Michael, David, Sebastian and Frederic
"This is the first time I want to hang out with my fellow students. Ever. Thanks to your openness, friendliness and the overall great vibe you spread!"
How did they react?
David said, "yeah, same here!", and Sebastian responded "Cheers to that!". We laughed and raised our glasses.
How did I feel?/What is the story?
I was never one of the cool kids. It started in elementary school: No TV at home, not allowed to have Barbies, nor a gameboy, nor pokémon; I did not own a single tool to be part of the crowd. That made things hard, no doubt, but I could still have worked my way up in the social hierarchy of first graders, which I would have liked to, I just didn’t know how. All I was capable of was looking at the superior six year olds with two “Please, like me.” eyes. That didn’t work. One day I took the easy way out: Instead of being ignored by a group of girls pummeling on their tamagotchis I made friends a wonderful woman, warm, empathic, clever. She was our teacher. And I, from then on, a brown-noser.
By the time I entered high school I had not become any more popular. Instead I wore an invisible tag saying “weirdo”, because that’s who I had been for the past six years. The role had transformed into my face. Again I got hooked on the idea of being part of the crowd, again it didn’t work. They went crazy with the booze, I was not invited. They knew all about bra sizes, I figured those out on my own. They giggled together, I had no idea what about. A few unlucky attempts at coolness later I gave up on the idea of a high school peer group for good and found amazing friends somewhere else: In the orchestra I played in. Together with them I traveled the world, poured my heart out playing Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, spent countless nights laughing till the morning light. Instead of a high school home party I had my first kiss in the back of a tour bus after a concert, and rather than shopping prom dresses I would buy another simple black skirt to perform in. I went to school with my violin and practiced during free lessons while my classmates sneaked off to smoke weed.
And, guess what- all of a sudden, people started liking me at school. I had not gotten prettier or richer or into hip hop. The only thing that had changed about me was that I’d stopped giving a fuck. To me the cool guys were no longer kings and queens I looked up to but people I passed with a shrug, thinking “I have someone who thinks I rock. I don’t need you.” Today I think that school will always be an imposed community: 30 kids in one classroom that have nothing in common but their age. Contrary to that, in the orchestra, we had a major thing connecting us: Music. I call it super human glue. Nothing makes people feel as jointed as playing together.
So suddenly, back at school, I was cool. Maintaining that coolness required maintaining my independence. I had to stay superior, otherwise I was back to the old days.That face of mine felt a lot like arrogance, and it probably was- but it worked. Finally I did not feel like something was wrong with me, all because I had discovered the whole thing was one big game. Either you knew how to play or you were out. After years of being out all I wanted was to play. I had figured out the rules by accident, and for now I was just glad I knew them and school had become bearable. Those rules were pretty easy after all: To be cool all you needed was a face saying "I am hella cool.", or, even better, “I am cooler than you”. The other option - my old way- was “I wish I was as cool as you.”. That, and nothing but that, turned you into a loser. The rules were either or. No in between.
Between my high school graduation and my first semester in college three years passed.
I worked, I traveled, I played more music. I faced death. I lived. My attitude shifted: Starting to believe that there is beauty in everyone I avoided peer groups centered around ideas of status. Instead I surrounded myself with people who looked at me and each other with loving eyes. I learned that there is enough for everybody- attention, affirmation, warmth; Whatever you look for in a hierarchical system you only find it once you let the hierarchy itself go.
To me, most emotional rewards earned by climbing up a hierarchy are counterfeit coin. If I get validation because I turn from being a nobody to being part of an exclusive group of people I don’t get love because of who I am but because of what I do, or because of what I own. A hierarchy cannot teach me that I am valuable- even though climbing up any hierarchical latter affirmation was what I looked for most- only that what I do or have is appreciated. Learning that I am valuable comes through love and love only. Love brings inclusion, too: No one is left out because love only grows bigger when I give more. If I love I win. Whereas if I distinguish between popular kids versus outcasts I lose, even when I belong to the cool crowd. Because I hide behind my fear and lose connection. I live in a trap in my head, holding on to a status that I am constantly afraid of losing because it comes through action not through being. I think we all do that all the time- it's a question of extent and consciousness. But let's get back to the story:
Having realized all that I moved to Bonn and entered college. I was older than the rest, I had worked before, came from a bigger city, had seen more of the world, thought that I knew more about style and life and, frankly, anything than these kids. But what was really going on was I was back at school and insecure again. Only now I knew the rules right? Rule number one: Play the superiority card. I did, and I was safe, passive aggressive written all over my face. Also I did not make any real friends for a while and felt immensely uncomfortable- I was disconnected, but too scared to realize that. It took me two semesters to see that “these kids” were people with huge hearts and a lot of curiosity, like Henning.
