The classroom is on the top floor of the century-old brick building. Like most public school buildings in German inner cities, this elementary is fit to survive a bomb raid. The roomy staircase reminds me of the one at the school I “worked” in for a year as a “conscientous objector.” When the kids storm out at recess, it’s like listening to an airplane take off.
A list hangs on the classroom door. Every parent is allocated 15 minutes. There isn’t a single German name on the list. Most are Arabic or Turkish. The homeroom teacher calls us up after a few minutes.
Wendy and I sit down at the school desk. Two children’s stools are ready for us. The teacher and the principal sit on elevated office chairs. This is not an interview, but the proclamation of a verdict.
The teacher is a stereotypical Bildungsbürger: a milky-faced man in his mid-40s, rimless glasses, dark-blond hair neatly arranged, wedding ring where it should be. He wears a dress shirt under his wool sweater and brogue shoes. The decorative perforations on his brown brogues are all the ostentation he dares reveal. No need to let the slum dogs infect you with their “ghetto fabolous.” He speaks composed, friendly, like a “civilized” person used to appeasing irascible brutes.
The principal is approximately his age, but looks older. Her long hair is dishevelled and is beginning to grey, her clothes fit loosely. She might have held leftist views at some point in her life. Apparently her only reason for being here is to give the man emotional assistance. He looks like he was the type of boy who would now be bullied in an “urban” school for being “German.”
The verdict begins. The report card is a long list of objective criteria, each graded from 1-5: completeness of school material, attentiveness, social behavior, tidiness, handwriting, grasp of German language. Kevin’s grades are bad, and he might not pass to the second grade. The intellectual power in Wendy’s family is largely undocumented. One of her cousins has a Ph.D.; he works as a flea market vendor in Bosnia.
Completing ten years of school places her in the intellectual elite of her family. Her brother, she says, flunked first grade in German school so often until he reached the legal school leaving age of 14 years; then he married. Reminds me of a Simpsons character. Absurd, but not funny.
The teacher points out that the caps of the felt-tip markers in Kevin’s pencil case are frequently missing. Wendy nods submissively. With three of her six kids in public school, she knows her place by now. She tries to explain that her kids keep loosing their pens and she doesn’t have the money to buy them new school material every week, but the teacher goes on.
“Kevin’s German is quite good,” he remarks proudly. Main objective achieved. Young Kevin will be able to understand the orders of his masters. “He also knows the alphabet, but he’s not good with syllables. He tends to memorize texts and then recites them instead of reading them. You have to practice reading with him.”
Wendy can hardly write a proper sentence. She spends her days going to the doctor and to the welfare or immigration authorities. There’s always a new permit to apply for. Five kids share a mattress, a TV set and a sidewalk with the neighbors. Mom feeds, teacher teaches. That’s the deal.
“However, I see that we lit a spark in him. Although he has trouble concentrating, I see that he is very eager. If it continues, we might consider passing him to the next grade. However, he must learn how to read, otherwise he will start lagging behind, and then it makes no sense to have him sitting in second grade.”
Long pause. Wendy and I are cowering and nod appeasingly.
“Ok, let’s look at his writing exercises. Ok, here see, the arches on the “n” and “m” could be rounder… You need to practice that with him.”
“He must have got his writing skills from me,” Wendy tries to joke.
“Well that’s more than I wanted to know.” Teacher is embarassed.
“You know, I would really like to keep him in my class in the next grade. Maybe I will let him pass, but we have to work on his reading and writing, otherwise…”
If kids need to learn reading at home, why send them to school? The objective grading criteria, teacher’s benevolent attitude do not hide the fact that he holds dictatorial power over the children and their parents. Only 40% of this neighborhood’s inhabitants are n-th genration immigrants, but virtually all of the school’s students are. The parents who have a choice, the “adventurous” gentry, send their children to “free” schools (“free” as in “independent,” not as in “free of charge”). In these schools, the teachers’ income is only secure if the parents are happy.
“Also, Kevin really needs to concentrate more. He often gets up and walks around, takes too long for exercises, gets distracted.” What he is describing is an average human reaction to lethal boredom. Just looking at the guy I want to get up and take a walk.
After passing his sentence, teacher concludes: “Now let me propose what I think we should do…” Wendy should practice more with Kevin and maybe enroll him in an afternoon homework class.
School ends at 1 PM. After that, Kevin spends his day watching TV and dodging his irritable parents. There was a homework class at the school, but the woman who taught it was “sick” until the city approved funding for her job. Private tutoring is too expensive, and the parents are not capable for various reasons. There is a tutoring class at the school, but for that Kevin needs a berlinpass, a “social passport” which “certifies” a holder’s neediness” and gives them cheaper access to cultural institutions and public transport.
After the 15 minute “interview, Wendy and I leave the school defeated.
“I really wanted to yell at that guy.”
“What’s the use? If I make him angry, he’ll let Kevin flunk for sure.”
“Before you he repeats first grade, it’s better to take him out of school entirely.”
“That’s illegal; I’ll get in trouble with the Jugendamt.”
By trying to control people, we give dictatorial powers to petty bureaucrats. The power imbalance that comes from clients’ lack of alternatives turns even well-meaning public servants into paternalistic assholes. They develop arrogance to shield themselves against the suffering they cause. Wendy’s better-off neighbors can move to a different neighborhood once their children are old enough, or they start their own school. Even if we maintain some sort of social mixture in Berlin’s neighborhoods, the institutions that serve (or oppress) are quickly segregating.