After almost six years in Munich, my family and I will soon be returning to California, and there are a few things I already know I will miss. I am not talking about the obvious (fresh pretzels, fresh pretzels with cheese, fresh pretzels with cheese and pumpkin seeds, no potholes, universal health care) but the less known differences that come with spending time in schools.
We are fortunate to live in a part of Munich with top-notch public schools, similar to where we lived in America. We pay a few percentage points more in taxes than we paid in California, but holy Betsy DeVos, do we get more!
Our daughter’s elementary school, which she graduated from a few years ago, offered a rich curriculum, from math and sciences to arts and languages. After school, in addition to the more traditional offerings of chess, theater and computers, she could take circus lessons, where children learned to juggle, walk on a tightrope and ride a unicycle. Since her school did not have a pool, students were bused every week to a nearby sports club for swim lessons, at no extra charge.
The school also offered a weeklong enrichment program that varied year to year. One year, students spent five days visiting sports clubs, each day being introduced by experts to sports such as fencing, ice hockey and volleyball. Once a real circus came to her school for a week and trained the students, who then put on a performance. We did have to contribute $25 per student for that, since constructing an actual circus tent was costly.
We have also paid for extras like trips to museums (about $4 each) and $250 for a weeklong class trip to Austria intended to foster independence (a highlight was that each child did a short walk alone at night in a field), but that’s it. On the few occasions when the school organized fund-raising efforts, the recipients were in other countries.
Based on their academic performance in fourth grade, children in Germany are divided into three tracks. I do not agree with this system but high-performing children benefit greatly. The top track qualifies for “gymnasium,” the most advanced secondary school, with a curriculum that prepares students for higher education. The gleaming facilities of our daughter’s gymnasium, complete with sports halls, music rooms and a library housing ancient books, rivals those of any top university. Did I mention that higher education is free?
The schools I attended growing up in California were nothing like this. I was in middle school when Proposition 13, a law meant to ease residents’ tax burden, passed in 1978. The impact on the state’s school budgets was immediate. I still remember art, music and language programs being gutted seemingly overnight, and counselors and librarians disappearing. As a parent, I assumed that for schools to get what they needed, we would have to pay significantly more in taxes, and who wants that? Parents are expected to donate time and money to make up for what the government can’t provide. In addition to raising funds for our own schools, I and many others raised money for schools in areas with fewer resources. It was the little Dutch boy and the dike, but for every hole we plugged, a dozen more appeared.
And in Munich, in addition to well-funded schools, life comes with reliable public transportation. Our morning school commute consists of waving our child out the door as she walks to the nearby tram. It took me years to get used to the sight of tiny children with huge backpacks sitting by themselves on the train.
Now that I have lived in a society with a much better alternative, I realize that the idea of a city where children can practice independence from an early age requires a social contract: A certain number of people have to participate in order to achieve success. I don’t know if we can replicate this independence in America, not just because of the lack of transit in most places but also because of the anxiety intertwined with the idea of a child going anywhere alone.
The system here in Munich has also left me with more time, not to mention dignity. Have I had to accompany my child door to door to sell overpriced wrapping paper to save a school program? Thank the good Lord, no. Have I had to cringe and repeatedly ask family and friends to sponsor walkathons, danceathons, readathons or carwashathons? No. People are no longer avoiding my phone calls. (Note to friends in America: Those phone calls will start again. Please answer. Also, do you need any wrapping paper?)
As I prepare to return to California, I am looking forward to seeing my family and reuniting with dear friends, many of whom I met while chaperoning, organizing auctions, selling cupcakes, supervising the playground and doing lice checks. I will undoubtedly take part in fund-raising for my child’s new school, but please forgive me if my homemade cupcakes taste like resentment frosted with betrayal and sprinkled with exasperation. Unfortunately, I’ve now enjoyed a system where for a little more in taxes, I get a lot more in services. And that leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Firoozeh Dumas is the author of “Funny in Farsi” and “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.”
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