There was a certain excitement in Ellison’s eyes and voice as Jude, Asher and I picked her up from school. She was talking almost non-stop the entire drive home and touching on everything she had done that day. This is not totally normal for her and I think it is because she is finally finishing up her first grade year. Ellison started first grade in Atlanta toward the beginning of August in 2011 and is finishing her first grade year on the last day of July of 2012 in Augsburg, Germany. So I guess she has great reason to be excited- She has been in the first grade for quite a long time. Almost an entire calendar year.
I asked her if she was a little disappointed to say goodbye to the friends she had made in class but she responded with an abrupt ‘No.’ I was a little taken aback but with hardly a breadth she kept on talking. Ellison mentioned that only a few kids would not be in her class next year. I was reminded that here in the public school system they stay with the same teacher and mainly the same students for their first four years of school. There really is no reason to say goodbye for the summer as they will see the same classmates and teacher only 6 weeks later. And for our first grader who has a warped since of time this is basically a long long weekend.
I wondered about this difference and the long term effects it has on people here and on me as an American. This idea of staying with the same class for four years connected me to previous conversations with other Germans that I’ve been having about church here. I started intertwining with these other thoughts. So much so that I had to remember to pay attention because I was still driving on the Autobahn (All I have to say about that is that you better be 100% sure that you want to get in the far left lane)! Anyways, along with these thoughts I started immediately comparing with my own memories of the ‘last day of school’ feelings and the ‘first day of school’ feelings I had when I was a ‘Junge’ in Atlanta. As an American educated kid I dealt with the saying goodbye to friends at every end of the year along with saying hello to new friends every new year. I felt that we were constantly in situations where we were making new friends and saying goodbye to ones we would more then likely not interact with again. Even with our seasonal sport schedule, you are constantly meeting new kids and saying goodbye. Our culture is much more transient and people are always moving around. It’s just normal.
This idea of staying with the same class for four years connected me to previous conversations with other Germans that I’ve been having about church here. On many occasion the natives here in Germany have said that Americans are more open and trusting and inviting which makes it a little easier to invite people to church or carry on conversations about God. I have always wondered if that is really true and if this is true, why? It made me wonder if a small part of this openness comes from the saying goodbyes and saying hellos that we learn every school year. On the contrary I also wondered if the 4 year commitment to a class and teacher helps to foster this idea of a closed knit group of trusted friends something that we have observed after just 3 months here. I wonder if this contributes to the culture of being very skeptical of outsiders or not wanting to venture out too far away from the base or the norm?
Cultural learning and language learning are two very different things. In learning a language, with it’s excitement and difficulty, we are bound to make mistakes. These mistakes typically don’t harm any of the relationships we have made to this point because everyone totally understands that we DO NOT speak German(yet). On the other hand, learning something less blatant like a new culture can have serious ramifications if not done well. Making an unknown cultural mistake can seriously detriment a relationship or even worse ruin influence. Not only are we making a mistake that we do not even realize but the recipients of this mistake do not necessarily understand that this is a cultural difference. All they see it as is ‘wrong’.
Cultural learning is vital when it comes to truly connecting with a person – something that we so earnestly want to do with people who we are meeting here. It’s why every experience leads us down a trail of thoughts and comparisons into our own experiences growing up. So, moments like today where I get a slight glimpse into how a culture grows up and I am able to easily compare it to the differences I experienced when I grew up are key factors in our success here.
I hope they are building in a sensitivity to other people’s points of view and that they will help to give grace when I can’t always connect the dots and understand why an idea I have simply will not work in this culture.
How grateful I am to have kids who have offered us more opportunities to take a look into another culture in which I otherwise would never have imagined. And lets face it, most of us are the way we are because of how we grew up. As an adult why else would I ever think of the elementary school years if it not for my kids!