One of the many church groups that meets from month to month is called The Wise Ones and it is for people who retired. The group is facilitated by a capable group of women and men as it brings together people from a diverse number of nationalities and backgrounds for some light discussion, refreshments, and usually homemade cakes.
I enjoy coming to the group as an ‘honorary’ member since it is a while until I reach the age of retirement. (But one can never be so certain nowadays as I recently met a fellow at a wedding reception who told me that he retired at the ripe old age of 38 after inventing some gizmo that computer companies are still interested in using). I love being with the people who have so many interesting stories to tell.
Most months there is a topic that is discussed where memories can be shared and I am fortunate to bask in a collective wisdom. Yesterday the theme was humour (which I spell with a ‘u’ because with out u it wouldn’t be funny). Everyone expresses humour in different styles and forms. I think the group tried to avoid the generalizations that some nations seem to be more appreciative of humour than others, but it is an interesting social phenomenon to look at how humour is used from place to place, and from person to person.
I have come across people who have found themselves living in Germany who have named an inability to use their sense of humour to their full potential and therefore, they feel diminished as a person. Their sense of self shrinks. Not only is there the language hurdle, but humour can be, well, different for cultures and groups than ones own preferred style. German humour, at least what is on the television shows, tends to be very ‘heady’ and often political, and truthfully, some of what is deemed funny just doesn’t tickle my funny bone. If you are someone who loves witticism and word play you may find yourself at a loss. However, during our group discussion the question asked of me, “what is Canadian humour like?” has remained with me, and I am not sure how I could summarize it as it differs from person to person. I do think that some of the funniest things, be they jokes or stories, are ones that emphasize the shortcomings of one own self. To laugh at ones self seems to be important…at least for me. However, I don’t know if that is a particularly Canadian attribute. Certainly we have political satire and slap-stick comedy which appears on tv, and there were comedy shows which often had dreadful comic routines which we watched because we knew that there would be at least one ‘zinger’ that kept you thirsting for more.
In a former parish there was a young woman whom you would be hard pressed to consider a comic genius, as she seemed to be shy, moderately funny but not outwardly so, and to look at her, one could imagine her being an middle level office manager. In reality she was a comic writer for a variety of Canadian comedy shows, like ‘Kids in the Hall.’ One would be hard pressed to see her as one of a team of comedians but she was cutting with her razor sharp wit and observations on life. Be it comic writing, or stand up comedy, her personality would almost change, or morph, once in the limelight.
One of my favourite comedians was Robin Williams, and having met him once while he was hiking with his young family you would never have thought he was funny. He seemed like anyone else a nice parent out with his children, but whilst on stage, or in front of a camera he became something completely different. In some early documentary about William’s life the stage persona and the backroom persona were vastly different. Which makes me recall a quote from Robin Williams that is reflective of a lot of humour and the people that we find ‘funny’, he says, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.”
The school year is coming to a close and so begins the season of school projects, class parties, and general year-end celebrations. The various activities keep parents busy either attending events where the children proudly show off their projects, or skills; or there is the effort of getting children to different locations be it a forest grillplatz, or a outdoor swimming pool.
For my oldest daughter she is staring in a theatre production where the children have written the script, set the scenery and will be acting out their show for two different groups of parents, family and other school children. As for my youngest daughter, there was the year-end grill party where we all got to say goodbye to one of her much loved teachers who will be moving. A few weeks ago the same daughter performed with her entire school in a circus.
The circus culture is alive and well in Germany with any number of travelling shows that make their way from village to village setting up a large tent in some generous farmers meadow. There are also, to my surprise, professional circus performers that travel from school to school. The children get a week of circus training in areas which they can choose to participate. Students get to sign-up for their top three activities in the hopes that they will get to be part of the team in that particular area. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately) ours was not picked for anything she signed up for – the top being fire juggling.
I will admit that my initial reaction was a bit harsh and critical as I heard that there would be no homework, nor classes (in the strictest sense) for a whole week as the children practiced their ‘routines’ in circus training. Maybe I was just a bit jealous of the deal.
