About six months ago one of my former students invited me to a class reunion of the school class I have been teaching as form teacher 30 years ago during 3 and a half years. I worked as a teacher in a town near Hamburg before I came to teach at the European School in Brussels. My students were between 14 and 16 years of age when we started together. Some of them were known as difficult and one of my male colleagues had refused to take them on. But I did.
I was quite apprehensive when Heike, who had found me through the Internet, asked on facebook whether I would join the class reunion as her special guest. Would anybody recognize me after so many years without any warning? And more importantly, would I recognize my students who were adolescents at that time, and adult men and women now? Despite my nervousness, I said “yes”.
That very class had always been close to my heart, because most of them were struggling with their homes and with themselves growing up. Instead of teaching from books I took them out into nature as often as I could justify it, I sang with them (even on stage) pop and rock songs, brought disco evenings into the class room, took bicycle rides and other excursions to get them out. We were in the newspapers not just once.
Heike, in her forties now, had approached me with: “You were the coolest teacher we ever had. We often talk about you! Let’s keep it a secret that you come!” I was flattered, exited and nervous. Keeping it secret, I had to give up control.
I booked a hotel for two nights, so that I could take it easy.
It is a week ago now that the day came when I left Brussels early in the morning in order to reach a little town in Dithmarschen, about 60 km away from Hamburg. Arriving there I realized how much the town had changed. I hardly recognized the streets; leave alone the buildings. Yet, the school and the swimming pool next to the school looked still familiar.
What an endeavor I had agreed to!
It was a difficult night before the reunion, filled with uneasy dreams, memories, and feelings of joy, sadness and tension. I remembered that my colleagues and especially the headmaster were not always in agreement with my unusual teaching methods. I tossed and turned until the early morning.
As an introduction to the time together Heike had arranged a guided tour in one of the oldest breweries in Schleswig-Holstein, which was located in that town. The plan was to have a meal together afterwards in a nearby restaurant.
An hour before the big surprise was supposed to take place, I rang Heike’s doorbell as agreed. Over WhatsApp we had arranged for us to go and arrive together. Heike and I had not seen each other for 30 years!
When she opened the door; we looked at each, hugged and connected immediately! She was still the same, some more kilos, some more wrinkles. Just like myself. It was an instant and warm ‘hello’. We felt familiar, as if we had parted yesterday. Had we been student and teacher before, were we now two adult women with similar histories: children, husband (s) and all that life brings with it …
In her living room Heike had prepared a gallery of old photos and newspaper articles to remind me of faces and names. She explained and described her own life story in short; she had been divorced with two children, working full time as a single mother now.
Heike filled me in with little stories about most of the other students. Two of the boys were grandfathers already. I was moved by the fact that all of them worked as certified professionals. They were all well established. Some were very successful with their businesses; some of them less. Two of them had survived cancer; most of them were in good health. Heike had remained in contact with all of them. She had followed their paths.
I was feeling nostalgic. I had loved this group of some times provocative adolescents so much. I remembered how one of them was standing in class with a cigarette and a lighter, looking at me in a provocative way and announcing that he needed a cigarette now. I remember giving him a strict “no way”. He – about 180cm of height – looked down at me with my 160cm. We looked at each other for a while and then he put his cigarette back in his pocket. Later he told me that I was one of the people he really respected. Was it because he felt my affection, my soft but clear boundaries?
Then it was time to go. Heike sat beside me in my car and I drove us to the brewery. When I parked the car, I saw a group of adults waiting already outside of a red brick building with big letters of the name of the brewery. Would I recognize them? How would they react to their “old” teacher? My apprehension rose.
As Heike and I approached the group, a two meters big man saw me and screamed “Oh, Frau Lorenzen”. He laughed in amazement. I could see the happiness in his face when he took me and embraced with joy. I felt that he had not changed at all (except growing), and recalling his name was easy. One after the other looked, laughed and shouted my name. We hugged, embraced, and hugged again. “What a wonderful surprise!” I heard, and Heike was the star.
A wise move of Heike’s to have a guided tour through the brewery first. Like this we could accustom to an unusual situation, feel old feelings and once in a while listen to the guide. It is a tradition of this brewery that at the end of the tour visitors were offered to taste different beers, and whoever desired it got a snaps with it. Sitting down at a long table, questions and answers in wonderment went back and forth, and always in between “Prost!” and again “Prost!” What a joy!
The conversation of about 20 men and women and their former teacher began to rise in volume. “How have you been?” “Oh, I always fancied you!”, and so on and so forth. Some of them had not seen each other for 10 or 20 years either. Not only I was the surprise, also some of them surprised each other with news of newborn children and/or divorces.
If you had been a spectator, you had seen a happy group of people, taking out smart phones sharing photos of spouses, children and even grandchildren.
“We have to call the newspaper guy!” one of them burst out suddenly. A quick call, and we went outside to take photos and some information so that the local news got an interesting story.
With some alcohol in the veins we walked together through the town to the restaurant, where Heike had made the reservation. Even though we had our own corner, our voices overrode every other conversation in the room. It was such a lovely meeting. We will all benefit for a long time from those happy moments of connecting. We exchanged Facebook addresses and WhatsApp numbers and decided not to wait another 30 years to get together again.
When everybody was talking and enjoying themselves, I had a moment to contemplate on the situation. In my philosophical manner I was wondering why some of them kept their temperament and almost hadn’t changed at all, whereas others were much more silent or more agitated than before, and some had changed almost to the extent of not being recognisable.
Does life give us a pleasant or a difficult ride and we just respond to it? Were their life stories already encapsulated when we met 30 years ago? How much can we really change? Who and what give us the ride? Is it our thoughts, our genes and biological disposition that determine who we become?
The student who was the most difficult then, the one with the cigarette, had managed to find his way. After many years of struggling and not doing anything, he got his act together. What made him do that? When I asked, he could not tell. He said, he just woke up one day. With pride he told me: “No alcohol, no drugs.” His wife joined the group later. It was their second marriage with each other. He seemed happy, and yet, his gestures and allures were still the ones that I saw when he was struggling 30 years ago. Had he changed? I doubt it.
Who and what decides where and how our life turns out? In my next blog I will explore this question a bit further.
What do you think? What made you who you are today? Over to you!