– by Lauren Winchester –
This Spring, Fulbridge invited all Fulbright grantees and alumni– ETAs, researchers, foreign scholars, and FLTAs– to submit a video, essay, photo essay, or photo that reflected A Day in the Life of their Fulbright experience.
These submissions could be internally or externally focused and will teach audiences something new about the author’s host country.
Cigarette butts and
pigeons constitute “nature”
waiting for the tram.
My choice connection going to the school is an E tram. This stands for “extra” in my head, although I don’t actually know what German word it stands for. This tram runs directly from the stop by my house to the stop by my school, which saves me the transfer from the 6 to the 4 that I would otherwise have to make. The downside is that this tram only runs once a day, leaves my stop at 6:49 a.m., and gets me to school about 30 minutes before I need to be there. That’s a hard alarm in the dead of winter, but it’s worth it if it means not trying to make small talk with my students who also ride the tram at 7 a.m. or watching my breath rise as I shiver and kick cigarette butts to kill time. The tram voice says “Fahrt endet, bitte aussteigen” (End of the line; please exit) at the very last stop, and we stand up and disperse into the world, ready for another Monday.
Um, do I HAVE to?
This is the resistance that meets me when I pitch my lesson plan for the next hour to twenty 12th graders. It’s just me today, a relatively-harmless ETA, and they know this. They like me better than my co-teacher and have expressed this to me regularly outside of class, but I suspect that they like me better because I ask them to do less arbitrary-feeling work and because I cannot give them grades. Today, without the presence of a fierce, middle-aged German woman to back me up, I am toothless as I ask for their cooperation.
Their English, especially their spoken English, is pretty strong, save for perhaps the few who choose to only speak when prodded to. I get the attitude of those few students. I, too, was once unfocused in a high school foreign language class. Perhaps I should have consulted the memory of that Lauren a little more when I planned this lesson.
“So as a breather from all of the depressing things we’ve been working on recently, like the death penalty, school shootings, and police brutality, we’re going to take a step to the side and give impromptu speeches today,” I start.
They dissolve into a fluttering of whispers at the word “speeches.”
My teacher voice ramps up a notch.
“It’s not for a grade,” I clarify. Will that calm some of their anxiety? “There will be times that you’re called to speak about something, and you might not be entirely prepared. This is a good skill to have in any language, honestly.
“You all could talk about… your biggest fear. Or maybe what you think is the best part of our school, or the worst part. Or maybe what adults do that upsets you.” I bullet this list on the chalkboard and try to pace my speech with my writing speed. Though my back is turned to them for a brief moment, I can hear the exchanges of eye rolls over the sound of them pulling out paper and pens.
One gal, who has said maybe three words of her own volition in class during the entire five months that I’ve been here so far, raises her hand. I walk over to her.
“I don’t want to.” She crosses her arms.
We are off to a rocketing start here, aren’t we? I think.
“Why not?” I ask, trying to assess how uphill this battle will be.
“I just don’t.” This time a shrug as she turns, as if appealing to common sense, to her boyfriend, sitting next to her.
“It’s just a minute,” I say. “And you have time right now to prepare everything you’ll say. What about it don’t you like?”
“I just don’t.”
Oh, we are getting so far here.
“We don’t want to, either,” her boyfriend and his pal chime in.
Misery loves company.
“Look, the whole class has this assignment. I can’t just not let you three do this. Then everyone is going to say that they don’t want to, and no one will.” They look at me as if to say “yes, and?”
Eventually we settle on some (pretty serious) compromises to the assignment just for them, which some of their classmates protest and others accept with the quiet understanding that this is the best that I can do to convince these three students to talk at all. Meryl (name changed) agrees to present her speech just in front of her crew of five friends plus me, and I allow the two to go up together as long as they talk for twice the time, so two minutes instead of one.
This only somewhat functions. The two guys stand up to present and speak about the good and bad aspects of our school for exactly 40 seconds. Meryl says exactly two sentences and only answers my follow-up questions (meant to provoke longer answers so she will talk for the full minute) with single-word answers.
But at least they all said something, I tell myself. And other students had moments today that probably mean even more in terms of personal success and pride.
One student, who regularly posts encouraging lyrics and memes as her WhatsApp statuses, speaks for the full minute about what it’s like to give an impromptu speech for the first time when you have social anxiety and how to work through that. I beam. She slips me a supportive note at the end of class saying that my impromptu speech—which I gave in German, because the students gave theirs in their non-native language, so I did too—was good and that she appreciated me. Sometimes rays of sunshine come into our world at just the right moment.
