unfinished business

Two days ago my old high school classmate Wolle sent the official invitation for our 30th anniversary graduation reunion which is coming up mid-June. I've known about the gathering for a couple of months already; we're also Facebook buddies. Previously he had announced a dinner on a Saturday night, but now the event has been upgraded to drinks on Friday evening, a guided tour through the school building and a concert on Saturday over daytime, and a brewery tour along with a buffet dinner on Saturday night. And I can't help being giddy.

1983, my last high school year, biology major class
While I met a lot of my 120 former classmates during our 20-year reunion 10 years ago, I've neither seen any of the teachers nor the campus for 30 years now. I am entirely aware of the fact that the brutalist concrete building I spent 9 years in during the 1970s and 80s was completely remodeled in 2012 to now show off a shiny millennial glass-and-concrete building, almost twice the size of the original structure. Yet, this place has set the stage for many of my nightly dreams throughout the last three decades. Whenever I was in trouble, whenever there were significant difficulties to overcome, whenever I was stressed out, whenever big new changes were on the horizon, this school was the venue where my mind preferably settled in at night: The staircases, the classrooms, the school yard, even the bathrooms.

Last night, however, I actually dreamt of the reunion. It still took place in the old school building, with all the details I described above. After occupying my hotel room I ended up walking through the hallways, staircases, and rooms all by myself, until someone called me: Dinner was supposed to start, and it was in the neighborhood, in the home of one of my classmates, Susi Röhrig, who I haven't thought of in years, if not decades. I told them I would join a bit later, because I still had some unfinished business to tend to. And so I did.

In my former dreams, these walls have staged dramas, romances, suicides, feelings of being lost, hopelessness, laughter, and community - just like they did in real life. I've dreamt about the the awkward windows: Three panes, a large one at the top and two smaller ones at the bottom, one of which could slide sideways to open, manually operated by handles with big round knobs at the end. About the blackboards, with their side wings and the shrieking sound the chalk made when handled the wrong way, and the wet sponges some teachers liked to throw at you if you were misbehaving. The desks, which had wire frames on the sides to hold the school bags. The large central staircase that started on the ground floor right in front of the teachers' lounge, next to the gray armchairs without arms: It had stone steps and angular wooden handrails resting on black metal bars. The small dark staircases on the edges of the square block that surrounded an open-air atrium - the original layout of our school. The 'aquarium', a classroom completely encased in glass and the only classroom facing the inner yard, exclusively to be used by the three oldest cohorts who didn't have their own classrooms anymore, but nomaded through the building. Once I read out loud a self-written love poem there during German class, and it was one of the most embarrassing, but also most surprising things I did in my teens, since the class didn't ridicule it.

The special rooms, such as the audio lab, where we listened to Shakespeare and Goethe audio dramas in English and German class. The chemistry room with its big yellowed periodic table of elements on the wall opposite the window, and the little lab behind the blackboard, where we poured things into other things and watched them react with each other - and snatched small amounts of ether to get high in the afternoon. The art room on the ground floor, many a sweet memory involving linoleum blocks and knives, tempera colors, the black-and-white prints we created in the photo lab, and the smell of turpentine. The area behind the last stall by the window of the girls' bathroom, where we used to gather and smoke, against all regulations, and then flee through the open window if a teacher came in to check on us.

(c) Echo-Online.de
The inner yard with its evergreen bushes, surrounded by large tiles made from small pebbles cast in concrete, where I broke the only bone I've ever broken so far in my entire life: My little finger, while tripping during a game of Gummitwist (for which I have no translation) at the tender age of 10. I had a cast for 6 weeks, and I had to write an essay for German class with the left hand, which was such a drag that I almost failed. Today I found a recent picture of my favorite German teacher from back then, who I had in classes 5 and 6, and then again in 12 and 13, in a newspaper article online; he's the one in the middle. When I was in class 5, he was a young man with jet-black hair who had just graduated from teaching academy - ours was his first class as a form tutor).

The little booth from where the janitor sold school milk and buns during breaks, for 20 Pfennig per plastic beaker or bun (the chocolate milk was 30 Pfennig, and the buns with a cheese crust 35). The arcades around the inner yard where I received my first real girl kiss on a damp autumn day at age 13, and which, in spite of its sweetness, left me terrified that someone might have seen us and might think I'm a lesbian. The aula, where I participated in many a performance of the school's choir, orchestra, and theater group - and once passed out and fell off a table I was supposed to stand on, because I was too excited to sing.

And then, the gym. Always the gym. The big hall with the parquet floor, where huge garage doors had to be opened to access the equipment. Circuit training, with the large medicine balls, the jumping ropes, the benches, the bucks, and all the other instruments of torture, and of course the high bars, climbing frames, and climbing ropes which terrified me because I had a fear of heights. The equally terrifying team sports, where I dreaded to be picked last to join any of the teams because nobody wanted to lose due to a fat girl who couldn't (and still can't) run - especially in relay runs. But also the huge soft high-jump mats we tried to rest on for a bit after sports class, until the coach shooed us out and into the changing rooms upstairs which smelled like stale sweat and shower soap and had little wooden benches to sit on, and clothing hooks above for the street clothes.

The lawn around the buildings, and that one time where one of my friends who lived in a neighboring village came to school on her horse, then tied it to a lamp post and let it graze there during lessons - which was not approved by the principal and thus remained a one-time event. The teachers' parking lot, where we hid behind the bushes that one day after placing an ox eye which we snatched from anatomy class under the door handle of the principal's new car and witnessed his disgust when it fell right into the palm of his hand and stared at him while he was trying to open his car door. The little sports field with the red cinder ground that left those ugly scratches and wounds on your legs and arms if you slipped and fell down on the ground.

Best one I could find, alas,
only a thumbnail. On the left, the
stairs to the former aula and
gym building.
There are amazingly few images of the old structure on the Internet, and leafing through my personal photos from the time doesn't reveal anything usable either. The website of the school is still as fragmentary as it was when I checked it a couple of years ago, so that doesn't add any value either. One of my classmates has offered to collect photos from everybody from way back when, and then present them during the reunion. Maybe some others were more diligent in documenting our common past.

I am not sure why, in my dreams, I always escape to this building when times get tough: Is it because it gives me comfort, because I happened to be there during tough times (aren't times tough for all adolescents anyway?), because our brain tends to go back to early imprints when we have to deal with difficulties, or because there's indeed unfinished business waiting there for me? All I know is that I seem to have a strange connection with the venue, more than with any other place I spent a lot of time at. I feel major excitement to be able to return to it soon and meet up with some of my old classmates and teachers too. 


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories. I refer to the Stabugy too and I smiled during reading your words.
    I haven´t been at that place for more than 23 years. We had a 5-year reunion and after that I had no need to meet again. I don´t want to see the change of the building of my childhood. 9 years are a long time. I really had a great time there, but the time is unfortunately over.
    Love Bettina

    1. Thanks, Bettina! Interesting how different dealing with the past is for you. Just out of curiosity: How did you find this blog post?