Look, Listen, and Learn

Author’s Note: As the Files turns five in a couple months, some throwbacks will be featured for readers to enjoy and think about. This is one of the first articles published in 2010, dealing with friendship over feindschaft, interculture over ignorance, peace and love over hate and war. This also ties in with my very first visit to Flensburg and the region that year. Enjoy! 🙂 

Biking on a trail going along the Baltic Sea Coast, I had to put away my thoughts and fears that were affecting my everyday life and embrace the unknown. I had never been up to the Baltic Sea for a long time, and the area I was visiting- Flensburg, Sondernburg, northern Germany, and southern Denmark- was untouched until I got off the train at the station and explored the region that I hadn’t seen before. The first thing I did was get to know the people up there, the culture, and the surroundings. I looked, I listened, and I learned. It started with a trip down the beaten and rutted trail that snaked its way through the forest, after crossing the wooden bridge into Denmark north of Wassersleben. The various jumps up and down the hill, the sound the wind breezing in from the sea, and the multiple shades of green and brown are all that occupies me opens up new doors to the things I’ve never heard and seen before. However, the dangers have to be figured into the equation: The trail was rutted, rocky, and really run down. It had pine trees placed in and along the road, and the down hill ride was filled with the unknown. I looked, I listened, and I learned.  By the time I ended up in Sondernhafen (Danish is Sondernhav) enjoying Europe’s finest hotdog and Danish ice cream at Anne’s Hot Dog stand, I had mastered 15 km of rugged terrain and gathered some images that were worth taking with me. I tried some Danish delicatessen, listened to the good humor of the Danes and learned about the long-standing relationship that they had with the Germans, that consisting of love and hate, trials and tribulations, toil and tears, and division and unity. Both sides had their differences that had to be settled through military conflict- among other things the war of 1864 between the then Prussians and the Danish kingdom which included a lop-sided Prussian victory at Dubel (near Sondernburg). There was of course the battle over Flensburg and who possesses it as both sides laid claim to it until 1951 when it was considered a border town for both the Danes and the Germans. This was in addition to World War II and Hitler’s quest for breathing room. But today- they live in peaceful co-existence for one reason and one reason only: because they looked, they listened, and they learned. They looked at the benefits of coexistence, they listened to each other, and they listened to each other.

Leaving that as is for another time, I took this experience with me and re-entered reality- a reality that is filled with multicultural diversity but it is the target of xenophobia, cleansing, and pure hatred. This multicultural diversity does not necessarily have to do with the place of origin or ethnical, religious, or cultural backgrounds. It can also focus on family tradition, socio-economical backgrounds, and even the preference of a certain group disregarding politics, themes worth talking about, or even sexuality.  Each of us has its own set of values, thinking, and ideal world that we feel comfortable with. The problem with that is we are being sounded out, played down, browned off by factors that don’t want us to be who we are, let alone share our views with others. Through the actions of these factors, consisting of harassment, intimidation, and even verbal or physical assaults on our identities,  we are vulnerable to a change that is against our nature mainly because the factors don’t look at us, listen to us, and learn from us. It is no wonder why so many people take their own lives and those with them- because they feel that they don’t belong to society and need to express their frustration to the rest of society.

When I read about an 18 year old taking his own life because he was gay and therefore was cyber-bullied, or a 17 year old storming a school to pelt others with bullets before providing his own head with one, it makes me ask myself, why are these people doing this. Like us, they had a right to live and share their experiences with others without being ashamed of it. But the people who bullied them to a point of suicide did this because they were afraid of seeing them in their world. These are the people who are careless because they don’t look at the people for who they are, listen to them and how their lives developed the way they were, and learn from that experience and perhaps can relate to them. By being wreckless, ignorant and fearful, what happens to the victim actually comes back to haunt them. It’s like travelling along that rutted path through the forest, that I mentioned earlier- the careless and faster you bike, the more likely that you will create a very nasty fall that will cause injuries (some serious pending on the degree).  If you look at the incidents that has happened over the past decade: Littleton in 1999, Erfurt in 2002, Cold Springs in 2005, Red Lake Falls in 2007, Virginia Tech in 2008, Ansbach and Winnenden in 2009, and now a slew of suicides that has been happening over the last six months, including the aforementioned cyberbullying that resulted in a suicide in Massachusetts, they all follow the same pattern.

