Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Creative Writing: The Schultüte

Starting school for the first time is a big event in the life of a young child. I can certainly remember my first day at school. In Germany, the first day of school is marked with an official ceremony and the presentation of a Schultüte (gift bag) to the student. When I was working in Berlin, my office overlooked a grammar school. Every fall I would watch with fascination the new students start school and proudly carry their Schultüten. Here's a story that blends some of my own experiences on the first day of school with the traditional Schultüte experience. 

The Schultüte

The day before, Emil had carefully laid out his school clothes: his new red sneakers, his bright green jeans, his checkered orange shirt, and a pair of well-worn yellow socks. Now that he was a big kid, he got to chose what he'd wear, and he wanted all his favorites for his first day at school.  

His mother looked bewildered and grimaced at the combination he'd chosen, but she didn't want to dampen his enthusiasm. She was sure that it wouldn't trouble the other six-year-olds anymore than it troubled Emil. 

As Emil and his mother prepared to leave for school, he grabbed his Schultüte. In Germany, children are given a Schultüte, literally 'School Bag,' a cone-shaped roll of cardboard, festively decorated and filled with sweets, little presents, and school supplies. It celebrates a child's first day of school.

In his arms, Emil proudly carried his Schultüte, two-thirds his own height. Emil thought it was the biggest and most elaborately decorated one he had ever seen. It was even bigger than his sister's, or so it seemed in his memory. Although, they had had an argument about it earlier in the morning. 

As his mother escorted Emil down the busy street toward the school, she pointed out the various stop signs and traffic lights, and reminded Emil always to look both ways before crossing. She also warned him never to talk to strangers or take candy or sweets from people he didn't know.

“I know! I know! You already told me,” Emil protested.

“Now Emil, I don't want you to eat those sweets all at once. Save them! We don't want you to get sick,” advised his mother, as Emil began to dig through the contents of the Schultüte. “And remember, mind the teacher and be polite to the other children. You don't want to start off on the wrong foot. And make some friends. Don't be bashful.”

Once at school, after the welcoming address by the school principal, Emil and the other children were sent to play while the parents met with the teachers. 

In the schoolyard, the kid's were all comparing their Schultüten out of friendliness, curiosity, and most of all, the spirit of competition. Some were bigger, some were elaborately designed, and some had lots of sweets.

Detlef, a boy that Emil had just met, proudly proclaimed that his Schultüte was bigger than Emil's. This frustrated Emil. He felt he needed to defend the gift his parents had given him.   

“Well, mine has Marzipan in it,” Emil exclaimed.   

Detlef's eyes widened. He liked Marzipan. “I have some Haribo Gummi Bears in mine. Do you want to trade some?”

Emil felt as if he had won a contest, and in a resulting burst of generous good feeling, he immediately pulled out a yellow wrapped piece of Marzipan for Detlef. “Here's a pineapple one,” Emil said. “It's my favorite.”

“Thanks. Here are three Gummi bears. One of each color,” replied Detlef.

Just then another little boy came up and said, “Hey, can I have a piece too? My name is Hans.”

Emil thought rapidly and took out some black licorice from his cone. Emil had never liked the stuff and this was a good way to get rid of it. “Take this,” he muttered, as he handed a small wrapped candy to Hans.   

“Thank you. Want some Gummi Bears?” replied Hans, as he placed a bunch inside Emil's Schultüte.

Emil felt guilty.   

Before long, all the children were trading and bartering the contents of their Schultüten. Emil quickly got into the spirit of the thing, trying to see how much he could get without giving away too much himself.  

Emil soon discovered he had a knack for identifying those kids who were making bad trades. From one girl he got a pencil sharpener for a stick of gum. From another boy, he managed to get a ruler and compass for a flimsy paper bookmark. By the end of the day, Emil's Schultüte was brimming with goodies.     

On the way home, Emil couldn't contain his excitement. He showed his mother his new treasures. 

“Look at what I got today,” he boasted, as his mother spied the bursting Schultüte. 

“Where did all this come from?” his mother said suspiciously.

“Well, this I got this from Hannah, and I only had to give her a five paper clips for it. And I got this from Dirk: a flashlight for a bag of chips,” Emil said, as he repeatedly turned the flashlight on and off. 

“Well, you're a very smart boy,” his mother said, as she patted him on the shoulder. “But how do you think those kids feel about those trades? How would you have felt if someone got you to give away something you really liked and you didn't really get anything for it?”

Emil's joy faded as his mother's words sank in. He realized that he had taken advantage of the school kids. He tried not to cry. He didn't know what to say. His mother could see the shame fill his eyes.

“I'll give it all back! I don't want it!” Emil shouted.

“No, that won't work. You can keep most of this. But you know what? I have an idea. This weekend we'll make some cookies, and you can bring them to school on Monday for all the kids to have. You can give a cookie to each child to enjoy. How does that sound?”

“Yes, please, Mom!” Emil said, as relief spread throughout him. His Mother gabbed his free hand, and they walked down the street toward home. Emil felt proud and happy once again.

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