A huge amount of effort was put into the production of the circus. Two shows were offered, each show being about 3 hours long (including the 20 minute intermission) and had all that you could think of in a actual circus. There was music, song, trapeze, lion taming (kids in the lion costumes were very funny), clowns (not so funny), rhythm and dance, fire juggling, acrobatics, magic show and even intermission snacks and toys sold by the kids. The large gym hall was full of around 300 parents for each of the two shows, and the decorations around the room were made by a team of kids working as stage hands. The various acts all had special costumes and the adult supervisors were very discreet in their stage presence so as not to detract from the show. After having seen the show, it did occur to me that it was a bit sexist in that all the flame juggling kids were boys, and all the trapeze kids were girls. I guess this is my own resentfulness in not letting my own daughter play with fire.
As for my older daughter who performs in her class production in the evening, she has recently had a two week school trip into the Black-forest. This two week long trip was a forestry practicum where the class learned about the care and maintenance of the forest as a economic resource for the country. As well, the kids had to work every day helping to construct wooden tables and benches that are frequently seen all over the place in parks and forest. The professional foresters helped to supervise and teach, and the day’s were packed with activity and learning. The students returned home with a growing sense of appreciation for the forest and plant-life, as well as, a sense of pride in the work of some basic carpentry skills have all been the result of a two week trip into the woods.
This evening we are set to watch my oldest daughter preform in her class theatre production and I am sure that we will be amazed and entertained at what has been learned, achieved and celebrated.
Despite some of my personal challenges and disagreements with the way the school system works in Germany, on the whole, the process of learning is good. While I still disagree with the ‘streaming’ of kids at an early age that sets them up for a certain path in life; I do appreciate the style of learning which gets the children outdoors and active. The circus week and the forestry practicum have certainly added to the learning accomplishments of our children, and their parents have been entertained and rewarded with all the learning and accomplishment that is put on display at the end of the school year. Lions, and tigers, and trees, Oh my! – we are not in Canada anymore.
In Germany students receive Religious Education as a weekly subject and the classes are usually divided into Roman Catholic and Protestant, with a small group of ‘others’ that have instruction in another religion, or none at all. The classes may be taught by specialized teachers and/or clergy from the local area. I know from my colleagues in the local German churches that a great deal of their time is spent in classrooms. The Religion teacher for my youngest daughter got in contact with me to see if I would be interested in teaching the class about the Anglican Church. I think the words, ‘fear and trepidation’, would nicely describe my agreement to come on a Thursday morning to speak about the Anglican Church.
I spent some time going over what I might like to say. What, in a nut shell, could be something easy enough for both the students to understand, and that I would feel comfortable speaking about in German? Needless to say I steered away from the Doctrine of the Trinity and Atonement theology because even in English I would have a difficult time with explanations.
Well on the morning of the class I packed my laptop into the bag and my daughter and I set off on our bicycles toward school at a little before 7:00 AM. As we sped along the bike path I came up next to my daughter and said, “we can take it slower if you want.” To which she replied, “Why? This is my usual speed.” Well, as we zoomed along with me clearly lagging behind we made it to the school where many of the students gathered at the front door waiting for the classrooms to be unlocked and to greet their teachers.
The Religion teacher greeted both myself, and another father who would be speaking about an ‘Evangelical Free Church’ in the area, as he worked as the youth pastor beyond his usual ‘day-job’ as a health professional. As the classroom door swung open the other father and I were presented with the Audio Visual corner which was a nest of wires and plugs for all sorts of makes and models of computer. Having both laptops tested out and working I graciously let the other father present first. Phew! I though, I don’t have to present first, as I was already nervous as it was.
The students were very well behaved. A ritual of lighting a candle and passing to each person gave the students a chance to say what they were grateful for, and what concerns they may have in their lives. I did not expect to be passed the candle, but soon found myself with it shining brightly in my hands. I stammered out that I was glad to be here, but that I was also a bit nervous speaking German since a great deal of my work is conducted in English. This seemed to break the ice for myself and for the students. One student happened to be a new arrival from elsewhere in Europe and also finds learning German a real challenge. It seemed to brighten this pupils day when an adult made all sorts of grammatical errors. Then it was my turn to feel more relaxed as the other father grasped the small candle and said that he also felt a bit nervous, so we were all a bit on common ground to begin with.
