Doreen Arnold, 18, of Rifton, New York, currently volunteers at a school for disabled children near Rudolstadt, Germany.
On the weekend, Keilhau is the epitome of peace, the tranquil scene cut straight from a fairy-tale depicting an idyllic German village. Lazy tendrils of smoke waft from chimneys, while the occasional car corrupts the stillness before disappearing into some gated yard. But by Sunday evening, intermittent noises insert themselves into the stupor. Jugendsozialwerk (youth social services) vans, their rumbling engines unmistakable from the distance, dispatch loads of children.
Soon the upper half of the village is a churning mass of gangly kids dragging frayed suitcases on protesting wheels across the cobblestones. The chorus of greetings, squeals, reprimands, laughter, and tired grumblings quell any doubt that Keilhau always lies in blissful languor. But what is crammed in these battered bags? Not only next week's clothing and the prescribed stuffed animal, they also contain tangled tales from the trenches of society: love, loss, domestic drama, broken dreams, and all too often the shards of abuse, addiction, and neglect. As these children struggle up the slope with their baggage, is it really possible to see everything they carry?
Since 1817, children have flocked to this remote Thuringian valley to attend the Freie Fröbelschule Keilhau, an independent boarding school founded by Friedrich Fröbel. At that time, his vision of creating a sanctuary modeled around a child's best educational interests (rather than one centered on ideas of classical academic learning) made him a revolutionary. Today he is revered worldwide as the father of the modern kindergarten, and of progressive child-centered education in general. While the waves of history have worn and altered his original principles and changed priorities, his main goal – to aptly prepare each child for life – remains steadfastly the same.
Descendants of Fröbel, my great-grandmother's family directed the school during the turbulent years between 1903 and 1934. Annemarie Wächter (to me, "Oma Annemarie") attended the all-boys' school as the only girl, under her father's direction. The dramatic wooded slopes surrounding the school made it a paradise for children, which she made full use of with her peers, exploring the woods, building huts, fighting "wars," and undertaking other tomboyish adventures, often to the chagrin of her mother.
Nazism, and then World War II, carved a schism between Oma and Keilhau – one that, tragically, would not be healed in her lifetime. In 1932 she left her family to teach near Fulda, and by 1936 she was forced to flee her beloved homeland with her new husband, a freethinker who refused to say "Heil Hitler" or join the German army. They escaped to England and then Paraguay, and eventually landed up in the United States. Meanwhile the school was confiscated by the Nazis, and later re-started under the Communist regime of East Germany.
Through all this, Keilhau remained an integral pillar of Oma's life. One of Fröbel's fundamental beliefs was that while adults educate children, children in turn must educate them. His watchword was "Let us live for the children." To Oma, this meant having "reverence for children." Along with Fröbel's emphasis on developing a child's soul as well as his mind and body through exploration and play, reverence became a central tenet of her outlook as an educator.
Today there are Fröbel schools all over the world. The original school in Keilhau, where I work as a volunteer, is attended by children with learning disabilities or speech and hearing impediments. More debilitating than their medical diagnoses are the obvious scars of social needs. As a bystander of the Sunday night return, it is hard to see the pinched faces screwed in concentration, to hear the anxiety of vulnerable voices readjusting to the rhythm of a new week. Is this why I came back to Keilhau four generations after Oma? Perhaps. I wade into the throng, lending a hand, a newly-mastered German phrase, a hug.
On this early December evening, skinny arms strain under the weight of weekend luggage that is more than just a suitcase. For Sonia, this new week means the security of a clean bed and food. (I have changed her name, and the others below, for privacy's sake.) For her, the weekend was uncertain due to her mother's chronic drinking. Some nights, Sonia is locked out, left on the streets. Stefan carries a picture of a smiling family close to his chest. It is crinkled, creased and caressed almost beyond recognition. The picture is clipped from a magazine. His Christmas wish was no secret, the darkness of his brown eyes always on the sharp lookout for a Papa and Mama to call his own. Being on his good side for the day means being called either one or the other. Meanwhile Birgit, her eyes glowing with secretive joy, lovingly strokes her new sweater, bought for her by one of the Erzieherinnen (caregivers); her parents cannot be expected to see to their daughter's needs. Sabine left the previous Friday, not knowing whether she would stay in a shelter or if her mother would get together with her abusive father. She is back now, withdrawn and tense, eyes downcast. In Axel's bright orange school bag is a solitary birthday present, building blocks I hastily wrapped for him the week before. In spite of his confident hope in a new bike and Pokemon cards, this was the only gift he actually received.
Not all the returns are damaged. Frank proudly returns with the first draft of a final paper that will ensure his Realschulabschluss, the highest diploma Keilhau bestows. Justin has brought a lantern. He proudly explains that the candle burning in it is from a church in Bethlehem and was flown into his hometown. Then, anxious that it might be blown out by the night supervisor while he sleeps, he asks me if I will take care of it for him until Monday morning.
As the first snow begins to descend, ghostly crystals soften the muddy school grounds. Lights flicker from the newly awakened Wohnheime (living areas). What is being unpacked? Rumpled T-shirts, jeans, and sweatshirts are a given, but the stories, tragedies, and gaping holes left by a weekend of family mayhem tumble out with equal force and disarray. As a new and inexperienced Praktikantin (assistant) I cannot assume the volatile baggage of the children in my care in its entirety, nor am I sure how to help them handle the monsters they are worn out from battling, and will need to battle again, in five days. In the meantime, however, I can, in Fröbel's own words, "live for the children" so that by Friday, they can leave with at least a few happy memories in their travel-beaten suitcases. Along with the other assistants, and with the gifted and dedicated teachers who have given this school their hearts, I can laugh with them, build huts, fight "wars," sing, and explore nature with them while they are here. That is why Fröbel built this place. Oma will be happy.