Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Weighing and Balancing

I’m busy trying to select a high school for my ten-year-old and believe me, that is not a typo. German kids start secondary school at the ripe old age of ten. Not only that, they are streamed at ten according to their academic results into the three different types of high school: Gymnasium for those who’ll go on to university, Realschule and Hauptschule for those who won’t. So a Maths test L did last week will help to decide whether she goes to university or not.

Unable to do anything about the bizarre system, I am breaking the mould by not sending my kid to the nearest school as a matter of course. We are looking at a range of schools, state and private, in the Heidelberg area. For me, it’s a huge decision: she’s my first child and the first person in our whole family to be heading for high school in the German system. The decision we make has to be a good one: she’ll be there for eight long years, and it should be a school that suits our other two. We want a school that has a good mix of Germans and foreigners, and where there is emphasis on languages. Nothing too homogenous.

The first of our six school visits took place last night. We went to the local high school – a vast place with more than 1000 pupils that educates kids from the Burg and all the surrounding villages. It’s the monopoly gymnasium. There are no other options nearby. We were impressed by what they had to offer, but I fear it’s going to be too homogenous for us. Plus it keeps us in the Burg for ever.

Tomorrow’s visit is to a private school. Private schools have a weird  reputation in Germany – they are seen as places where rich people send their thick or difficult children in order to drag them through Abitur. They are also considered elitist and someone said to me in all seriousness, ‘Are you sure you want your child to have an elitist school on their CV?’

So we are weighing and balancing, taking some things we see and hear to heart, ignoring other things.

I’m in the same process with my novel. Right now, I’m weighing the plot, what works and what doesn’t and throwing out the latter. I have a whole file called ‘extra stuff’ full of back-story that I’ve chucked out. Now and again, I find a use for a sentence or two and I thread them back in.

The next iteration will be on the language level. One of the readers from my writers’ forum pointed out that my characters nod and shrug a lot. She’s right, of course. I’ll be working through it line by line, strengthening the verbs, improving the body language, working on stimulus and response. The plot might be colourful and vibrant, but the language needs to be too.

So that’s where I am, dear readers, weighing and balancing. Trying to make good decisions that will stand my family and my novel in good stead. Trusting my instincts. Moving forward.


A Response to Susie

The lovely Susie tagged me to respond to her post Is Preschool killing children?, where she discusses the fact that in the USA preschool (which is what we in Germany call kindergarten and in the UK is nursery school) is becoming ever more academic. In her words,

I avoid this topic like the plague. Kids need to play, explore, and build their imaginations, and preschools that put an emphasis on reading, math and handwriting steal those opportunities from kids. My statement usually incites anger and probably fear, in parents who’ve already justified the decision that their child needs to build elementary skills while in preschool, and have already spent a few happy months in a preschool that is doing just that. Plus, they are already financially and emotionally invested in the school and its teachers, and even though the child is only three, the family thinks its too late to turn back now. And besides, they believe, I am wrong.

We are extremely lucky in Germany that childhood is protected by late school-entry. Our second daughter will start school this year at six and ten months. By the time she is seven, she will be able to do only the most basic of reading. But I can safely predict that by the time she is eight, she will be a sophisticated reader in two languages, completely on a par with any US or UK eight-year-old. I’ve seen it happen. I strongly believe that early learning does not create academic advantage. By the time these six- and seven-year-olds reach school they are dying to learn, practically hyperventilating with the excitement of it all, and they catch up fast.

Having said that, kindergartens in Germany are under pressure from parents to be more than places where little Franka and Finn go to do finger-painting, jump around to music and hang out with their pals. I have been at PTA meetings where their teachers are harangued because the children are not being “challenged enough”. Our kindergarten has introduced optional English, after the exercise of parental pressure. I would not be surprised if, in the next few years, kindergartens will start to be compelled to introduce basic writing and numeracy skills. If that happened, I would be sad.

I have loved having the privilege of raising my kids in a society where childhood is still protected and nurtured. My kids are comparatively innocent: they have never been to MacDonalds, they don’t know that Bratz exist, they haven’t watched High School Musical and, while they like clothes, they don’t wear any horrible scary approximations of adult attire. It’s such a relief to live in society that facilitates these parenting decisions, and helps me to keep them innocent for as long as possible. My kids like to ride bikes, swim, play complicated games of their own making, to craft and to dance. I love the richness of their play, and I would hate academic pressure and the social pressure that comes with that to intrude.

Why is it happening, though, even in Germany? Why are parents putting pressure on kindergarten to challenge their kids? I think it’s the increasingly middle-class-ization of society (speaking as a paid-up member): kids need academic skills to survive junior school, so that they can get into Gymnasium (the academic stream), hence into university and from there into good jobs. And every middle-class parent has the unspoken anxiety that if their child doesn’t start learning to read and write at four, then there’s no chance of her getting a good job at 24. Which is of course, rubbish.

