Genre of the Week: The Christmas I Remember Best by Eda Leshan

We all have our own interpretations of Christmas and what is important to us. Many people think that the best kind of gifts are the ones that are modern, with a lot of technical features and which we can toy around with for hours on end. There are many though that prefer something personal, or local if the loved one is away most of the time. I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of that lately as I travel to see some Christmas markets and other places and as a rule, buy something local or handmade which will never be found in any shopping mall elsewhere. 😉 However what happens if you wish for something very badly, like an exclusive doll house or baby carriage found in a Sears magazine,  only to find that upon opening the gift on Christmas Day you find a generic version, or something much different than you expected. How would you react?  Keep in mind that the reactions of the parents or loved one definitely plays a role, for they have their intentions and logic behind giving you the gift that is different. Nine times out of ten, as we will see in an article by Eda LeShan (* 1922- t 2002), the reason is simple: We don’t have the money to get you this, but we love you very much and want you to have the best Christmas ever.  🙂

LeShan was a writer, TV show host, educator and counselor who wrote several books about childhood development and psychology during her 79 years of life. An advocate of children’s rights, LeShan believed that the person’s true character is not only based on the education that is given during childhood but also based on growing up in a healthy family and in livable environmental surroundings. Her piece “The Christmas I Remember Best,” published in December 1982, takes her back to the time of the Great Depression and her parents’ desire to make Christmas the most enjoyable for her. This is despite the fact that both her parents lost their jobs because of the Great Crash of 1929, which sparked the worst crisis in American history, ending with America’s entry into World War II, 12 years later.

The one-page piece sends a clear message to all parents- there’s nothing more powerful than love and family. All other things are just that- things that are replaceable. The former, not. Here’s something to think about as you read this piece:

The work was discovered during a trip to Lanesboro in Minnesota in 2005 and I’ve used it for English classes ever since. It is very useful for discussion or for any activities pertaining to English as a Foreign Language or even Literature.

Another piece bearing the same title was discovered by accident upon research for this work. This one was written by Sherilyn Clarke Stinson in 2011 and can be found in the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A link to that piece is available here as well as the Files’ facebook page.

 

 

Genre of the Week: A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

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Photo taken in December 2014

When learning about American culture and literature, there is a canon of authors, whose most popular books, in the eyes of non-native speakers of English, are highly recommended to read. One of the authors mentioned in this canon is Truman Capote. When looking at his life in general, it was marred by family crises while growing up, mental illness and drugs and alcohol. All of them contributed to his downfall and untimely death in 1984. He was a sad person but one who looked for the truth in writing, no matter how painful. This was seen in his most prized work, In Cold Blood, published in 1965 and based on a true story about a family murder in Kansas, and his collaboration with his best friend, Harper Lee, who later became famous for her two major works, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, the latter of which was published in July 2015, seven months before her death.

Yet even though he started writing at the age of eleven, not all of his works were of doom and gloom. Many of them were based on his positive experiences and memories as a child, as well as some creative ideas based on stories of others.

While Breakfast at Tiffany’s (published in 1958) is the most popular Truman Capote story on the European side of the ocean, he wrote a Christmas memoir based on the tradition of fruitcake for family, friends and neighbors. Entitled A Christmas Memory and published in 1956 as part of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Short Story Trilogy and NovelLa, the story focuses on a close bond between the narrator named Buddy and his cousin, both of whom are living in a house with several other relatives who don’t care much about them.

The setting is in late November in the 1930s,  when the two embark on a journey to pick nuts, dried fruit and later, whisky, flour, sugar and butter to make a total of 31 loaves of a traditional fruitcake. Getting the ingredients wasn’t easy, as they had collected barely enough money from their odd jobs just to get the basics from the store. They had a hand-me-down baby carriage to haul the dried fruit and nuts and were accompanied by the cousin’s dog, Queenie.

