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VIII: Communist Education: What I learned in first grade

German students entering first grade receive a Sugar Cone: a large, decorated cardboard cone filled with small toys, school supplies and sweets on the first day of school. I couldn’t wait to get mine, unaware no amount of sugar in world would sufficiently sweeten the transition to socialist style education. I’d been spoiled with freedom and creativity during my three years of Lutheran Preschool/Kindergarten. Now a “real” teacher would take over.

Being a real teacher in East Germany meant idolizing the party and infusing the next generation with undiluted communism. My first grade teacher exemplified political devotion to the bone. Middle aged, well dressed and serious, she managed our classroom with an iron ruler. Had Mrs Drill Sergeant once served the army? I didn’t think much of it. We stood at attention, saluted as instructed, marched on command. During class we quietly sat arrow straight with arms tucked behind our chairs. DISCIPLINE, she would shout, if you will learn one thing this year, you will learn discipline! She loved the word discipline. It effortlessly rolled off her tongue and into every lesson. Discipline echoed in my ears, made me sit up straight and focus on working hard. Children exhibiting discipline would get a bee stamp on their page. Discipline also meant showing respect, obeying the rules, being responsible, efficient and persistent. Discipline in essence meant obedience, yielding to authority, unquestioningly. Individuals who thought for themselves would not serve this country well.

My family held opposing thoughts towards authority and obedience though. God was our authority and obeying Him was paramount to our faith. So far this had not resulted in conflict for me but first grade changed that. East Germany enforced a strict six day work/ school week, Sunday being the official day off. My family and faith community regarded Saturday (Sabbath) as sacred according to the 4th commandment. Our church assembled for worship on Saturday and we celebrated Sabbath according to the written instructions in the law. Attending school on Sabbath would dishonor God and be unacceptable for me. My parents prayed, then informed the principle I would not ever be present at school on Saturday. Opposing thoughts were neither appreciated nor accommodated but we found favor and were spared disciplinary action. The school would count, record, report but excuse all my absences provided all missed work would be completed and turned in by monday.

For six years I skipped one day of school a week. (The wall came down in 6th grade and we adopted the western schedule of the 5 day school/work week) Skipping school one day a week attracted attention and curiosity. Many student held no concept of God even, asking things like God? What’s that? Other laughed at the idea of believing a myth, picturing God as senile senior floating around in the sky.

If I believed in a God, could I start skipping school too?, my classmates would randomly ask. You’d have to ask your parents, I would tell them, thinking you’d better come up with a nobler reason to pursue faith.

My parents also decided I would not become a member of “Young Pioneers”, a political mass organization for children. Nearly all (98%) East German Children ages 6-14 belonged to the Pioneers groups that resembled the Scouts but focused on socialist ideology. Young pioneers sported a uniform, required to be worn to school on political high days and other occasions. Just wear a white T-shirt, my teacher advised, you won’t stand out as much. It seemed like I was the only kid in my school of several hundred students who marched to a different beat.

When you’re not joining the fun, people will want to know why you’re a party pooper, an over-analyzer, someone who thinks they’re better than you. Some believers relish these opportunities to declare faith, other struggle to find words that will be perceived free from judgement. I learned to brace myself for the next awkward conversation and adapted to being misunderstood and occasionally made fun of.

I finished first grade getting all A’s except for a B in math. Perhaps more importantly I learned that I possessed a counter-cultural faith which meant I would never be able to please God and Mrs Drill Sergeant at the same time. But I would learn to adjust to the tension.

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This is part VIII  “Behind the Wall & Under the Steeple”, a collection of personal essays and reflections of growing up Christian in former East Germany. Part IX will continue next week. Subscribe via email to my blog or bookmark this page. If you are receiving this post by email, any reply goes straight to my inbox.  Thanks for reading! 

2 Replies

  1. Hi Astrid! Once again, excellent! I continue to be amazed- and appreciate your writing skills and ability for under-statement.
    In your paragraphs I sense the conflicts and dangers . . . Thank God the Wall came down!

    Bless you and miss you!

    Voni

  2. Funny how my kids get questioned about differences, mostly by those within our faith community, not others. I might have my 10yo read this post.

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