I watched with growing anxiety the first presentation which had a lot of slides and copious notes. I began to think that I had totally underestimated what I should be doing with the class. It was a good presentation with some questions to grill the students and I was not too sure that my work would go over so well. The presentation was going on a long time too, and I wondered as I watched the big school clock which hung over the doorway, exactly how much time I really had before some bell would ring and students would want to change subject lessons. Unfortunately, do to the gremlins that seem to always get into the technology, a video of a church outing did not work, so that seemed to put a spin on the mood of the class as they wanted to see, but could only hear what was going on. That’s when my turn to present happened, and low and behold, the computer still worked for my presentation.
After a brief introduction, and having my daughter stand up beside me to help with any translation that might be useful, students arms were quickly in the air to ask questions. I was stuck with what to do. On the one hand if I let them talk now I may, because of nerves, loose my train of thought. Yet, on the other hand, if the kids talk now it could be like what sometimes happens at church and an overly excited child gives an excellent second sermon about how God has been in their life, which would have the effect in this scenario of using up a lot of my time; which would mean, less speaking by me and more speaking by the kids. In the end I quickly decided to hold off on the questions for the moment until I could at least get to the second ‘slide’.
The old Kodak slide carousel had its day, and could bore people to death over family trips and other adventures. Now with electronic powerpoint presentations we can go on for infinitem with gigabytes of stored photos seeing possibly several hundred slides at a time. So, I won’t bore you with the details of all seven of my slides, but I can say that I opted to have only pictures. A picture speaks a thousand words anyway, plus no one could report me for poor German grammar.
Having briefly taught children at Christ Church Cathedral School in Victoria whilst being the Assistant Curate, I am a big believer in the pedagogical style of thinking like a child so that they learn what I want them to learn. Images, stories and objects all help to make links from what may be called theoretical to the practical. I may have an idea of the Anglican Church, but it just floats around as an idea until you tie it to something that a child can comprehend and then you link the idea or theory, with the practical and experienced.
Well, the photos flashed up on screen and we talked a little about each. More and more hands were shooting into the air so I started to field questions and even got to learn some of the students names in the process. I felt like some kind of relationship was growing and that I could really pull this off. For me, the important picture was a photo of a Mohnschnecke a sweet desert like a cinnamon bun but with sugar and poppy seed.
It is often a familiar lunch item, or treat for kids so they all have an experience. The students all agreed with me that the best part of the pastry is the very centre. So, the Anglican Church with all its long and winding history, its debates and traditions, the best part of it, the central thing, is that we are called to love God, and neighbour, just as God loves us. There were lots of nodding heads.
My presentation wrapped up with an activity in which each student (and the two other adult’s) in the room had to find a partner. I know that the kids play a game in the school ground called, Michael Jackson, where you quickly clap hands together, do silly dances, and swivel your hips like you are playing with a hoola-hoop and then as you pronounce each syllable of ‘Mich-ael-Jack-son’ you swivel your feet outwards making your legs spread further and further apart with each round of the game. The game continues until one, or both people topple over because they cannot spread their legs any further (unless they can do the splits!). In using this fore-knowledge of a fun and silly game, I had all involved use different words, and similar actions to remember that the Anglican Church has ‘Orders’ (Archbishop’s, bishops, priests, deacons), that prayer is very central to our lives, and that reading the Bible is important. The classroom erupted into fits of laughter as the students tried to imitate my daughter and I as we slowly approached the point of tipping over.
In the end, there was a small presentation from the teacher, a round of applause from the students and a small token of thanks which is meant to be a small oasis in the hot days of summer. I tiny message in a bottle to take with me as I left the classroom and would enjoy a more leisurely bike ride to my next appointment.