So to respond to Susie, I can’t say that kindergarten is killing childhood, but I see the potential for it happening here. I remain remain intensely grateful it has not happened yet and that German society is still wise enough to protect and cherish childhood.

For more on the US perspective, see the also-lovely Yogamum’s response to Susie’s question.


A Few Good Rules

I’ve just finished reading Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult’s version of the American school shooting phenomenon, in which she attributes the shooter’s act of vengeance to years of systematic bullying. Picoult spins a good tale, broad, encompassing, but never deep. Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, deals with the same subject matter – what makes a teenage murderer, how a community responds, how parents of a murderer feel – but far more provocatively and urgently. Her tale of a mother who fails, despite every good intention, to love her unlovable child, is chilling. If I had to choose between the two, I would recommend the latter. I admire Shriver’s brutal honesty and her determination to tackle deeply unpleasant topics.

Shriver’s story posits that Kevin, the teenage murderer, arrives on the planet evil. This alone, without the story’s horrific denouement, is hard to digest. We want to believe that babies are innocent, until we slowly imprint our weaknesses on them. We want to believe that the parents of an amoral child did their best to teach him. And we certainly want to believe that such a child might take revenge his schoolmates but never on his own family.

The murderer in Picoult’s tale starts out as an ordinary child, perhaps one who is more sensitive than most. On his first day of kindergarten, the bullying begins and it never stops. Each day at school is one of humiliation, shame and beatings. One part of the story I found hard to accept is that the adults around him, his parents and his teachers, are never aware of the extent of the bullying. His parents try to make him more acceptable to his peers by forcing him to play soccer, but continually compare him to his brother Josh who is socially competent, academic and sporty. Josh also teases his brother at school, calling him a “freak”, and how this fails to pan out in the family is never addressed.

In comparison to Shriver’s meaty broth, Picoult’s novel is a thin gruel, competent but never entirely satisfying. However, it did make me think a little more about bullying and how children loathe difference. When Lily arrived in her little German school class last year, she was swiftly dumped by the one child from her own kindergarten (they have since reconciled) and was left to face the hordes on her own. After two weeks of hearing that no-one wanted to play with her at break-time, I went on a playdate offensive, inviting children round, baking welcoming muffins and letting them see that while Lily may be a little different from the German norm in that she comes from an English/South African background, she is loved and cherished just like they are. Now she has lovely little friends, from whom she remains slightly independent, as is her way. Had I left it, perhaps she would have managed on her own, but perhaps she would not have. I’m just glad I acted swiftly.

However, with bullying on my mind, it was interesting that she came home today with list of rules for good behaviour at school. The children have cut them out and stuck them in their work books, and they are discussing them in class with their teacher. The rules are:

We listen to each other, and to the teacher

We don’t laugh at anyone when they make a mistake

We don’t blame each other

We help each other

We don’t run in the classroom, only in the playground

We speak politely to each other

We let each other finish our sentences

We keep our desks tidy

We work quietly, so as not to disturb each other

We solve our conflicts without violence

We wait our turn quietly

We put up our hands when we want to speak

I don’t know if this is school policy, or just the policy of Lily’s teacher, but I think they are a great set of principles, ones according to which I’d be happy to raise my children.


Birthday Party Madness

Nearly four years ago, when we were offered the chance to leave England and move back to Germany, we leapt at the chance. At the time, we were poised to decide whether to send Lily to the village school or the posh little girls’ school ten minutes’ drive down the road. It was an invidious choice: either we’d be paying nearly 4000 pounds a year for an excellent and elite education, where she would have small classes, be able to learn to play an instrument, do art and theatre and meet lots of little girls from “nice” homes or we could expose her to something more normal, distinctly more mediocre and a lot cheaper. Despite being cash-strapped, we were leaning towards the former, because, English society informed us, private schools were the only way to guarantee our children university entrance and good jobs.

What a relief we didn’t have to make that decision. If we had gone for the posh school, this is the kind of madness we might have encountered. It’s an article from today’s Observer about how competitive parents are spending thousands on children’s birthday parties. Imagine if our child had gone to the posh school and we were having to send her to parties with chocolate fountains and Ooompa-loompa tossing Willy Wonkas. Imagine the shame she might have felt when her friends were invited home for some cake, colouring-in and pass the parcel. It must take enormous sanity and strength of conviction (not to mention a more limited bank balance) to refuse to take part in the madness.