The scary, imposed community place called school changed slowly and became a place full of, well, humans. No more, no less.
Nonetheless I had not chosen Bonn for the city it is, and I was not planning on staying. I kept going back and forth to Berlin, Cologne and San Francisco. Many of my fellow students were headed into a different direction then I was, seeing their lives evolve in the surrounding area of Bonn. I did not. Although I no longer dreaded the people I sat in class with, and was grateful for the times we spent, I did not share many interests or dreams with most of them either.
A month ago I transferred back to Berlin.
Most of my courses happen at the institute for North American Studies. Again, we are an imposed community. A lot of the people are in their first year. Yes, they are younger than me. And yes, some of them play the card that says "I am cooler than you". I know where they are, I feel them- because I have been there before. But I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to play the game no more. Instead I want to smile at my fellow students! I want to brainstorm with them and inspire each other. I want to learn from them, laugh with them, find out about the craziest theories with them. I want to high five after successful exams and hug after failed ones. Create a culture of appreciation together: Everyone has got something to say. Let's hear it! Additional perspectives, languages, and accents make things richer. I crave a community. Because I learn better, live better and get to be myself. No masks, neither the arrogant nor the loser's one. I am who I am.
At the JFK I found people who think alike. So far I have met four guys. They make me feel comfortable instantly, empathy written all over their faces, laughter filling their hearts. Let me introduce to you: Michael, Frederic, Sebastian and David.
All five of us are from different countries which brings various stories, perspectives and approaches. With them it’s learning deluxe: We are taught in the classroom and we teach each other outside of it, I can already tell after just a few conversations.
Frederic asks many questions. He has the child's eyes that burst with curiosity and friendliness. This man really wants to know: How did you end up here? What's your story? And what do you think of it? His own opinions are well stored in his mind, and though he won't fire them away he responds politely and shares openly once asked. Fredric is not in the picture.
Left on the photograph is David. Moving to Berlin from Amsterdam he wants to make things happen. No more wondering, he says, it's time for doing. His energy lasts forever, just like his lightheartedness. David is the appreciative one. He points out films and books that he dug to you, according to what you tell him about yourself. And says, "I think you'll really love this!", nodding enthusiastically, his eyes wide open. I can't wait to stroll around Berlin and explore with him. He reminds me very much of my own David: Down for everything, taking things the easy way. He is on the very left in the picture.
Sebastian's calm brings me down. He chooses his words well. There is wisdom in his eyes and speech. When we talked I was stunned by his depth, and I swear that he, being 21, is more mature than most of the 50-year-olds I know. His eyes glow with warmth and he is not afraid to tell you: "Nice to see you!" in the I really mean it kind of way, even if he has just met you. Sebastian was the first one to make me feel at home at school. And, by the way, he writes, too! I can’t wait to share. On the picture he is the one standing next to David.
Last but not least there is Michael. This man is probably the funniest person I have ever met. His jokes come from out of nowhere and tickle you where you are most sensitive. He embraces otherness with every word he says. And he works his ass off! If you can’t find Michael he is probably in the library. Because a few years from now he wants to fight racism. For his voice to be heard he needs his name to be well known, the best place to start for that: A good education. If this is not a reason to be disciplined I don’t know what is. Michael, rock on!
Last night we sat in a bar together. Scanning one friendly expression after another I had a realization: After 14 years of school I am ready to make friends in this particular surrounding. And, for the first time, it seems like I am in the right place. I can't wait to be back in class, not only because I get to learn, but for the people I will meet as well. Looking at my fellow students on this picture puts a smile on my face. I lost all hopes for that in high school. Now it is here, all of a sudden, a miracle brought to life by David, Frederic, Michael, Sebastian- and everyone else in the classroom. Thank you, all of you! I’ll see you back at school and I look forward.