So why don’t we all be careful with what we say or do with other people? Is it necessary to be wreckless and take action without thinking of the consequences? And what is wrong with embracing other people and cultures? It’s free and priceless. You learn more about them and make yourself a better person at the same time. You become more popular to the community because of your openess, tolerance, and acceptance of other people and their views on life. And the most valuable experience from all this is you may end up befriending the person whom you wanted to bully to begin with.  It’s very easy to do. One just has to look, listen, and learn.

I would like to close with some food for thought, looking at this topic from a historian’s point of view. If you look at the picture at the end of this entry, you’ll see a fort that was built at Dubel in 1864 as a fortress to fend off the advancing Prussians and protect neighboring Sondernburg. While the defense was not successful and the Danes lost the war, both sides 87 years later realized that there was no point in wasting lives and resources not only in fighting each other but also erecting memorials comemorating the battles, so they took the cheapest and easiest way out and built a bridge connecting the two cultures and embraced each other. They didn’t care about their backgrounds or their differences, and it’s understandable why. We spend more money, resources, and nerves on conflicts and the memorials commemorating them than we do when we spend the few precious free minutes of our lives to say hi to another person and get to know him/her. And the benefits of just a few minutes to learn from the person far outweigh that of ignoring or even bullyiing them. So instead of spending that money on defending ourselves against people who don’t fit in society why not build a bridge for them and do what we should be doing in the first place- look, listen, and learn.

And the file closes with the pics worth taking with you. Until next time, happy trails until we meet again.

Photo taken by Jason Smith in May, 2010

Fort Dubel near Sondernburg- the source of the conflict between the Danes and the Germans in 1864 and the symbol of division and the fear.

SOLUTION: BUILD A BRIDGE AND OPEN UP!

Photo taken by Jason Smith in May, 2010

FAQ: This bridge, built in 1926 did serve as a symbol of unity between Germany and Denmark. Up until the Schengen Agreement in 1995, the bridge was guarded by the patrolmen on both sides, who maintained peace free of conflict, and people had to present their passports before crossing. Since then people can bike across freely and the patrolmen’s house on the Danish side is all that remains.

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In School in Germany: Teaching Environmental Sciences

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It’s a day like no other: a simple walk in the woods on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the spring time. The leaves on the trees are budding, the moss and the pine needles are getting greener, and the skies are blue with a few clouds in the air. Mushrooms are growing on the trees and the lake is as blue as the reflections in the sky. One used to go swimmimg there in the past, but not anymore. Why? Too much run-off has produced algae that is occupying most of the lake, suffocating the life out of the fish and marine life that once thrived there.

Then there is a walk along the beach in the US. Going barefoot, one person steps on a ripped tin can and cuts herself deep. The can was buried 3/4 of the way in the sand. Plus there were bags and other non-perishables nearby. Not far from there, we see a river that has not seen a drop of rain for months since its one-time torrential downpour with the consequences being as dire as in this picture below:

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One should also not forget the infestation of grasshoppers and locusts thanks to the drought that also resulted in nearby forest fires that destroyed a once-popular tourist attraction….envir2

These are just the classic examples of how unaware society has been with regards to the environment around us. With the recent events unfolding in front of our eyes: the illegal killing of the lion in Zimbabwe, governments signing leases to oil companies to explore for oil in very sensitive natural preserves, rain forests being decimated in square kilometers per day, to even the German and Danish governments pushing to have a megatron-style expressway and high speed rail line run through a small but vulnerable island, one has to ask himself: are we aware of what we are doing to our flora and fauna?  Some people think it is the work of God and even one person mentioned recently that we are already facing Armageddon. But even God is the one who is displeased with how His world, which He created in seven days, according to the book of Genesis. Yet do we want to face Armaggedon by continuing to be greedy and ignorant?

There is a saying that is worth noting: The best time to educate is when the baby is in his diapers. If there was one class in school that should be introduced at all costs, it is environmental sciences. And when? As soon as the kid enters school. And how long? If kept as a core requirement, like reading, writing and math, all the way through high school.

But how do we introduce this to the class? And what should we teach them that is relevant to this topic?

Children should be gradually introduced to this topic by showing them the importance of our environment: the trees, flora and fauna, water and especially, food. They should be taught the importance of reusing and recycling goods rendered useless, planting trees and taking care of the vegetation, eating healthy organic foods, not buying goods coming from sensitive environmental areas, like the rain forest, or derived from endangered animals and lastly, learning how important the Earth is to them and the next generation. As they later become an adolescent, themes, such as pollution, climate change and destruction of habitat, can be introduced so that they can implement their knowledge and talk about these topics- even more so when they are current events. Very important is taking a look at the measures already in place to help our environment, whether it is the use of renewable resources, like bio-gas, wind, water and sun, saving energy or even using alternative forms of transportation instead of the car, like the train.  Some factors, like anthropology, sociology and natural sciences could be mixed in there to ensure that when graduating from school, they would have a sufficient amount of knowledge and common sense to take action to stop the global warming process, which is progressing faster than expected.