The school our child attends here in Germany is the local state school, where she’s in a class of 26. The parents range from Porsche-driving, designer-wearing yummy mummies to parents with a lot of face furniture and tattoos, via book-reading foreigners with funny accents (that would be me). Children learn that society contains a mix, that not everyone is privileged, that not everyone has a car, let alone a house.

Birthday parties here are extremely sane. The kids arrive having had their hot lunch at home, so they are full and not overly interested in party food. I learnt this fast. The first party we gave in Germany was for Daisy’s second birthday. I was nervous to get it right, and egged on by my visiting mother-in-law, completely over-catered. The two-year-olds sat and stared bewildered at the enormous birthday tea we had concocted. They nibbled on a few things and then quickly disppeared to the playroom in the cellar to spend a happy two hours sliding down Daisy’s birthday present – a big plastic slide. I realised then that it was about doing rather than eating.

Every year, for both girls, I have to tone down my tendency to go beserk on the catering, and have now just about got it right. There’s always a birthday cake, a plate of homemade biscuits and possibly some muffins. And we always have tons of leftovers. My memory of birthday parties I attended was that it was all about the food – a huge, sanctioned, sweetie-fest in which I would eat and eat until I could fit nothing more in. But perhaps that was just me. Then I would go home and have an asthma attack from all the preservatives. What a fun child.

However, here in Germany, it’s all very modest. It’s expected that you only invite as many friends as the age your child is turning, so you never have to invite the whole class, which, given that all our birthdays fall in winter and have to be indoors, is a blessed relief. The focus is on the activities rather than the food. We try to find party games that are containable (our sitting-room isn’t big enough to run races in) and not overly competitive (to avoid crying). One day our family will be given credit for introducing pass-the-parcel to Germany. Our little guests love it, although at our latest party, the birthday girl unintentionally managed to win the gift, which nearly caused a riot. We always play a great German game called Flasche Trehen, literally Spin the Bottle, where the birthday girl spins a plastic bottle. She then opens the birthday present from the person at whom the bottle is pointing. This can take up to twenty minutes with uncoordinated bottle spinning, and present-opening and admiring, so it’s a big favourite with me. We always have some dancing and a bit of Musical Statues, and have been known to play “Pin the Crown on the Princess” or “Pin the Tail on the Easter Bunny”, depending on the theme of the party.

It’s an unwritten rule that you craft. This used to stress me out, until I developed a nifty line in princess crowns. My husband also photostats party theme-related pictures from the girls’ colouring-in books, which keep the little party-goers busy for ages. For the last birthday, I found a €2 box of beads at Woolworths, and we made necklaces. Bargain! We had eight happy princesses. I’ve also learnt not to fill up the time completely with games and crafts, because party-goers also like some free time to run around the house screaming. I imagine this ad-hoc wildness will feature more as Ollie grows up and starts to invite his little friends round for parties.

At a German party, one provides supper – something completely easy like pizza or sausages and chips – and then the children go home, clutching an extremely modest party pack that, at most, might contain a few sweets, a page of stickers and some bubbles. The emphasis is on play, on fun and on having a few nice things to eat.

My children have never been to a party with an entertainer, a magician or Willy Wonka and are not the worse for it. Modesty rules, rather than madness, and the children love it.


More on School

I’m still musing on whether it’s worth spending the money on going to my school reunion in South Africa – should I save the money for a real holiday with my whole family, do I really want to return to a place that I was so eager to leave and am I really interested in seeing people with whom I’ve had no contact for 20 years?

My school was a private girls’ school in a town full of private schools. Posh but not the poshest, it was in fact stunningly mediocre: mediocre academic results, mediocre at sport and mediocre at turning out well-behaved young ladies. South Africa in the mid-Eighties was still a pretty repressive place, with legislation preventing blacks from attending white schools, but church schools like the one I attended had a loophole and could admit a small quota of black girls. The school was therefore completely representative of apartheid society: heavy on whites, with a sprinking of blacks. There were black servants of course: gardeners, maids, cooks; which served to reinforce our idea that we were pretty special.

The school leaned heavily towards the arts and humanities, had almost no technology and was not strong on maths and science. Only girls who were extremely gifted in science did well: the rest of us floundered. There were some good arts teachers, and I am eternally grateful to a rigorous, scary but inspirational English teacher.

Looking back, I see there was something so small-town about my school’s attitude then: we were not equipped to deal with the world as it was emerging at the end of the twentieth century. Paint a lovely watercolour, yes, recite a speech, or play a not totally shameful game of tennis – good skills if we were to become grand dames of the KwaZulu Natal social scene. We weren’t actually taught flower arranging, thank God, but there was a subject called Housecraft. I won’t go there. We learned almost nothing of the real world: no entrepreneurial skills, no economics and no computers. I remember one hour of sex education where we passed around a medieval torture instrument that was apparently a contraceptive device.

