Tuesday was Liam’s first day of school. An exciting event for any child, but in Germany, it is also a celebrated one. On my first day of school, my mother took a picture of little dark-haired Dora with her red backpack taking that big first step into the school bus. And that was the extent of the celebrations. Here already months before parents, children and Kindergarten (German pre-school) teachers have been preparing for this day.
What really defines a first-grader in Germany (They begin elementary school with first grade and not kindergarten, as in the States.) is his Schultüte. This cone-shaped “bag” (translation of the word Tüte) is made of heavy construction paper or cardboard, preferably in the child’s best and brightest color. The future first-grader then chooses his favorite motif – anything from butterflies to Star Wars. This is where the Kindergarten teachers have helped with the preparation. Liam’s made all sorts of colors and motifs available, even going so far as making special wishes comes true. Liam really wanted a truck on his Schultüte that matched the one on his school bag, called a Schulranzen. And he got it thanks to teamwork between Liam (coloring), Patrick (putting it all together) and the teachers (making supplies accessible).
With Schultüte in hand and Schulranzen on his back, we went to church. We had done just that two days before at our own church for the special service celebrating the new school year, but this time it was the official start of Liam’s first day. It is not required: an invitation is extended to all new students and their families to take part in the church service, done especially for these kids. The ironic thing is most people come, although the majority have little to no relationship with church. We sang and heard about things that start small but grow into something much bigger. As the pastor pulled out one tiny seed he prayed a blessing on each new first grader; with the next, a prayer for the teachers and administrators. The next represented the classroom community and the prayer was that it would grow big and strong. Each child received a package of seeds as he left the church, a physical reminder of those seeds on the altar.
Did I mention that the Schultüten are full of goodies? The children do not just carry around cones of colourful paper with them all day. No, they lug them around all morning reveling in the anticipation of what’s inside. Usually the contents are sweets and gum, some school supplies (like pencils and erasers) and a few smaller presents. But what I find most amusing is that the children carry around these heavy things all morning, not knowing what exactly is inside, only to carry them home again still not knowing.
I innocently asked my friend whose daughter started school with Liam, “Should we really fill up the Schultüte before we go to school? Isn’t it sort of silly to carry it around all morning when it’s so heavy?”
Of course she was appalled, as any good German mother would be. “Of course! That’s the best part for the kids! Shaking it and feeling it, trying to figure out what’s inside.” She shook her head. “Leaving it empty….”
After the church service parents, children and grandparents filled the school gymnasium. The school principle welcomed us with typical school principle welcoming words; we enjoyed singing, dancing and a class poem performed by some of the older grades; and then, finally!, the kids were each called by name onto the stage to join their classes. Most were so excited they ran to their teachers, even before their names were called.
Each of the three first grade teachers led their new students to her classroom, each followed by hoards of adults carrying pink, blue or Yoda-covered Schultüten and Schulranzen. Liam chose a desk next to his good friend and when I finally managed to squeeze my way between all those parents and school things, I found him sitting there, grinning from ear to ear. This is where he has wanted to be for months now – sitting at his desk, learning. Unfortunately for him there isn’t a whole lot of learning that goes on that first day – the second day was almost more exciting for him because that was his “real” first day of school – but he was pretty excited anyhow.
After some warm words, the teacher managed to rid her classroom of unwanted parents (all of us), but only after she promised to return our children after an hour. We were kept entertained with coffee and cake in the schoolyard, while our first graders tested the waters of academia.
As an American mother living in Germany, I have no point of reference when it comes to events like this. Obviously the photo my mom took on my first day of school is sweet, but nothing to guide me in knowing how to make these days special for my German children. Of course my German husband should be helpful here, but very often, he’s not. He seems to have forgotten most of his childhood (luckily his cousin who remembers every detail and spent just about every second with him until they were 18 lives just up the road), making it difficult for him to answer my questions: “How fancy should this thing be? I mean, do we have to invite the whole family for lunch or something? Should we go out to eat?”
Most fitting to our family, we decided to keep this first day of school pretty low-key. Patrick was with us (He got a day off of school for it, which is also how much he gets off for a birth of a child. One day.), which makes it seem more festive. Oma and Opa and a special aunt came to the church service. After school Liam did his homework (yes, on the first day!) and then waited for his sister to come home to look inside his Schultüte. I guess the wait was worth it, especially when he got to the Legos.
Even when the whole thing seems a tiny bit overdone, celebrating der erste Schultag (the first day of school) is a tradition, and I can appreciate that. It makes starting school special and in fact, it is special. Liam is beginning a new season of life. My hope is that those seeds planted at the altar will take root and grow into something big.