Filed under: elementary school, new kid | Tags: belonging, culture shock, draft, elementary school, Germany, kindergarten, moving, Nazi, new kid, new language, new school, Vietnam War
by Elisabeth Ellendorff
Kindergarten through seventh grade
“Tell me, are you looking forward to going to kindergarten?” The friendly lady, our neighbor, bent down to ask me. I was standing next to my mother, clutching her hand for safety.
I had heard that question so often now. Everybody asked me. After all, I was four years old, and I was sure that beginning kindergarten next fall was going to be the biggest adventure in my life. And like always, I looked at her and said, “Yes.”
I thought about kindergarten. It was all so mind-boggling thrilling. They had built a brand new kindergarten in our part of Zurich, and the kids of my age group were going to be the “first” ones in it. Like with all kids, the fact of something’s being NEW added to my excitement.
As spring merged into early summer in 1961, my anticipation rose from day to day. But I hadn’t reckoned on the world of adults.
My father, a German physicist, was busy expanding his career. His big international Swiss company decided it would be a good idea for him to go to New York. So my parents packed up our household, gathered their five children together, and before I could realize what was happening, we were in a different country, different culture, and immersed in a different language. So much for my plans to attend that lovely new kindergarten.
We moved to a small town on the Hudson, about two hours’ drive north of New York City. I was placed in a preschool attached to the local elementary school. Here, in this new country, my brothers and I could prove that even if we had no say in what adults did with us, we were much better than those adults at learning languages. I don’t honestly know how it happened. I learned English like magic — at least, I thought so.
But then there was that morning at preschool. We had been doing finger-painting. When everybody was finished, we sat at our tables, looking expectantly at our teacher.
Only something was wrong. The teacher had her eyes fixed on me. And she looked very angry. Apparently, my table hadn’t met her standards of cleanliness, but I had no way to know that.
“Go,” she said fiercly, “Get a sponge, and clean that away.”
I just stared at her, not comprehending. Sponge? Never heard of it.
Now the teacher, who was usually very pretty and very composed — I liked her — glared at me and grew very loud. I think she would have liked to slap me.
“A SPONGE!” she yelled. She must have thought I was being stubborn, maybe even rebellious.
I was bewildered. What had I done to make her so angry? I think I put my head on the table and began to cry.
“Please, Miss,” said one of the other girls as she raised her hand, “Please. I don’t think she understands. She’s from Germany. She doesn’t know what a sponge is.”
The teacher stared. Then she whipped around, grabbed the sponge from the sink and practically threw it at me. “THAT is a SPONGE! And now you clean that up, Madam!”
With my heart beating and my face red from humiliation, I did as she said.
Time flew, and soon preschool was a thing of the past. I now went to elementary school and spoke English as well as anyone. But, somehow, I was always “the kid from Germany.” I never belonged. And I would have loved that. Oh, I how I would have loved to belong!
My brothers didn’t “belong” either. We had classmates with Italian names, friends with French and Spanish names, but we were somehow condemned to stay strangers.
Then one morning, waiting for the school bus, one of my classmates was bored. She began looking for trouble She pointed at me.
“My Dad says, if Lizzy is German, then she’ s a nutsie,” she said.
“A nutsie?” the other kids giggled.
“Yeah, a nutsie, nutsie, nutsie.”
They took me in their middle and began dancing around me, sticking out their tongues and singing, “Nutsie, nutsie, nutsie!”
The bus stopped to pick us up and they broke off their singing. I was more confused than sad. A nutsie. A nutsy? I said the word over and over in my mind. What could they mean?
Curious, I asked my mother after school, “Mummy, what is a nutsie? The other kids said I was a nutsie.”
My mother frowned. Then she knelt down and looked into my face.
“Listen. Nazis were bad people who did very nasty things in Germany. That was during the war. That was before you were born. You can’t be a Nazi. I was never a Nazi, nor was your father. Your grandparents were very pious Christians. They got into very dangerous situations for not belonging to the Nazis.”
For not belonging! For someone like me, who fiercely wanted to “belong,” this was a new aspect. My parents and my grandparents obviously were proud for “not having belonged” in those days.
Seven years passed, and my parents packed up again and moved back to Germany, where my father had been offered a professorship at a university. My parents were glad to go. My brothers were almost finished with school now. It was the time of the Vietnam War. Although we were officially “just residents,” they, like any American boys, could be drafted.
Once again, we children were not asked. The adults decided for us. With heavy hearts we said good bye to our teachers, friends, and neighbors. I never really had succeeded in belonging, I never was invited to the really cool parties and social events, but I did have one or two dear friends I knew I would miss.
But, no matter, we were going back home now. We were Germans, and for the first time in my life, I would be living in “my” country. That would make up for a lot of sadness. Now I would belong.
So I thought.
I adapted to the so very different German school system. I gained new friends. I got used to speaking German, rather than English.
Then one day, one of my new girlfriends said to me, “Do you know what everyone calls you? How the kids who don’t know your name refer to you?”
I shook my head. “No. Tell me.”
“They call you ‘The American Girl’.”