We became politically aware thanks to our friends and our parents. Hot property one term was a banned book by Steve Biko, which was given to us by someone’s boyfriend. I barely understood it, but loved the thrill of reading something illegal and being subversive. There were girls at school who believed that the apartheid government was helping “the blacks” because they couldn’t help themselves. These were the same girls who believed in Adam and Eve.

My ambitions to go to university were my own, and never once encouraged by any teachers. When one teacher casually asked me where I was applying for university, I mentioned two: one in a town much like my own (Rhodes University) and the other in a city (Cape Town). As a UCT alma mater, she strongly recommended that I would fit in well at Rhodes. So I made sure I went to UCT, studied her subject and got a First doing it.

So why would I want to return to a place that tried its hardest to turn me into a tennis-playing, flower-arranging, needleworking lady of leisure with a houseful of servants and expectations of entitlement? I guess I would like to see if it’s changed. I would certainly hope that it had. I have a slightly sick interest in counting the nose jobs and the boob jobs, seeing whether the ugly ducklings have become swans and vice versa, and who’s succumbed to middle age or who, like me, is fighting a rearguard action against frump. Out of a graduating class of eighteen, I have two dear friends who I always love to see. They would be there. We could hold hands and giggle.


Both my husband and I went to private, single-sex church schools of this nature. If we had stayed in the UK after our daughters were born, we would probably be sending them to schools like this. As the middle classes flee state schools and chase the academic results of private schools, state schools become less appealing. However, diversity is good for children, not just diversity of race, but diversity of means too, as penguinunearthed mentions in her great post on school choice in her home town of Sydney.

Here, in Germany there is almost no choice at all. Until very recently, private schools barely existed. There were the Steiner schools for people wanting an alternative to the mainstream and international schools for people coming through on short-term contracts and wanting to keep their kids in a specific system. There are now small dual-medium schools for people who want their children to be educated in English and German. There is the odd “internationat” – a private, boarding school generally regarded to be for children with behavioural problems. But the majority of kids go to their local state school, no matter what colour they are or how much their parents earn.

The decision has been made for us. Lily is about to enter the state system. She will have around 30 kids in her class. There will be no horse-riding, no golf courses, no servants and certainly no flower-arranging. Some of her friends’ parents will drive Porsches; others won’t have cars. She will have Muslim children in her class. There will be children whose home language is neither English nor German. We are not giving her privilege, but we are giving her diversity, and the chance to understand the real world in all its colourfulness. I’m looking forward to the journey.


Back To School

I arrived back from holiday to find an invitation to my 20-year school reunion, which is delightful, but obviously a mistake since I am only 27. I will have to contact the organiser to point out her error. The other issue I have, apart from the erroneous invitation, is that the reunion is for tea, a school tour and lunch. When my husband went to his 20-year reunion last year (he is SO MUCH older than me), there was a lunch, a rugby match and a dinner. He crawled back to his bed and breakast at 4am safe in the knowledge that all the thugs and bullies who ran things 20 years before were now complacent, fat farmers and he, 30 kilograms lighter than all of them and a darn side fitter, was the only one actually looking good in his jeans.

If I am going to fly from Germany to South Africa to go to THAT PLACE for the first time in twenty years, then I too demand a dinner, plus the finest wines known to humanity. Teas are for girls and school tours are for wimps. I want some (finally legal) drunkenness, scaling of drainpipes, a couple of tantrums, maybe a bit of name-calling and slapping, and then preferably some boys from the local school should turn up at midnight for flirting. We could play a bit of A-Ha and Duran Duran, flick our New Romantic peroxided fringes and reveal our homemade tattoos. Now THAT would be a real reunion.

Instead I fear we’re going to have to behave decorously: talk about our husbands and children, wear our good jewellery, try very hard to remember everyone’s names and pretend that school was actually a pleasant experience.

In the same year that I celebrate the (sob) twenty years since I left school, I am sending my first child into the school system, in another country and in a different language. We are gathering the equipment: we have the Schultute (beautifully crafted and ballet-themed cone), the Schultute gifts (purchased by me in England), the Schulrantzen (enormous rectangular, ergonomic, Day-Glo backpack that all German junior school children must have), the Turnbeutel (small bag for gym which goes into the Rantzen) and the Geldbeutel (a small wallet that matches both the Turnbeutel and the Rantzen). Books and stationery are underway. We have rehearsals and parents’ meetings to attend, all in the run-up to the Einschulungstag on Saturday. This is when all the new children are welcomed into their school. There is a church service first, followed by a ceremony with speeches in a big hall. Then on Monday, she finally starts school, a little pioneer with a big smile. I hope school in Germany will be gentle to her.