The ratio of sunshine to chaos looks different in a sixth grade class, as I quickly learned.
My only sixth grade class is one of the last classes on Monday afternoon, which is one of the longest school days in the week for everyone, literally. The day ends earlier other days of the week, but Mondays stretch for eternity, or until 4 p.m. Whichever feels longer. Those who have worked with middle schoolers can perhaps imagine what it’s like to walk into a classroom of wiggly sixth graders at the end of their longest school day of the week and try to convince them to speak in a foreign language for 45 minutes.
One Monday (it could be any Monday, really), I walk up to the door with the 6D sign, listen to the chaos on the other side for a heartbeat, take a deep breath, and open the door with my exhale. Two students closest to the door look up and return my greeting of “hallo” as I cross the front of the room, and the rest continue with their havoc.
A student vaults over two others, who are disputing custody of an English book, runs up to me, and explains in rapid German that someone else is crying because they hit their head against the drinking fountain when someone else pulled their chair out from behind them when they sat down as retaliation for that when the now-injured student hit the chair-pulling prankster with a book. What a zoo.
My co-teacher walks in, and her entrance goes equally unnoticed by the students until she barks over their chaos like a drill sergeant.
“What are you all doing? You know that class started already. Sit. Down.” This, all in local dialect and delivered with no hesitation or doubt in her own influence or right to order in the classroom. Perhaps that’s one of the differences between her and me—I’m still searching for the feeling that I deserve the authority I have, whereas she is wholly certain that she possesses authority to be heeded. Twenty-two pairs of eyes attempt to look as innocent as possible as twenty-two pairs of hands reach for chairs and the head injuries are suddenly forgotten.
“So,” she exhales, “I’m going to send five of you out with Lauren, and you’ll work on some grammar.” Hands shoot up left and right. Some students snap, others hardly seem capable of remaining seated. What they don’t realize is that she already has a list in her head of the five students who are farthest behind, and she calls them up while she hands me six copies of two different worksheets. “Get as far as you can,” she says, and I lead my microcosm of chaos into the hallway in search of an empty classroom.
The mass exodus
out of the tram is nothing
short of a stampede.
Trams on the way home are a whole different circus. Some days, my last class ends before most students are free, and I can take a tram in peace with the grandmas who are finished with their mid-morning shopping. But there are days, like Mondays, when my day ends at the same time as the students’ day, and many of them take the tram home, thanks to a deal between the transportation network and the school that offers permanent employees (not me) and students a semester ticket.
Riding in a tram packed to the gills with shouting 5th-9th graders who are enjoying their newfound liberty from school by fighting about who sits where, consuming (and spilling) chips and candy, stealing each other’s phones, and attempting to clamber over seats is a formative experience. I quickly learned that it is worth half hour of my time and 60 cents for a pretzel at the bakery if that means I can wait for the first two or three trams of children to pass me by. After a good day, I can laugh off a little ruckus, but on days that lessons went south or I didn’t sleep much the night before or my breakfast didn’t suffice to keep me full, I have less patience for a zoo on wheels.
I am grateful for
people who make Far Away
feel a bit more like Home.
From the regulars on the E and my co-teachers to my unwilling twelfth graders and my raucous sixth graders, I encounter a lot of different humans on any given Monday. Some of them make my job harder, but most cooperate. The true salve is Monday evenings, though, when I can bond with other ETAs over good food and shared stories of the day’s events.
Despite how intimidated I felt when I first met these fellow teaching assistants, they now make Ludwigshafen—or LudwigsHOOPIN’, as our resident basketball fan Russell calls it fondly—feel like a place I belong. We gather around Russell’s kitchen table as he introduces the different dishes for the evening’s meal. Tilly pours the cheap wine that we’re testing out, Niki takes a group photo, and we all take a turn washing the dishes afterwards.
These are the humans who hear me out as I struggle through tough classes, planning for the future, and determining if a new commitment is a good fit. They braved thunderstorms in France on bikes with me, come up with great hike plans, and have an eye for finding the local, free music events in town. We celebrate birthdays, friendsgivings, anniversaries, the arrival of visiting significant others, and everything in between with meals around that kitchen table and lots of laughter. These are the humans who make even the hardest Monday feel alright again.
Lauren Winchester (she/her/her) spent the 2018-2019 grant period working as an ETA at a Gesamtschule in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany, where she pet lots of dogs in trams and played ultimate (frisbee) with the Heidees. She graduated from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is now back in Colorado and thoroughly enjoying her reunion with green chili and the Rocky Mountains.