Despite the adversity and the lack of attention that the other relatives had towards the two cousins, whose age difference spans two generations, the main themes of this holiday classic deal with creativity and closeness. Creativity because despite their lack of resources, they found fashionable ways of creating presents with whatever nature gave them. This was seen as the two made kites for each other and they went kite-flying as they were celebrating with relatives. It also showed as the two found and trimmed the Christmas tree for the family, much to their dismay, as Capote wrote.

It also showed in Buddy’s distaste for materialistic items as he received a dress shirt, writing set and a year’s subscription of a religion magazine. The lack of taste in religion and family morals reflected Capote’s life, as drugs, alcohol, homosexuality and self-liberation were themes in his life, those that even the Pope would have disapproved of.  The cousin was a bit more content with her gift of a woolen sweater. But their gifts toward each other- the fruit cake and the kites represent the other theme in this book. While the relatives never really cared much for Buddy and his cousin, the two made sure they kept their bond to the very end. The kites served as this symbolic theme, especially in the end, when the older cousin succumbed to dementia but not before Buddy was forced to live with other relatives after that memorable Christmas. This segment runs parallel to Capote’s childhood, for his mother had two separate divorces while he grew up, and he had a close attachment to a distant relative, who ensured that he salvaged the rest of his early days before he moved on as a writer.

If there was a main idea in this book, it would be this: Christmas is not just about finding creative ways to showing love and appreciation, it’s about closeness and how you care about the other one. It matters not what you think the person should have but it matters how much love and appreciation you have towards the other one, especially when you listen to the other’s stories and wishes in life. These two traits seems to be missing in today’s world, yet when reading Capote’s book, the Files’ Genre of the Week for the holiday season, you will see why, with every tradition, ritual and creativity presented in the story. This goes well beyond the fruit cake, the kites and the Christmas tree.

Like In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Christmas Memory was later adapted to film several times. However the oldest one seen below is the closest to the book. Have a look at it and compare it to the book and the other films that have surpassed it over the years. What is the same? What is different?  Enjoy! 🙂

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Genre of the Week: A Cup of Christmas Tea by Tom Hegg

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Author’s Note: It’s that time of year again. The holidays are approaching and with that comes the Christmas market tour. This year’s series will focus on Christmas markets in Saxony in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) as well as some in Schleswig-Holstein. At the time of this posting, a pair of Christmas markets in “Hohen Norden” have been visited and the tour guides are being put together even as we speak. Included in this year’s series will be some true stories of love and courage, which you can see in the Files’ facebook page. And lastly, some literature and videos pertaining to the holiday seasons will be profiled here.

Including this first installment, consisting of a poem by Tom Hegg entitled A Cup of Christmas Tea.

Published in 1982, Mr. Hegg’s poem looks at reunions with loved ones and the importance of maintaining a good relationship despite many years’ absence. The main character is a father who is entangled in the conventional Christmas season, filled with shopping, credit card debts and gifts with little or no meaning. The main character receives a letter one day from his great aunt, inviting him to come and visit her. Hegg states that she had suffered from a stroke and many of his relatives were persuading him to visit.  Despite much hesitation, stemming from the fact that he lost touch with her for a long time, the main character gives in and pays her a visit. Hegg believes that this had to do with his fear of what she would look like when he saw her. These fears are subsided when he rings the doorbell and she smiles and sees him. Yet Hegg argues that it was not all that causes him to put reality to the side and embrace the past. The main character’s interpretation of his great aunt (being old, frail and unable to walk), the houses in the neighborhood (being old and dilapidated) and a bygone era that seemed to slip away in favor of progress gave way to memories of his childhood and his time with her, with the neatly decorated Christmas tree, Dresden china and the smell of Christmas tea. By catching up on old times and finding out how things went, the discussion over Christmas tea, whose ingredients Hegg doesn’t mention in the poem, makes amends between two close relatives, whose lives had been separated by a life full of obligations and modernity.

