May 23, 2019
“Your luck’s gotta run out sometime” – a sentence that would fit a cheesy cartoon villain perfectly and one that I’ve said about my situation in Germany more than once this year. The difference between us, of course, is that villains don’t tend to teach kids English. Despite our occupational differences, I’ve found myself repeating this phrase and knocking on wood to keep the luck alive, something both Germans and Americans would understand. So far, it’s worked. Here’s how.
After finding out that I had been awarded the grant to Germany, I decided to fly over from the U.S. three months before grant begin and live with my girlfriend, Lea. I figured I could either sit in Alabama all summer or extend my time abroad by using the Schengen Area to my advantage. It was an easy choice. It was during a vacation to Bavaria that I got notice of my grant placement.
“Meerbusch”, I read out loud. Both Lea and I were a bit scared to see that name in my notification email. We had never heard of the city before and were up to this point unsure if we would be living near one another. I was also quite scared that I’d end up in a very small town, far away from my preferences of the big city. While I recognized the advantages that small towns can have, the benefits of having everything at your fingertips much outweighed them in my mind. We looked up Meerbusch on a map and found out that it is basically a suburb of Düsseldorf, a city not far away from Lea’s home, the Ruhr region. I was ecstatic to find out that I’d be living there. And just like that, through a wave of luck, my preference had become a reality. I would be living in a large, international city, the capital of NRW and very near my old stomping grounds of Essen, where I had worked previously as an au pair. There was even a special program for ETAs at the Heinrich Heine Universität, which made the application process and taking my beginner French classes a breeze.
After hearing the good news about the placement, other lucky things began to happen. I had great sympathy for people in our Fulbright 2018/2019 Facebook group struggling to find an apartment. Some ended up staying with their mentor teachers or at hostels for a while before finding a permanent place to live. I expected the same struggle, but to my surprise, it went much more smoothly for me. Through the Facebook group, I found an apartment in Düsseldorf with a Fulbrighter named Ann, who had come back for a second year with the PAD. Although Düsseldorf has a relatively high average rent, the price here was unbeatable. This was partly thanks to our landlord, a teacher who worked with a Fulbright ETA previously, who offered her apartment for a low price out of kindness. It turned out to be about a 45-minute metro ride to Meerbusch from my apartment, plus about a 10-minute bike ride to the school – not a terribly short commute, but it was worth it to me (and advised by my mentor teacher) to stay in the city, where, “all the young people are”. My roommate situation turned out to be fantastic. I made good friends with Ann, and we were able to talk about our experiences as ETAs together each day, among another common interests, such as a desire to stay in Germany permanently, a dream she is currently living. Go Ann!
After organizing an apartment, I decided to do some research on the school I would be spending the next several months at. The luck didn’t run out in that department. It turns out I had been placed at a very good school. I ended up working at an Europaschule with a bilingual English/German program. There are two tracks at the school, the bilingual and the non-bilingual. Kids that are recommended for the bilingual track don’t just have advanced English classes, but also begin taking other non-language related subjects, such as history and politics, completely in English starting in the 7th grade. This results in them being able to have basic conversations in English before the age most Americans even begin learning foreign languages. By the time the kids reach the 10th or 11th grade, I would say the vast majority are fluent in English, my definition of fluency being the ability to communicate effectively in practically every situation with ease.
I was a tad nervous to start at my school, but those nerves were quickly cooled when I met my mentor teacher, Floor. She has not only been a helpful resource in every aspect of finding my way around a school system I was unfamiliar with, but perhaps more importantly, she was a friendly face I saw every single day coming into work. She understood that this year was to be a balance between work and play for me and was very flexible with my work times. She allowed me to choose my own schedule, and I was able to work longer days on Monday-Wednesday and have Thursdays and Fridays off each week. Occasionally, I would come in on my days off, if a teacher needed something specific that couldn’t be covered during the earlier part of the week. But for the most part, I could plan on a long weekend, which I could use to travel, study or just relax and absorb the culture around me.
The other teachers were amazing as well. I quickly noticed which teachers really wanted to utilize me in their classrooms and gravitated strongly towards them. My favorite experiences were working with the Q2-Leistungskursen. The students were always quite ready to learn and debate. I gave presentations on a variety of topics, the most fun being “English as a Lingua Franca”. The teachers, who often work in tandem on their LK materials, were candid with me when they said, “We’d love it if you’d teach something about lingua francas because we honestly find teaching that topic kind of boring”. I really appreciated that they were honest about that kind of thing with me. I happily prepared a powerpoint and led a discussion, much of which challenged the students’ previous euro-centric views of language, and inadvertently on my part, fired some of them up to learn Esperanto during a discussion on constructed languages. I had originally planned for the presentation to take 45 minutes, but it ended up taking an hour and a half due to how engaged the kids were in the discussion and the sheer volume of questions they had.
I was able to emerge myself into the school culture and began singing in the Oberstufenchor, supporting the bass section. The choir director, Stella, also brought me into the parent/teacher choir and her own personal ensemble outside of the school. As someone with a music degree, I was never hurting for a place to express myself creatively. I was even able to share my love of the American art form of barbershop quartet music with people who had never heard of it before, which is very much the type of cultural exchange I was hoping to have when I applied for this grant. I also started a club to help students prepare for the TOEFL exam. We watched films to practice listening comprehension, practiced writing and spoke to each other exclusively in English. These are some of the kids I’ll miss the most, as they used their free time to come practice English with me, which really warms my heart.
Outside of the classroom, I felt lady luck’s presence as well. Not only was I able to participate in fun previously-planned trips, like the Berlin Conference, but I also applied to many other opportunities given to us by Fulbright. Among these was the chance to travel to Berlin and meet Chancellor Angela Merkel at her reception of the Fulbright Prize. The moment she complimented my and my fellow ETAs’ German skills is a moment that will stay in my memory for the rest of my life. What rarer honor can one receive than to be praised by a world leader? I also travelled to Hamburg to attend a symposium put on by the Helmut Schmidt Stiftung. There, I was able to participate in discussions regarding Europe and the EU’s future and visit a few old school friends currently living in Hamburg. I left each of these meetings in awe of being surrounded by so many intelligent young people. After seeing my generation bashed on every platform on a daily basis, it has been incredible to be surrounded by millennials who defy every accusation against them by doing groundbreaking research in their fields and being worldly, informed and engaged citizens in all of their respective countries.
Last but not least, I had the opportunity to work with the U.S. Consulate participating in the MEET US program, in which I travelled to schools without an ETA, spoke to them about life in the United States and answered their questions related to American culture. The kids loved learning about life in America and especially about what it is like to go to an American high school. I’m grateful that I was able to show these kids that the United States is a place full of diverse people and beliefs, and that there are Americans who don’t embody the stereotypes they may have previously held.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect coming into this year. Although I had the feeling it could go in several different directions, everything ended up working out exactly the way I had hoped for. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities Fulbright has given me. I’ve met wonderful people. I’ve improved my language skills. I’ve seen parts of the German culture and landscape I wouldn’t have had access to without Fulbright. I’ve gotten a more solid grasp of what fields I’d like to work in. And I’ve only strengthened my desire to return to Germany after the completion of my master’s degree next year. Thank you to Fulbright for selecting me to be a part of your outstanding organization. It’s been quite a year, and I’m one lucky guy.