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Being schooled in German sensibilities

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Being schooled in German sensibilities
Photo: DPA
14:21 CEST+02:00
In the latest installment of Portnoy's Stammtisch, The Local's column about life in Germany, Portnoy is dismayed by his growing Teutonic sensibilities as his daughter starts school.

It's something I had to admit to myself in the shower this morning: spending more than decade in Germany has affected my aesthetic sensibility.

Moments before I had been sitting at my desk, leafing through pictures of my daughter's first day of school last Saturday. I especially liked the photos of her in full first-grader regalia on the steps of her school. The smile. The hair. The gigantic pink and purple Schulranze, a kind of backpack only German schoolchildren seem to have. And, of course, the Schultüte, an inverse cone German parents give to their kids on the first day of school. They used to be filled with new school supplies but these days they're filled with treats to celebrate the first day of first grade.

But as I had my paternal thoughts, a little voice began to chime up in my head: “Hello? Of course your daughter is cute, but she doesn't look cute in that get up. The backpack is twice the size of her and that cone is ridiculous. She doesn't look like a schoolgirl, she looks like an extra in Starship Troopers 3.”

I had to agree with myself. I started wondering if I should be concerned about the health of her back under all that disproportionate weight. Or maybe the state of her teeth, considering the Halloween-rivalling amount of candy in that Schultüte. Though, to be fair, my kids may beg and plead when it comes to candy but they don't eat much. Me, on the other hand, I don't beg and plead, I just eat.

But I became alarmed that moments before I hadn't even noticed the absurd Schulranze and awkwardly inverted cone. I used to laugh – mock even – when I saw German schoolkids struggling like little workhorses to get their backpacks the two blocks to school. Now they just look normal to me.

The first day of school is a big deal in Germany. So big they do it on a Saturday. It's called Einschulung. There were songs by the fourth graders, a speech by the principal and then they carted my daughter off to a classroom for her first hour of school. After that we all went to lunch. Most people brought their entire family. I just asked a couple of friends if they wouldn't mind tagging along in exchange for a promise of free beer later. “Just try to look like an aunt or uncle,” I said. “And tuck in your t-shirt.”

I don't remember the first day of school being such a big deal back in the States. I think my mother just gave me a kiss and a helpless look. I now realise she was trying to tell me I was embarking on 12 years of subservience to people with poor self-esteem and authority issues – though there were notable, memorable exceptions.

Between you and me, I don't really know though. My memory doesn't kick in until the third grade when I was given a role in the “Emperor's New Clothes.” I remember being disheartened that we had to perform in a hallway and that the lead character couldn't perform in the nude. I was a very dogmatic third-grader.

My daughter's gotten off to a bit of a rocky start though. Three times the principal has chastised me for not putting a little yellow BVG hat on her he thinks will keep her safe while crossing the street. I disagree with his assessment that the hat will keep her safer than my presence, so I haven't made her wear it. But I can't take his disappointed looks much longer.

And someone already stole her paint. Last week she carefully wrote her name on the box and put stickers on each paintbrush. She told me how that would keep someone from stealing them. I guess she learned a valuable life lesson, though you'd think a first-grade classroom would be a safe place to keep some watercolours.

This morning my wife took her to school. “I really like my Schulranze, Dad,” she said as she left.

“Yeah,” I said. “You look great.” But I was thinking, “Wow, you really look German.”

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.

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