Lebensstationen (Literately: life stations; milestones). It’s the last chapter in my current German textbook. Having followed Susanna, Kurt, Larissa, Simon and Maria through seven chapters that saw them book a holiday, open a bank account, send every type of letter to every corner of the world, and get all the household appliances fixed, it’s almost time for me to say goodbye. (Although, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that they’ll make a reappearance in the next level textbook.) As a language teacher and a language learner, I accept that these textbooks serve a useful purpose: they put you in real life situations, provide the necessary vocabulary and grammar, and force you to role play the many situations that might occur in your newly-chosen language. They are not, however, designed to inspire you.
Sitting down to do my homework like the diligent student I am, dictionary app open, pen ready, and questions in front of me, I began confidently. My teacher had asked me to answer six simple questions about my Kindheit, my childhood. The first was easy: Ich bin in einer kleinen Stadt in England groß geworden. Die Stadt heist Melton Mowbray… And on I could easily of gone, detailing the games I played, the times I hurt myself, and the holidays I had, but I kept hesitating. The hesitation was over something small, something insignificant to the language goal of the task. It was over three letters: the choice between between ich and wir. I and we.
Because, inadvertently, this practical, classical language textbook had inspired a thought and a reflection: My childhood was great. However, it wasn’t great because of anything I did; it was great because of the others that made my childhood full of memories that start with we.
From the never ending game of “penny-a-drop” catch (for which I think I still owe my dad tens of pennies, if not pounds) to French Cricket (“Can’t be out first ball!”), games unfolded all the time, outdoors and in our garden that wasn’t really big enough. Then there were the board games, the chewed Barbie shoes (sorry, Sis), and the pretend weddings in borrowed nightgowns. I could write a page on the games I played as a child, but none of the sentences would start with I.
The other four questions sent me back down memory lane to holidays, household chores, childhood injuries, and favourite memories. Maybe breaking my arm was my story and my story alone, but I realised our personal histories are rarely reliant solely on our actions. Holidays left us tanned (my mum and sister) and lightly tomato-ed (me and dad) with wrinkles from the made up underwater games. Helping out was often a debate, okay argument, over who washed and who dried. And favourite memories? I need a new notebook. Saturdays with cousins, lunches out, evening drives, walks, picnics, are-we-nearly-there-yet?s, the list of unspecific but treasured memories goes on and on. The list of people who helped make them is also long and precious. In none of them do I remember myself alone.
Of course, when reflecting on your childhood, it’s hard to remember specifics. It’s easy to wear rose tinted glasses. Of course, I spent time alone, with books and journals and in the quiet of my room being moody and awkward. Did my sister and I drive each other insane? Of course we did. Did I think my parents were unfair or too strict or whatever else teenagers think of their parents? Of course I did.
But, interestingly and importantly, when completing this homework assignment, none of these things came to mind. Instead I wrote and I wrote about the things we did, the places we went and the fortunate upbringing we had.
And so it was possible and pleasurable to end on an I and a we: ich bin sehr dankbar, dass wir eine so schöne und glückliche Kindheit hatten.
And now I look forward to all the memories we’ll create together, now we’re grown ups helping others to grow up.
*Sometimes I make avoidable and embarrassing mistakes with the English in these posts. I am sorry. Today I have certainly made mistakes with the German. I am less sorry. I am learning.
Picture: GDJ, Open Clipart, https://openclipart.org/detail/246503/chromatic-tiled-3-girls-playing-vintage-silhouette, 12/02/17