into Fort Knox? Go Ahead! (Die Welt, Germany)
"I would often
tell my astonished American husband how, at the age of four, the neighborhood
children and I routinely walked to kindergarten all by ourselves, and would
describe Finn's school, with its strict regulations, as a kind of military
academy on "Sesame Street." ... Today I see things differently. ... As
far as I'm concerned, they can turn his kindergarten into Fort Knox - and I
take my hat off to the fact that to my son, the school manages to look as homey
as Sesame Street."
What gave 29-year-old Kaitlin Roig, a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook elementary school, the presence of mind to protect her children? An uncommon discipline that in today's America, all teachers must acquire.
The son of Welt editor
Iris Alanyali goes to an American kindergarten. She's
often been irritated by the tight security. But after the shooting, everything
My five-year-old son Finn goes to an American kindergarten -
one exactly like Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is about as far from Philadelphia as
Newtown is from New York - in their own way, both cities are fairly average
American east coast cities. Finn's school even looks a lot like Sandy Hook: A
faceless, flat-roofed building in shades of yellow, with a huge parking lot
right next to it and a pathetic bicycle rack behind the building that no one anymore.
As I write these lines, the massacre of Newtown is a day
old, and until two days ago, I made fun of Finn's kindergarten on almost a
daily basis. I should say that I live in Berlin, we maintain a long-distance
relationship and I am currently on a visit to the United States. My husband
takes care of the children and works there.
I would often tell my astonished American husband how, at
the age of four, the neighborhood children and I routinely walked to
kindergarten all by ourselves, and would describe Finn's school, with its
strict regulations, as a kind of military academy on "Sesame Street."
Today I see things differently. I'd like to tell you a
little bit about day-to-day life with a child who attends an American
When American children reach the age of five, they go to kindergarten, which as everyone knows is
called precisely that, and is written just like the German word. However, kindergarten
in America has little to do with its German counterpart. At some schools the
level of achievement is more accurately termed level "0," or grade
zero, because that's exactly what it is: a year of preparation for "real
school." It seems to me that students as well as parents see it that way.
Time-out chair for
But kindergartens are still part of the elementary school
that the child will attend the following year: The teachers are charming, there
are subjects like art, gymnastics and music, there are plenty of stars for good
behavior and a time-out chair for particularly bad behavior, and at the end of
the year a child should be able to read and write a little and be able to count.
Although I have long since come to appreciate the merit
principle - for Finn learning the alphabet is an exciting game rather than a
drill - I had my doubts about the rest of the curriculum, which is tightly
We live five minutes from the school. Monday through Friday,
shortly before nine o'clock, I walk with my son to the school's "pedestrian
entrance," two inconspicuous doors to the left of the main entrance.
The doors open at 8:55.
In a small area in front of the school, the children in the
two morning kindergarten classes form two lines (there are two classes in the
afternoon as well). The older "pedestrian students" gather somewhere to
the right of the school building. We parents stand around, chat, or admonish the
kids for the 58th time not to leave their scarves in the school cubby.
At 8:55, both doors open and two teachers step outside,
position themselves at the front of the lines, wave in a friendly manner to the
parents, and march their charges into the building. The doors close and cannot
be opened from the outside until 11:40am.
At 11:40, the right door opens, a teacher steps partially out
and, and one at a time calls out the names of students from both classes who
are already standing in line. The corresponding adults call attention to
themselves by waving, the teacher nods, and the child runs off.
If no one answers when a child's name is called, because
mother, father, grandma, or grandpa are a little late, the child goes back to
the end of the line.
"This is the
school bus line!"
Twice, Finn and I were late for school. That was at least as
unpleasant for me as it was for my son. Both doors were already closed, so I
marched to the front entrance with him. That entrance is actually reserved for
school buses, which arrive there.
