BERLIN - My five-year-old son Finn goes to an American kindergarten – a place just like Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Bethlehem in Pennsylvania is about as far from Philadelphia as Newtown is from New York – in their own way, both are typical U.S. East Coast towns. Finn’s school even looks like the one in Sandy Hook: a faceless flat-roofed building painted in shades of yellow, with a huge parking lot next to it and some bike stands out back that nobody uses.
As I write this, the Newton massacre is a day old and until it happened I used to make fun of Finn’s kindergarten all the time. I work in Berlin and commute back and forth to the States where my husband works. The children are with him.
My tales of marching off to kindergarten in Germany, aged four, just me and a couple of other children from the neighborhood – on our own – never fail to surprise my husband. To me, Finn’s school with its rigid rules seemed like some kind of Sesame Street military academy.
Now of course things look different.
Americans use the word kindergarten, written the German way, but otherwise it has very little in common with its German equivalent. Some American schools call it “Grade 0” because that’s exactly what it is: a place for five-year-olds (and it seems to me their parents too) to prepare for the days when they will attend “real school.”
Kindergartens are part of the elementary school the child will go on to, and they have lovely teachers, subjects like art and gym and music, lots of stars for tasks well done, and a “time out chair” for bad behavior. By the end of their year there, children should be at least familiar with reading, writing and arithmetic.
While I’ve learned to appreciate the approach to learning at my son’s kindergarten – learning the alphabet for Finn has been an exciting game, not a drill – I’ve had my difficulties with some of the other aspects.
We live five minutes away from the school. Monday through Friday at quarter to nine I walk my son to the school’s “pedestrian entrance” near the main entrance. The kids form two lines in an outdoors forecourt and at 8:55 a.m. the doors open and the two teachers come out, wave to parents standing around exchanging pleasantries and march their line inside. The doors lock behind them and until 11:40 a.m. nobody can get in.
At 11:40 a.m., the door opens again, and a teacher calls out the names of the children waiting inside in a line. After each name, the teacher waits for the person fetching the child to raise their hand, and only when that has happened does the teacher let the child run out.
If nobody waves – Mom, Dad, Grandma or Grandpa are late – then the child goes to the end of the line.
Twice, Finn and I got there late. This turned out to be at least as uncomfortable for me as it was for my son. The doors in the pedestrian area were closed, so we walked through the main entrance, which is reserved for school buses.
When we got inside, there were several lines of kids, and a couple of boys called over to Finn. They were glad to see him, and waved him over but he wouldn’t go: “That’s the schoolbus line,” he insisted.
So we had to proceed to the place where the lines for pedestrian arrivals were. Finn joined his classmates, and I stood there until the teacher had registered that he had joined the group and then I left. The second time we were late I made sure Finn got inside the school bus entrance door and left him up to his own devices to get to the pedestrian line. I have no idea of what happens if you’re late fetching your child, but I wouldn’t dare. This is how American kindergartens also train parents.
When, irritated, I told my husband how unwelcome I’d been made to feel when Finn and I walked in late – the school should make parents feel welcome, I felt – his only comment was how come they’d let me in the building at all: every adult who is not a staff member should technically be led to the front office to sign in and sign out.
I checked out the school rules, and he was right. Guests (and that includes parents) need a pass that can only be gotten in the front office. "The main entrance is monitored by security cameras. Please ring the bell to the left of the door and state your name and the reason for your visit."
Looking over your shoulder
I have never been in the school building other than that one incident. I don’t know what my son’s classroom looks like. My husband attended the only parents’ evening there has been so far, and otherwise the only means of communicating is a red folder Finn keeps in his school bag. The left side is marked “Leave at home” and the right “Bring back to school.”
The left side contains things like samples of Finn’s art work and spelling, and printed sheets that say things like: "Dear Parents! This week we’re learning the letter ‘H.’ You can help! Cut out the ‘H’ below and paste it on the picture of a word that begins with ‘H.’ A house, for example."
The right-hand side of the folder is for things to be signed, such as forms concerning vaccination certificates, or confirmations that we’ve taken note of the school rules, or encouraging us to contribute to a forthcoming bake sale, make a donation for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, or take part in any number of activities the income from which will go to the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), and will thus benefit the school.
Our neighbor urged me to become an active member of the PTO. "Nobody will admit it," she says, "but it’s true: if you’re a PTO member, your child gets better grades."
Meanwhile, I understand why she says that: the PTO is offers just about the only opportunity to look over the shoulders of American teachers.
The same people that find it intolerable for their President to interfere in health insurance, or call their right to arms, gas and fast food into question, turns their kids over at the school door as if it were the border to a country it doesn’t have a visa to enter.
The right to education, the right to make something of one’s life regardless of background – maybe that’s what gives American schools their special position. And maybe it’s because of that special position that the number of school-age children receiving homeschooling has grown 74% since 1999, according to a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Education.
For many parents, homeschooling seems to be the only way to have any influence over their children’s education (although granted, many parents opt for this on religious grounds or security concerns).
On Friday, after I had fetched Finn at kindergarten – promptly – and he was happily ensconced playing in his room, I learned of the Connecticut massacre.
I take my hats off to the teachers at the Sandy Hook school who after the catastrophe led their kids out of the building with such quiet discipline. I understand now how that was possible.
I take my hat off to Kaitlin Roig, who barricaded herself and her first-graders in the school lavatory and wouldn’t even open the door to police because she thought it was a ruse by the killer – she insisted that an ID badge be slipped under the door first. I now understand where she got the confidence to do that.
Never again will I complain about the security procedures at Finn’s kindergarten. As far as I’m concerned, they can turn it into Fort Knox if they want to. And I also take my hat off to them for somehow managing despite the conditions to make the place seem to my son as cozy as Sesame Street.