November 25, 2009 Edition

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German pupils in the USA

Bernard Duckworth
Guest Columnist

A few months ago I wrote a column about the education system in Germany and how it differed from the one in United States based on my experiences, viewpoint and my time as a pupil in Black Rock. From September 2008 until February 2009 my daughters had an opportunity to attend a high school in Alabama where they lived with my niece, her husband and their two children who are approximately the same age as my daughters.

As I had surmised, the initial differences were awesome for my twin daughters. The high school had moved to a new building just before the new school year and was outfitted with the latest equipment. The first surprise was the cafeteria, which offered breakfast and lunch. The school day here usually starts at 7:30 a.m. ends at 1 p.m. - there is no cafeteria.

The number of pupils at the high school here is approximately the same as at the school there, but the school there was only one story high and much more spread out. Here the school is four stories high.

Another difference is that the high school was several miles outside the town, and high schools here are normally located in the middle of the town. They had never experienced being picked up at home by a school bus and taken to the school and returned home in the afternoon. Here the pupils have to use public transportation. Having a large library in the school was also new as here students have to go to the public libraries for information, and the opening times often make it difficult for them.

My daughters were especially excited about the possibility of getting their driving licenses in Alabama. Here one has to learn to drive with a certified driving instructor, and drivers training is almost as expensive as flight training for a private pilot's license in the U.S. As they had the advantage of being able to practice driving with my niece, they passed their driving tests easily, and upon returning home were able to have their licenses transferred to a German license last August when they became 18.

They told me that they believed the academic level was not as high in some subjects there as here, but it was possible for them to take college preparatory courses in mathematics and chemistry which they did, so they were able to find their stride quickly again in the second half of the school year here. They were also impressed with the language classes and told me that there is far more emphasis on speaking than here where the ability to write and translate a language is stressed more. I assume that they were able to speak English well as both had an A in this subject, but they continue to answer me in German although I have spoken English with them since their birth.

The importance of intramural sports and the contests between neighboring schools is unheard of here, but the girls enjoyed it and went to some football and baseball games, which their relatives had to explain to them. They also experienced a homecoming, which impressed them as there is no such thing here, nor are there cheerleaders of course.

Once the students graduate here, there is no official contact to the school, but many students organize class reunions, which take place outside of the school. They were also very impressed by the good relations between teachers and students. Here the teachers begin referring to the pupils as Ms. or Mr. after about the age of 16 and some teachers still require that the pupils stand up when they enter the classroom. They told me that the parking lot for visitors at the school was bigger than the parking lot for the teachers here, and here of course there is no student parking lot.

One thing that bothered them was the reserve of the local pupils. They had very little contact with their fellow students except with three other exchange students. They told me, however, that this changed dramatically when it was announced that they would be returning to Germany at the end of the first half of the year. They said many came by during the last week to sit at their table in the cafeteria and ask questions.

The lack of contact was probably in part caused by the fact that, as twins, they did not especially seek contact, and they also had relatives in the school. They were though invited to a few parties by children whose father or mother had served with the military in Germany.

They were also disappointed at the lack of knowledge about Europe by both teachers and students. During the first driving lesson, the instructor was surprised that we also drive on the right side in Germany just as in the USA. Their chemistry teacher asked them if Germany was a communist country, and students who asked them where they lived were not aware that there had been an East Germany and a West Germany before 1990.

All in all it was a very positive time for them, and both are considering the possibility of studying in the United States, but they still have some time before they receive their matriculation, which is a prerequisite for studying at a university here, in May of 2011.

It is sometimes difficult for me to not envy them for the chances they have that I did not have growing up in the foothills of the Ozarks.

Bernard Duckworth, a native of Black Rock and member of the BRHS Class of 1957, served in the U.S. Army from 1958-1961. He is as an independent consultant and has been living in Europe since 1970. He and his wife have three children. Send comments to him via The Times Dispatch at

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