As we stepped into the building, several lines were already
formed along various walls. A few boys from the closest happily called out
Finn's name, but Finn didn't want to join them. "That's the school bus
So we had to go a little further into the school foyer
before we found, - lined up against another wall, those classmates who had
previously positioned themselves at the pedestrian door. Finn joined them and I
looked confused until I was noticed by his teacher, who stood like a conductor
in the middle of the hallway and hastily commented, "Yes, yes, that's ok,
you can leave Finn there."
I left quickly and went home. he second time we were late, I
shooed Finn into the main entrance into line with his school bus classmates and
turned around. I have no idea what happens if you're late picking up your
child, because I don't dare come even a minute late. In this way, American
elementary schools also train the parents.
Guests must have a
Later, when I indignantly told my husband that surely, a
mother should feel welcome at her son's school, all he wanted to know why I was
even allowed into the building - as every adult who is not an employee is
directed to the office where you are expected to sign in and out.
And it does indeed say in the school handbook that guests
are required to have a pass, which is available only in the front office: "The
main entrance is monitored by surveillance cameras. Please use the bell to the
left of the door, state your name and the reason for your visit."
I've never been in the school building for any length of
time, and have no idea what my son's classroom looks like. My husband attended
the only parent-teacher evening thus far, and beyond that, communication takes
place via a red cardboard folder that is kept in Finn's backpack: The left side
sports a sticker that says "Leave at Home," and on the right, a
sticker with "Back to School."
Better grades when
you're a PTA member
In the left pocket, there are more than just examples of
Finn's newest drawing and spelling skills, but also printed ideas about how to
expand on the skills learned at school ("Dear parents! This week we're
learning the letter "H." You can help.Cut out the letter "H" below and
attach it to the picture of a word that starts with "H," house, for
The right pocket is intended for signed vaccination forms
and acknowledgement of school rules, as well as for calls to participate in the
next bake sale, the collection of funds for Hurricane Sandy victims, or various
other extracurricular activities that generate funds that benefit the Parent
Teacher Association (PTA), parent representatives, and thus, the school.
When Finn started school, our neighbor strongly encouraged
me to become an active member of the PTA. "Nobody will admit it, of course,"
she said, "but it's true: When you're in the PTA, your child gets better
Now I understand why: The PTA is pretty much the only way to
look over the shoulders of American teachers.
Home-schooling has risen
The nation where people loudly protest when the president
wants to "interfere" with health insurance, the nation that hates it
when anyone interferes with its right to arms, oil and fast-food, hands over
its children at the school entrance without resistance, as if it were the
border to a foreign country for which it lacks a visa.
The right to an education and the right to make something of
oneself regardless of one's origins - perhaps it is this entitlement that gives
American schools their special status. On the other hand, perhaps this special
status is also partly responsible for the number of school-aged children being
home-schooled, a number that rose by 74 percent from 1999 to 2007, according to
a report by the U.S. Department of Education.
For many American parents, home schooling seems the only way
- aside from religious and security concerns - for them to have any influence
over their child's education.
By the time I heard about the massacre in Connecticut on
Friday, I had already picked Finn up from kindergarten and inspected his red
folder. While he was in his room having his Playmobil
knights fend off a dangerous dinosaur attack, I was in the living room stunned
as I watched TV at the lowest possible volume.
No more complaints
about the security measures
I take my hat off to the teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary
School, who after the disaster, led their students out of the school building
in such a disciplined manner as if they were on their way to the gym. Now I
understand why it was possible.
I take my hat off to Kaitlin
Roig, who barricaded herself in the school
restroom with her first graders and wouldn't open the door for police because
she thought it was a trick by the shooter: The 29 year-old teacher wanted to
see their ID badges pushed under the door first. Then she said that if they
were police, they could get the key themselves and open the door from the
I now understand where such self confidence came from, which
made her reaction possible.
I will never again complain about the security measures at
Finn's school. As far as I'm concerned, they can turn his kindergarten into
Fort Knox - and I take my hat off to the fact that to my son, the school
manages to look as homey as Sesame Street.