And without further ado, here is the poem in full length. Enjoy! 🙂

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In School in Germany: Talking about the Berlin Wall

November 9th 2014 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. 25 years ago on that date in 1989, after several weeks of protests, combined with the exodus of thousands of East Germans to West Germany and  changing of the guard from Erich Honecker to Egon Krenz, the announcement was made to open the gates of the Berlin Wall to allow East Germans to flee to West Berlin. At the same time, the borders separating East and West Germanys also opened for others to pass.  Tens of thousands of people who fled to the western part embraced in the western culture that was once forbidden. Many of them did not return nor decided to not talk about  life in East Germany prior to 1989.

To this day, these people still refuse to talk about it, going by the monkey mentality of “See no good of the GDR, Hear no good of the GDR and Speak no good of the GDR.” By doing so in this day and age is dangerous, for the people born in the years 1985 and up are missing out on the truth behind the Berlin Wall and the two Germanys that had existed. In the days teaching English at a university in Bavaria, no one knew about the Vita Cola, the East German version of Coca-Cola until I introduced that in one of my sessions. Very few knew about Sandman, the character that starred on East German television every night at 6:50pm, and still does to this day. Even the well acclaimed traffic lights were unknown in the eastern part and many were used to the generic traffic lights that are simply European. But by the same token, the emergence of “Ostalgia,” the mentality that East Germany was not as bad as it once was, is becoming very common thus increasing the danger glorifying the former times and degrading the western part of Germany because of  different mentalities and conflicts of interest.

During my time in the gymnasium, the topic of the Berlin Wall was brought forward to students in history, for we needed to know how good or how bad the GDR really was. The students were asked to interview their parents and grandparents to collect whatever stories they have on life in the past and compare them with their lives, in terms of childhood, culture, family and anything that would be useful for the topic. The results were surprising. The responses were short and to the point, but there were little details about the former times. If they were short, then it was the fact that the country did have some good points and that was it.  But the question is: was life in the GDR really that bad or that good to begin with?

Growing up in a large family in Minnesota, I became accustomed to storytelling, done by my grandma and her children, including my father. Many of them were detailed and enlightening and provided some morals for us to learn by. This included stories of how my grandparents survived the Great Depression and being separated because of World War II. Many of these stories I can still remember to this day. Yet the younger generations don’t seem to care much about their own history, thus putting the teachers of history, social studies and culture (including foreign languages) in a position where they have to dig up their own history and ideas to share with the students. We are facing a neglect in history, not knowing the key facts and the stories behind them, and the consequences will be fatal in 25 years time. No matter how painful or joyful, one needs a storytelling session about certain events in time from the older generations so that one understands the gravity of the events and think about them on one’s own.

And this is where we return to our subject of the Berlin Wall and how it divided Germany into two in a physical sense for 28 painful years. Nobody wanted the border but it happened. Yet life was not as bad as it seemed, as long as the Stasi did not spy on you and you faced hours of torture, examples of which can be seen in the TV series Weissensee. But nevertheless, if one wants to know more about the Wall, the divided Germany and how people came together to tear it down and bring the two countries together, one needs to find the facts. The best facts are not in the books, but through oral history.

So for all teachers talking about the Divided Germany and the Wall, challenge your students to collect facts from relatives and friends who have lived in both regions, witnessed the Wall and tried to jump it, took part in the Leipzig Demos as well as took turns with others to tear the Wall down. Interview them, ask them any questions that come across your minds- even if they are most painful. Then share them with your teachers, student colleagues and friends (here and abroad), to ensure them that the Wall was the biggest deal and despite having a decent lifestyle in both countries, it was much better with one Germany and not two. Then make sure that future generations know about it to better understand life between 1945 and 1990 and how it has shaped today’s world, in one way or another.  By doing so, we will preserve our history and better understand Germany and its role from the eyes of others.

BTW: In case you were wondering where the author was at the time of the Fall of the Wall, he was watching the coverage from home in Minnesota, writing a short summary about it for a 6th grade social studies class. Little did I realize at that time, that the Wall was one of many factors that lured me here, aside from the most obvious reason. But with the advancement of technology these days have produced recordings of the events of the Fall of the Wall. Some examples to follow soon. 🙂

In School in Germany: Substitute Teachers or Flexible Class Schedule?

