A few weeks into the school year we got a letter from the school next door to our apartment. It listed the kids’ names and ages and required that the children present themselves at school. They had already started at a different school but we had to prove they were enrolled somewhere to keep the send-your-kids-to-school police off our backs.
Bureaucratic task: Go to the local school with proof of the kids’ enrollment elsewhere. Each time I walked past the school I thought of this task hanging over me and made yet another mental note to drop in. I wanted K. to go and take care of it – his German being much better than mine – but he was rarely at home when the school was open and there was a deadline looming. I inflated the task to ridiculous proportions in my mind; ineptly putting together German phrases and practicing how to say “do you speak English” in German. Finally, the day before the deadline, I collected the paperwork and went downstairs to the local school door. It was locked. There was an intercom button and a speaker. I had pictured myself limping by with German and relying heavily on hand signals and the enthusiastic thrusting of paperwork across a desk. I was not at all equipped to make my intentions known through a faceless intercom system. I aborted the mission and went back upstairs.
The next day – deadline day – I headed down again with my plan more fully formed. I would linger – but not creepily – near the gate to the playground at lunch time and slip in as someone came out. It worked! Inside, I approached a small group of teachers and showed them the letter. Drawing on the phrase I had practiced endlessly, I managed: “Entschuldigung, wo ist die Schulbüro?” My pronunciation must have been impeccable because the answer I got went on for a solid half-minute. “This way,” she said. “Then you turn right and go through the red door. The troll at the door will present you with a riddle. If you solve the riddle he will lower the drawbridge and let you over the moat. Inside – be sure to avoid the cauldrons of hot oil – you must scale the slime wall using only your teeth. At the top you will find the Schulbüro. The door will, of course, be closed.” It’s possible that her directions didn’t resemble this description at all but I have represented the length of her response accurately.
Thankfully her directions-monologue was punctuated with pointing. So I went that way. As soon as I was out of sight I flagged down a group of three kids and asked them the same question. “Come,” they said. I followed them up the stairs and through a labyrinth of corridors (no trolls, no cauldrons, no slime) to the school office. The door, of course, was closed. The kids knocked on the door and opened it (see? I was right! That’s what you’re supposed to do!).
A woman seated behind a desk scowled at the kids and said something about them not being allowed inside at lunch time. I thanked the kids and smiled at the woman. “Do you speak English?” I asked, in my perfect German. “Nein,” she said. I brandished the letter. “Ich habe…” I stammered. Then I enthusiastically waved my kids’ school IDs. She caught on, became friendly, and with a few keystrokes, called off the send-your-kids-to-school police.