Safe in the classroom

The girl is 8 years old, she is in third grade, attending a primary school in a nearby village rather than in her home town. The story takes place in East Germany in the early 1980s.

It’s six o’clock on a winter morning. The lights go on, suddenly. “Get up, now! Time to get ready for school. Get dressed, brush your teeth, and come eat your breakfast,” father shouts. The girl would love to sleep in, but she rises quickly and puts on her clothes, which are neatly folded on her chair from the night before. Her lovely orange leather school back – a present from her grandparents, exactly the one she wanted – is already packed, waiting for her on the stairs in the corridor. It’s dark outside and still a little cold in the house, as father has just lit the central heating. Breakfast is the same as always: same jam, same tea with that horrible elderberry syrup to ward off the winter colds, slightly stale bread. Mother is getting the boys ready. Everybody is rushing. There’s never any time on a weekday morning.

She eats quickly, drinks her tea, tidies away her dishes, grabs the aluminum lunch box – same liver pate sandwiches as always - puts on her coat, itchy scarf, hat and gloves, and her boots, then rushes out into the dark cold morning, always worrying that she’ll be late for the bus to school. She crosses the square in front of her house, walks past the building on the opposite side, and, as she crosses the road, glances across to the bus stop to see which of her classmates are already waiting there. She does not know how long it will be before the bus arrives. In this cold weather, with the half slushy, half icy roads, it can be early or indefinitely late. There is no knowing how long they’ll have to wait in the cold for. Tanja is already waiting and she approaches her with a slight sense of dread. What will it be this time? Which fantastic Western television programme will Tanja have watched the night before and is now telling everybody about? How to pretend that she knows what it is about when she doesn’t have a clue, because she is not allowed to watch much TV, even less Western TV, and if she does watch it, she is not supposed to tell anybody about it. Her parents, who are both teachers, keep telling her that what they talk about at home stays at home.

In her eyes, Tanja is lucky but also insufferably arrogant, with her cool Western clothes that her relatives send her regularly. There is no way that the girl can keep up and, oh boy, does Tanja know how to show off with that stuff! The girl is bravely wearing her itchy wooly hat. She hates it, but her mother would go mad, if she did not wear it. She feels embarrassed to have to wear it in front of her friend, but dare not contest her mother. There would be hell to pay for. So she normally waits until she is safely out of sight before taking it off, but today, it is so cold that there is no option but to keep it on. All the while, Tanja is showing off her cool new jeans and talking about a cartoon she watched yesterday.

At last, the bus arrives. The girl’s feet begin to freeze, but in the bus she gets a seat on top of one of the heaters and can barely stand the heat, which never reaches down to her feet, however. She sits back quietly and waits for her other friends to get on at the next stop. As more and more kids get on, the atmosphere in the bus gets rowdier and there’s lots of laughter as kids and bags get thrown about every time the bus makes a turn. They leave town and go along a winding country road. The view across the fields and up to the mountains is beautiful, as the sun is slowly rising and revealing snow-capped mountain tops. Soon after, the bus reaches the village. It’s a ten minute walk from the bus stop to the girl’s primary school. She walks past houses, where she knows her classmates live, but she has never set foot in any one of them. These village homesteads remain a mystery to her, as does the fact that every one of her teachers seems to know every kid and their family in the village closely. It’s icy slippery and wet on the footpath and her boots are getting trenched. Walking along the main road through the village and along the small brook that can become a torrent in spring, she wishes that they had finally reached the school but hates the thought of arriving there with cold, wet boots and feet. It’s always such chaos when everyone takes off their coats and shoes, putting on slippers to keep the classroom clean. Today, the milk, which they drink every day at mid-morning recess, will be frozen. It will taste horrible, but they will have to drink it anyway.

Once she gets into the classroom, all is different though. The room is nice and warm. There is fire in the tiled hearth,  the room is lit brightly, and she feels light and relieved at the sight of her teacher, a warm-hearted, caring woman, who also lives in the village. Inside this room, the girl feels safe.