What happens when your teacher is sick and the planned course schedule for that particular day has to be postponed or cancelled? This question may be a no-brainer to some, yet inquiring minds want to know. With the increase in absences because of illness among the teachers due to stress (some resulting from burn-out syndrome) and other viruses that students bring to the classroom on a daily basis, it is important to find out how schools plan ahead so that the students do not fall behind in their classes.

Each school system has its own guidelines with regards to Plan B, regardless of which state or region it is located. In the United States, it is normal to find a substitute teacher taking over classes in case if illness or family emergencies. Substitute teachers are very flexible in a way that they can jump in at any time when they are needed. While some of them bring the knowledge they learned in their education programs at the university to continue teaching- picking up where the absent teacher left off, others elect not to take up the chore and decide either for study hall (meaning students have a chance to catch up on their work in other classes) or other activities. One of the substitute teachers at a junior high school I attended in Minnesota was into reading and therefore, read us many stories during the class period. While she has long since passed, she encouraged others like yours truly to pick up a book from time to time and burn through the pages.

The other plan B can be found in many schools in Germany. If one class is cancelled because of illness or other serious matter, another class takes its place, taught by the teacher.  That means if an English class taught by Mrs. Steinkreuz (for example) is cancelled because she had the stomach flu, that class is replaced by another class, such as History with Mr. Hermann, Ethics with Ms. DeJesus or even French by Madame Moiselle.  The reason for such a flexible class change is simple: Unlike the US, which runs mostly a strict schedule where courses are taught at a certain time every day and teachers have to keep to the plan, Germany’s schedule, at least on the high school level, resembles that of a college class schedule, where students elect to choose certain classes that fit their schedule. Granted that (foreign) language, history and social studies, and sciences must be in the mix, but a flexible schedule enables the student to work with their studies to ensure they have them completed at their pace, while teachers have a chance to further their planning. Some class replacements may have to do with a teacher having an extended session to watch a film, while others may be in connection with a field trip that was planned. In either case, this flexibility does have some advantages. Yet one notable disadvantage is that a sudden change in scheduling can also put the planning of both the students as well as the teacher out of alignment, which means that some topics planned for the session may have to be either postponed or even cancelled; a disadvantage for the teacher as well as some students that were eager to learn about it.

But it does not mean that schools in Germany do not have substitute teachers.  They are usually available to jump in should plan B does not work. It can consist of someone from another school, one working part time in the school system, Referendar (those teaching on a probationary basis for 1-2 years before being hired full time by the state) and the interns doing their Praxissemester (like yours truly did).  Sometimes substitute teachers can also have a positive impact in a way that they can keep the schedule in tact as much as possible while allowing the students to complete their work on their topic without missing the beat.  But as I noticed from my experience in the Praxissemester, even that combination has its limits, especially when  many teachers are absent due to stress-related issues, which will be discussed later when talking about Burn-out Syndrome, and the number of substitutes are limited, both in numbers as well as in knowledge. In the case of the interns, they require a hired staff when teaching a session, to ensure that they are not overrun by the students in class. A concept that is understandable when the intern is 22 years of age (on average) and does not know if the profession is the right one.

Keeping the pros and cons of substitute teaching and replacement sessions in mind, let’s ask the Forum about this topic:

  1. In your school, how does it work when a teacher is absent due to illness or other emergencies? Do you provide a substitute, replace a session with one from another subject or do something totally different?
  2. How have you dealt with teachers who are absent for longer periods of time due to illness, etc. (say more than 1 week)?
  3. If you had a choice between providing a substitute, replacing a session or both, which option would you choose and why?

Place your comments here or in the Files’ facebook page and share some information on how you deal with absenteeism among teachers. Sometimes your suggestions and ideas will help others in the long term. As we will eventually talk about Burn-Out Syndrome in the series, the profession can be a highly demanding job that requires teachers with nerves of steel to do the job. However even the teachers have their limits, even yours truly.