Many things can be said about the English education system. Being surrounded by home-educating parents, I hear a lot of criticism. One of them is the early start: It is a tough call to send small children to school at just four years of age. But thenagain, the start of school in England is a lovely, slow approach, and the reception years are a fascinating first step. It’s not as smooth in Germany, where school starts at six (sometimes seven) years, straight from Kindergarten. It is, however, a magical event that pupils, parents and teachers celebrate thoroughly.
The famous German writer Herman Hesse coined the words “A magic dwells in each beginning” (“Jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne”) in 1941 (and what a time to write about new beginnings). His message remained part of German culture and mindset for decades. It perfectly describes the attitude which with German “i-dötzchen” or "ABC-Schützen" (school starters) meet their first day in school.
The magic starts with the “Schultüte” – the school bag; a huge, decorated cardboard cone filled with important school equipment, all kinds of goodies and last not least chocolate and candy. German pupils carry it on their first day to school, where the head teacher will welcome the kids and in a little ceremony send the kids to their class rooms, where their class teacher welcomes them to their first day of school.
Parents, siblings and often grandparents are part of the event, at the end of which my teacher – a lovely lady called Helga Bohnenberger – said: “This was your first day of school, and if you liked it, you can come again tomorrow.” A blatant misrepresentation of the realities of German education, where school is a duty and a commitment that can’t be taken lightly. Thank God I did like school.
Heavy weight: The German school bag and its content
When the Schultüte has done its job and the real life of primary school begins, it’s time for the actual
school bag: The notorious Schulranzen. German kids travel less light than their English fellow pupils. The weight of the average school bag has often been a matter of discussion in media and politics: Books, notepads, paper, pens, gym equipment and last not least the lunch package make for quite a bit of luggage.
One thing that didn’t change – and probably never will – is the importance of the “Füller”. From year one this fountain pen is the tool of trade to learn proper handwriting, and who owns the best model is a matter of competition. This even applies to the kind of ink cartridge it’s being loaded with. The best cartridges are those with a little plastic ball in the tip, since this ball can be extracted and either being collected or used for all kinds of shenanigans. My personal favourite was to use them like marbles. Due to their size they had to be played with the tip of a bow compass – which by the way is also part of standard equipment for German pupils.
Another tradition at the start of each school year is the wrapping of schoolbooks. Most schoolbooks are lent to the children by the school and have to be returned by the end of the year. To protect them, the school requires the students to wrap them into covers - which you can buy in all kinds of sizes. Or you can be creative and use special wrapping foil or even newspaper.
Maybe interesting for our English readers: Language education starts rather early in German primary schools. For most pupils English starts in year 2, a contribution to global communication that even Brexit will probably not change.
Hermann Hesse reads "Stufen" (1949)
As every blossom fades
and all youth sinks into old age,
so every life’s design, each flower of wisdom,
attains its prime and cannot last forever.
The heart must submit itself courageously
to life’s call without a hint of grief,
A magic dwells in each beginning,
protecting us, telling us how to live.
High purposed we shall traverse realm on realm,
cleaving to none as to a home,
the world of spirit wishes not to fetter us
but raise us higher, step by step.
Scarce in some safe accustomed sphere of life
have we establish a house, then we grow lax;
only he who is ready to journey forth
can throw old habits off.
Maybe death’s hour too will send us out new-born
maybe life’s call to us will never find an end
Courage my heart, take leave and fare thee well.
Wie jede Blüte welkt und jede Jugend
Dem Alter weicht, blüht jede Lebensstufe,
Blüht jede Weisheit auch und jede Tugend
Zu ihrer Zeit und darf nicht ewig dauern.
Es muß das Herz bei jedem Lebensrufe
Bereit zum Abschied sein und Neubeginne,
Um sich in Tapferkeit und ohne Trauern
In andre, neue Bindungen zu geben.
Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne,
Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.
Wir sollen heiter Raum um Raum durchschreiten,
An keinem wie an einer Heimat hängen,
Der Weltgeist will nicht fesseln uns und engen,
Er will uns Stuf´ um Stufe heben, weiten.
Kaum sind wir heimisch einem Lebenskreise
Und traulich eingewohnt, so droht Erschlaffen;
Nur wer bereit zu Aufbruch ist und Reise,
Mag lähmender Gewöhnung sich entraffen.
Es wird vielleicht auch noch die Todesstunde
Uns neuen Räumen jung entgegen senden,
Des Lebens Ruf an uns wird niemals enden,
Wohlan denn Herz, nimm Abschied und gesunde!