Of big meetings, drawing steps in the sand, and the bakery on Saturdays at 7:35 A.M.

I am not sure to ever be able to manage this in my whole life: having an audience of over 100 persons and let people speak up when they need. So I stayed rather by the side when the meeting with the volunteer German teachers took place today and observed the chairing, the hands raising, the questions (some loud, some hardly audible), the answer (oftentimes, the same answer was adequate for the different questions), as if it was happening behind a screen or in a parallel universe. Why the discomfort of the situation, I asked myself. I am used to talking to others, to a whole lot of others sitting in front of me. I am not completely sure why this situation was such a discomfort – probably because I was afraid not to know what the questions would really mean. What the answer should really mean. When you are in class, as a teacher, your answer always means “ask, learn, go one step further”. I have no idea what the step further has to be when it comes to our German language classes for refugees. I have no idea what the expectations of volunteers are – why are they here tonight instead of cooking dinner at home? What are they expecting from the organizers, apart from chairs and pupils in the classrooms?

That was the first 45 minutes of the meeting. Then we moved to the part where we built sub-groups. Life again! I could smile, see eyes, we talked, we laughed. Lists of names were filled, I described the way up to the classrooms, we talked about the books, the material, the ideas. Breathing again. Also because so many share the enthusiasm and were willing to take the direction that was emerging. It was a balm after having a volunteer complain about the “bad organisation” this morning – which I think I will need several days to get over. Not any better in this life than in my Academic one: the lack of recognition of work being consciously done makes me angry. Very angry.

So I met again with my Turkmenian pupil today, plus two Pakistani and a Syrian (who does not even live in the refugee camp but had heard of the class through friends. I had him put on the teachers’ list as a translator after I met him at the door the day before, so he would be able to get in). We talked about where we all are from. The parents of the other teacher came from Turkey, she was born in Germany. I come from France. It felt like we were all with a backpack on in this classroom. The Syrian guy was baffled at me simply coming to another country, living and working there. I just said one word: Europe, and saw the biggest, most full of hope “a-ha” I ever saw. We tend to forget how lucky we are to be able to travel around as if it were the most natural thing in the world…

Honestly, I am so lost in organizational activities that I seldom actually do teach. Too bad really, because I never had and probably will never ever have again such motivated pupils, willing to snap and learn every possible bite. Encouragement in these classrooms is being taken for what it is: a trace in the sand, where to put the next foot.

So, of course, you might never see them again. You might never get past “hello, my name is … and I come from…”. And maybe they all have smartphones and could check online classes. But that is not the point. Because maybe you will, after all, meet them again, and then they will ask you questions, they will tell you a little piece of their history, be glad to share something. Maybe you will remember their names and give the right answers.

Or not. I wanted to send the Turkmenian pupil to another teacher, because I was in charge of the beginners that day. I told him to go to someone else, who had more advanced pupils. Technically, it was the right answer. In retrospect, it felt like treason to send him away. He is 14, he will have to go to school. Does he need more vocabulary or does he need the recognition of his steep learning curve (which he knew I could give him)? Not sure.

There were too many things to be organized in the last two weeks for me to get to what I wanted to do there in the first place: take care of the teenagers. Now the furniture is there, the book lists are in the surrounding bookstores, paper, pencils are in drawers with stickers with “paper”, “pencils”, etc. on them. There are 150 volunteer teachers for 600 refugees. The children group is organized and has a handful of teacher or former teachers at work whom I can already see will do very fine work. So now, I can turn to the teenies, the 15 to 20 years old. I am meeting them on Friday and have already been calling high-schools in order to offer them the opportunity to see what a German class looks like. As it turns out, the Land is not under obligation to send kids to school in the 3 first months of their stay. That is a time with which you can do something. Not German literature of the 19th century, granted. But still: it it feels like my area, somehow. After two weeks of making room for that event, of organizing around for hours, I will be able to start this work on Friday.

Also, on Saturday, I will go get my buns with my daughter at 7:35 AM and probably meet someone – someone who came to me after the meeting and said “your face is familiar – are you not the person who is always right before me at the bakery with a child on saturdays?”. Turns out, I am. And turns out, he is French, too. There might not be that many refugees in France: The French diaspora is definitely active for them here in Berlin.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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  1. 09/09/2015

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