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Example of a renewable energy source: converting compost and manuer into energy: bio-gas, as seen on a farm in central Thuringia

At the moment, no laws exist regarding the requirements of this class, let alone incorporating it into the core curriculum. Reasons are pretty standard: not enough funding and support, too much focus on the testing requirements, too much opposition from the lobbyists and even politicians, and lastly, falsified information from the media, claiming that global warming is a natural process. (and if you are one of those believers, you better quit reading this right now and start praying!)

Yet there are some factors that a recent article published (click here) that should provide enough incentive for lawmakers and educators to at least consider bringing this matter to the table:

2015 is the hottest year on record with record-setting forest fires and destructive flooding causing trillions of dollars in damages to property. Every year means a new record for temperatures and the like. The number of species has dwindled by up to 80% over the last 30 years. Migration has put a strain on social resources in developed countries. Germany alone expects to receive a record 800,000 immigrants by year’s end, and the country is already having problems finding homes for them, let alone people willing to accept them. And lastly, our natural resources are dwindling, despite claims of them being around forever. If we look at fracking in the United States and the poisoning, earthquakes and destruction of the flora and fauna for the sake of oil, none of the facts are in dispute.  Yet if one still believes that global warming is a natural process and a class on environmental sciences is needed, then perhaps watching Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and in particular, the destabilizing and eventual destruction of Genesis (esp. after the Enterprise is imploded through self-destruction) might convince you otherwise.

In either case, the facts remain clear in our society: mankind does not know what to do to stop global warming and we need to educate ourselves in order to find ways to stop the process and ensure that our planet is livable for generations to come. The best solution is to educate ourselves and our children to ensure that in the end, instead of having a planet that is dried up and not livable that we have a planet like this:

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or this:

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If you want that, then please, write to your politicians, lobby your teachers and principals (or headmasters), start a demonstration, and advocate the need to learn about Mother Nature as a full class and core requirement. Think about your future and that of the next generations. Only then, when we educate ourselves properly will we have a future like this and not what we’re seeing in the western two thirds of the US right now, which really resembles the destruction of Genesis in the Star Trek film.

Thank you for your support.

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Schuleinführung: Entering Elementary School in Germany

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In the past 2-3 weeks, we’ve seen scenes similar to this one at a German elementary school: children, parents and grandparents dressing up for a big event, marking the end of life in Kindergarten and the start of life in elementary school (in German: Grundschule). The children are introduced by the principal, have their books and other goodies loaded up in their back packs by their homeroom teacher, and finally, receive their Zuckertüte, as seen below:

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As mentioned previously in an earlier article, the Zuckertüte is a very big thing for children leaving Kindergarten and entering school. They receive one during both occasions, even though the creme de la creme they receive on the day of the Schuleinführung. 🙂  Known in English as Orientation Day, Schuleinführung is on par with graduation from college, high school and even Kindergarten in the United States: speeches and dancing during the festivities in school, followed by receiving the Zuckertüte, which is the same as receiving the diploma for the hard work leading to graduating to the next level. Receiving the Zuckertüte closes the ceremony, but the celebrations continue through the evening, with family and close friends. It is not surprising if a child received not only one Zuckertüte from the parents and one from the grandparents, but as many as a couple dozen!  😀

As we do not have something as formal and festive as the Schuleinführung for kids entering American elementary schools- we just have informational meetings and open houses- it does lead to a question for the forum as graduation from a school in Germany (especially from high school (or Gymnasium)) is not as dressed up and sassy as in the US.

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Which of the celebrations would you prefer for your child: orientation (Schuleinführung) or graduation (Abschluss) and why?

Share your thoughts here or on the Files’ facebook pages.

To end this article, I would like to close with a comment mentioned by the principal of my daughter’s elementary school, which she is attending in the coming days. She had a wonderful Schuleinführung celebration, and as for me as a parent, it was a once in a lifetime event to watch her enter the next stage in life. But this quote definitely serves as a reminder of what is yet to come: “You kids are no longer playing, but you will be learning; learning to read and write, learning to do math, learning to be independent. Parents, don’t be afraid if they say I can do this myself. They’re growing up.”  So true it is, so true it is (sniff, sniff!) 🙂

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