The Neighborhood School – deconstructed

I first came upon the social significance of the German Neighborhood when our oldest son was approaching school age.  The neighborhood we found ourselves in when our son was born was nice. We liked it. It was relatively green and family friendly. But we did not foresee committing ourselves for life. We were not then troubled by this powerful geographical and cultural identity marker.

Over the course of W.’s toddlerhood, we began to establish ourselves. This went puzzlingly slowly – very different from life as I knew it in other countries. I joined a swimming class and a mother-baby group – full of others who had come from somewhere else. We were friendly with each other, but walking the streets there and back felt a bit like living life outside an invisible social wall.  We began to be recognized as regular customers by the fresh market vegetable vendors. We began to be invited to coffee at the beautiful houses of Zugezogene (newcomers not quite as new as we).  Sometimes I wondered aloud why new social ties were so strained, and was repeatedly assured that  these fragile samplings of social life might take a while to develop (Im allgemein 7 Jahre -average 7 years (!), was often contended), but the resulting friendships were promised to be deep and meaningful – “not superficial like that what you find in Amerika”. Well, I guess I had just better be patient then.

When the time came for our son’s first grade, the Neighborhood School became grounds for a moral battle.  Everyone we met had an opinion and voiced it strongly. Naturally, we would choose the ‘neighborhood’ school over an outside school, they said.  That outside school could be 5 minutes’ drive away or 1/2 hour away. It could be a Waldorf school or an International School, or a French school; important was that it was NOT the neighborhood school, and thus was a sure method of ruining one’s child’s life.

For me as an outsider who knew absolutely nothing about the German school system, these opinions were a minefield to decipher.  I was not at all sure our neighborhood school was the best choice. But, for many people, the approaching 1st grade seemed to take on more significance than a mere choice of educational style. There seemed to be four powerful cultural signifiers at play: of ‘neighborhood’, of  ‘school’, of ‘independence’, and of the negative Übermutter.

We heard repeatedly how important it would be for our son to grow up walking to and from school (‘neighborhood’), how childhood would be over but he would get a good start in the world (‘school’), how he could explore the neighborhood with his friends (‘independence’) and not be close to his parents (thus evading any danger of Übermutter fears).

The assumption that one’s neighborhood is ‘good’ is deeply ingrained in German identity.  The word heimat evokes the idea of home in the fullest, most rooted sense, and Germans are always asking after the true location of one’s heimat.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Auschwitz survivor and post-war resident of England, was asked here in Germany where she felt her heimat to be, and she paused, smiled exasperatedly and said, “you know, heimat doesn’t exist in English. It seems to be a German preoccupation. I am at home where I live.”1

While she may not have wished to go into detail about her true feelings of home, it is true that, traditionally, Germans have not moved much. They do travel, but traveling is as different from living in another culture as babysitting is different from parenting.  Most Germans have very little experience with the excitement and challenge that comes from opening oneself up to another way of perceiving the world.  The flip side to this provincialism is that the Neighborhood is still equated with the security of extended family and childhood friends. This is a wonderful, sheltered notion. Since I was someone who had moved a great deal as an adult,  I was enchanted.  I wished this for us. I wanted this for our son.

The problem was: neither my husband nor I was surrounded by family and childhood friends in this particular neighborhood.  The invisible wall still existed. We were just happenstance residents who had liked it enough to stay for a while. I didn’t know it then, but this would mean that achieving this cosy heimat identity was not going to be possible. We were too different. A few ‘outside’ friends tried to warn us, encouraging us to send W. to a Waldorf school whose educational premise fit better to our cultural and psychological breadth of experience. But, in the end, after complications I will describe elsewhere, we subscribed to this hope of the Good Neighborhood myth, and we enrolled him locally.

Unfortunately, he was miserable.  None of the walking-to-school platitudes helped to ease his genuine unhappiness with the teacher and with the school’s writing-in-small-boxes approach to education. For a year, I tried to talk to the teacher. I even had her over for tea, trying to encourage a more personal, well-rounded approach with my smart and sensitive son. We encountered each other in bafflement.

Had we been more emotionally embedded in the idea of this Neighborhood, we might simply have toughed it out with him as did neighbors whose children were miserable.  Some of those children made it through. Some dropped out, or endured tough school years where their sense of confidence was undermined daily.  Maybe W. would have formed friendships to last a lifetime, so that his children might end up raising children there in the third generation as ‘real locals’.  But, I doubt it. He, too, was too different. In the end we chose another school, and then eventually another neighborhood and another lifestyle.  I’m sometimes angry at the suffering our friends’ children have had to endure all through the years of school in a system that didn’t fit them.  Simply because the parents believed local is always best.  It isn’t always.

Today, I found a great quote:

Bildung heißt auch, mental geschmeidig zu sein. Gebildete Menschen finden oft doch noch Wege, wenn andere sagen: “Das geht nicht.”2

“Educated” also means being mentally flexible. Educated people often find ways forward when others say “that’s impossible.”

We had the moral freedom to simply choose another school for our son. Easy as that. And, though we don’t ever know what the future will bring, from today’s perspective (he shrugs and says I’m being way too dramatic), I’d say it saved his soul.


1. Presentation, Gymnasium Lüneburger Heide, 25. Jan. 2011

2. Dunja Voos,, 23. March 2012. @dunjavoos