BERLIN — The school ruler must be an exact length. Each child is required to have three pairs of shoes: one for the classroom, one for outdoor sports and a third, with non-marking soles, for indoor sports. Their schoolbags must be reinforced, stand upright on their own and be able to carry pounds of homework.
All this and more must be checked off on an intimidating list of supplies even before children in Germany turn out for what Ina Scheible, the principal of the Arkonaplatz Elementary School in Berlin, calls “the most important day of the school calendar.”
In Germany, the first day of primary school, or “Einschulung” — which literally translates as schoolification — is a big deal. Other countries may pull out all the stops when students finish school. Here, the ceremonial pomp, and damage to your bank account, happens before a student even starts.
As with elsewhere in Germany, the ceremony at Arkonaplatz, Berlin’s oldest public elementary school, played out recently in a gymnasium that was richly decorated with garlands and colorful handmade fliers. The students, dressed in button-down shirts and Sunday dresses, sat in two rows at the front, visibly nervous and excited. Friends and family were assembled on rows of stackable chairs behind.
Ms. Scheible read the students’ names aloud. One by one, they walked across the stage. But instead of getting a diploma, they were meeting their homeroom teachers for the first time. The 6-year-olds were only marginally bigger than the oversize schoolbags they wore throughout the ceremony.
As students all over the world begin new school terms, children in Germany are experiencing rites and rituals rooted in a philosophy that weighs them down with supplies and throws them onto a path to independence as soon as possible.
In Germany, parents send their children to school relatively late — the oldest pupils in a class in Berlin that started in August will turn 7 in October. Unlike in many other countries where children start school earlier, Germans reserve that time largely for unstructured play. Day care centers and preschools are generally set up to mind, not to teach, German children.
But after celebrating a child’s individuality, imagination and playfulness for the first six years of his or her life, the German school system seems designed to bring the pupil in line.
At the red brick gym where Ms. Scheible held sway, the headmistress urged parents to let their children go to school on their own as soon as possible. If parents insisted on taking them in, she added, the grown-ups would have to drop the children off at the school gate.
“You can now leave your children to us,” Ms. Scheible told the adults. “We will give them back at the end of each day.”
Life can get very serious very quickly once elementary school starts. Come Grade 4, students find their academic futures largely decided by report cards that will send them either to one branch of middle school that tends to lead to a vocational school or to another that paves the way to university.
But before classes even begin, there’s likely to be a two-page school-sanctioned shopping list of supplies to purchase.
Having returned to my country of birth only recently, I was shockingly unprepared for all of it. Despite my son’s being scheduled to begin his German school career in the fall, we started planning only when I was handed the address to a store to buy the specialized hard-sided backpack that German students (including me as a child) have been using to carry their schoolbooks for generations.
On a Saturday two months before the start of school, the specialty schoolbag store, in northern Berlin, was buzzing. Carefully stacked pyramids of colorful bags dominated the room. Most are apparently ergonomically designed to allow 6-year-olds to carry loads of homework, pens and art supplies, and come complete with a matching pencil case and attachable gym bag.
The standard bag costs 250 euros, about $275, although cheaper models are available. The schoolbag is considered so essential that parents on state aid are given an extra allotment of money to buy them.
Asked why a bag came with a pair of reflectors, the clerk said, “It’s for when your boy walks home alone in the winter, when it’s dark outside.”
As soon as parents and children settle on a model of bag, a teenager dressed as a fairy descends on them in the store, explaining the many pockets, zippers and features. The children are then given a quiz to make sure they know how to use the bag without their parents’ help.
Afterward, the children pose for a “schoolbag license,” presumably designed to get them excited about their schoolbags and maybe even school.
At another store, this time for stationery, about 20 small groups of parents with children in tow rushed about, and the store seemed to be overheating despite the air-conditioning.
It’s unclear what the punishment would be for not bringing to school, say, the three pencils of increasing hardness stipulated in the list (H, HB, B), or the precisely 10- to 12-centimeter plastic ruler. But judging by the stress levels at the store the day before the start of classes, the penalty would not be negligible.
If Germans take their schooling seriously, there is a celebratory aspect to starting life as a pupil — symbolized by the Schultüte, a child-size paper cone filled with treats.
Part of every “first day of school” picture taken in Germany, the cone used to be called a Zuckertüte, or sugar cone, and was filled with sweets. Once most parents realized it was not a good idea to give children an estimated 10 pounds of sugar in one sitting, the cones were filled up with toys and party favors.
The cones are considered so central to the ritual of Einschulung that charities and soup kitchens provide them for needy residents. One thing that Germans can agree on is that no child should start his or her school career without a yard-long cone to hold.
By the second week of school, the cones will be empty, the new bags scuffed and the brand-new pencils chewed, used or worn down. The real business of learning will be underway. Nascent careers will be on course. And parents will be watching their children grow up, and perhaps wishing they weren’t so independent already.
Outside Ms. Scheible’s red brick building recently, one parent, having lost sight of a small boy amid the hordes of schoolbag-wearing children crowding into the courtyard, briefly forgot himself and asked the boy’s teacher if he could find the child to guide him to his proper classroom.
The teacher, Kildine Rouilly, demurred.
“We like the kids to be autonomous,” Ms. Rouilly said. “He’ll find his way to where he is going.”