to school. These things were all new to me. (The first day I didn’t have a question for the secretary, the secretary and I laughed because she was so used to reading letters from me). I had wished that the school had a New Parent handbook, or a new parent orientation. But, I am finding that parents and students in the school need to be responsible. The parents don’t get “reminders about reminders notes” like we give out in the States. Sometimes, we don’t even get reminders, but our children have to be able to tell us- that’s been the biggest change. But it’s a learning experience, and what a year we will have! I know that these challenges and all the cultural differences that my family faces this year, will make us grow and we are constantly learning about our world. I think you just have to be flexible and know that for a year, everything will be different, and you just have to embrace it all. We will leave here, different people! Good luck to you in the 2010-11 school year!

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