LESSONS IN IDENTITY AT A GERMAN HOCHSCHULE

TOM STINCHCOMB

NOVEMBER 2017

The school in which I’m currently working as a language assistant certainly could not be understood as the most typical of German schools. Indeed, teachers themselves have often reminded me of the unique nature of our school. Nearly all the students have parents that come from foreign backgrounds, as the town where the school is situated functions almost as the migrant satellite town between Cologne and Bonn, and the families often live in homes specially built for those newly migrated here. While there are students who come from perfectly standard or “expected” backgrounds much like our own, there are large numbers who come from broken families, who have fled or left their countries due to war, or even who have been born and raised here in Germany, yet do not or cannot feel like they fit into society. Stories of students who have inconsistently-present parents or who experience abuse contrast starkly with the images my fellow assistant friends paint of their Gymnasiums. It is in this school, however, that I believe I have learned a powerful lesson about identity and fitting in in modern Germany.

Such schools as mine often appear under scrutiny, as the modern world is one where identity goes hand in hand with politics and nationality, something which the students themselves appear innately aware of. Here political beliefs also appear innately tied with personal experience; many students’ lives would be directly affected by potential actions the AfD may take if they one day came into power – I have often wondered how some of the hijabis at my school felt about the “Islamisierung stoppen” (stop islamisation) billboards visible around Germany during the election campaign, for example. I myself was taken by surprise once during an English class, as I was questioned on how we refer to “Kopftücher” (headscarves) in the UK. When I replied that, at least in my experience, I tend to hear and use the use the Arabic word, hijab, I appeared, within the course of around five seconds, to view a semi-microcosm of some Muslim and non-Muslim relations common within Germany: both student and teacher were surprised, but the teacher (whether because she knew of or used the word herself but wouldn’t expect it to be used in English , I’m not too sure) quickly progressed with the lesson and didn’t develop the matter further. The hijab-wearing student turned back to her textbook and gave both a half smile and seemingly impressed little nod: I infer she was pleasantly surprised that we use the authentic word in English. It left me wondering about much or little a Muslim in Germany can expect from non-Muslims with regards to treatment or knowledge of them and their culture; I would have thought at least knowing a hijab’s name would be commonplace. Perhaps I was wrong.

Politics further shows itself in the rhetoric of students themselves, although the personal experiences often appear to come from parents. During the week of the election, I am quite sure that the young boy sitting in the front of one of my classes, who is no older than ten, who, when the teacher questioned the class about political parties, erupted in fist-clenched chants of “AfD! AfD! AfD!” hadn’t been following the campaign intensely in the newspapers or on television. Something which I can certainly claim with some confidence is that, whether the students support them or not, the AfD provokes a reaction within the school, and certainly not one as steadfastly negative as we may expect from under eighteens. Many teachers see the students’ eastern European parents as responsible for some students’ warily positive attitudes towards the far right, but, of course, this raises questions about native Germans’ assumptions about their eastern neighbours (something which affects nearly all of us here in Western Europe), regardless of their being correct or not. Indeed, I was told about (the few) children of native German parents themselves in the school who’ve espoused some views on Hitler’s policies as “not as bad” as history makes them out to have been; the person who informed me of this feels like the problem is actually one of poverty, not of nationality. My town, Wesseling, it should be known, is both a poor and majority AfD-voting area.

However, that isn’t to say that my school is a bastion of far-right extremism or discrimination. In fact, far from it. Among the students themselves, there is next to no discrimination or bullying, at least not in relation to what one may assume. Once, a teacher asked a class I was attending if any of the children spoke another language besides German (and English, which they learn at school). I think only two students didn’t raise their hands. For the rest of the class who did, every child spoke a different language to their neighbour: Polish, Albanian, some Arabic, Pashto, et cetera. This diversification means that discriminative bullying becomes pointless: no child can be bullied for where they come from or for not being German, because the person bullying them probably has foreign parents or was born in another country. Everyone can understand the alienated perspective of everyone else, at least when they first start school or move to Germany. Of course, there are rivalries among these parent nations: the Turkish/Kurdish conflict seems the most likely to manifest itself in my school. Yet such rivalries themselves tend to become heated only during events like football matches, when the oldest students can laugh it off with their friends that their country will win and is, naturally, better.

The semi-serious nature of nationhood conflict becomes the subject of ridicule: it is very much the common case of “When the football’s not on, I’m German; when it is, I’m Albanian (or Kosovan, Polish, etc.).” It is fascinating to see the macrocosm of real world conflicts reduced to something as easy to joke about as football rivalry, but it creates a peace and a space where these students can recognise where they come from, but also co-exist. This is also telling about their attitudes towards their own dual nationhood: German language (and therefore, identity) is the professional and daily language used in school, among their friends, and in the city. Their parents’ home countries speak the language of the family, and of the personal. What is more personal than two fifteen-year-old stereotypical teenage boys play-fighting over their parents’ countries’ football team being better? Such is the nature of adaptation to Germany. By doing so, they appear to have hit the balance right, and, at least for the fifteen and sixteen-year olds, they feel as though this balance works for them (although, it must be noted, this is within the confines of school and students’ friendships; some German-born Turkish girls I asked said that they do not feel either German or Turkish enough for either country to respect them – they therefore feel like both and neither simultaneously, and I ask myself if Germans themselves would see the girls as “qualifying” for nationhood).

The crux of the school’s philosophy, therefore, seems to me like “Wir schaffen das” (“We’ll manage it”) in action. The school provides a place where the students can, eventually, all understand each other, while being integrated into German society and culture, hopefully retaining their own personal experiences and their parents’ identities at the same time. Here, the “crisis” of immigration seems like it is being met head on, and quite successfully; with regards to interaction and treatment of others, at least, if not with regards to the best grades. Some days there may be a knock on a classroom door, there stands a young child, parents and a teacher, and hey presto! We have a new student, who may not speak a word of English or German and who may have only been in the country three weeks. But, so espouse my teaching colleagues, we have to get on with it. It’s very inspirational to see, and I can understand the frustration of trying to simultaneously lead a class, cater for the new or non-understanding student and normalise them as a fellow classmate, all simultaneously. But if there’s any democracy to be found, it’s there.

One last thing I found was that this related to me also, upon my arrival: I had been so nervous about being announced into a classroom and suddenly being expected to teach, lead or help, especially as someone not fluent. Yet I found that the students were just like me in that regard, and the process of integrating into the school life came fairly easily, as I was just like they had been. The students who arrive tend to have a knowledge of either only German or English, or neither; by the time I came, they’d already met people who spoke better English than German (much like the students from fellow European countries or the Middle East, where English is the first foreign language taught), and were used to accommodating for such. When I started to speak in German as well they were surprised and quite easily won over. The most affirming part was that they were ready to accept me, albeit slowly, whether I could have communicated with them in German or not. In that regard I can see the aims of modern Germany at play in my school. Every student must learn German, and if they can pick up English skills or arrive with some, all the better. But one finishes the school with both a native language and a lingua franca through which they can all communicate and live, including myself. For some students, this means that they identify as both German and their parents’ nationality; for some, it doesn’t. In either case no student feels unworthy of living, studying or communicating here. This, I believe, is down to the school’s welcoming insular bubble, yet it is my hope that this will eventually spread to those unaccommodating or unwelcoming in wider German society. But this is nevertheless a vision of what a future Germany could look like, for good or for bad - a common language alongside a deeply personal, self-appointed meaning and culture; a democratic identity.