Tuesday, March 18, 2008

16 November: Oda's Debate Class

Oda has been begging me to come to one of her English debate club meetings and we finally arranged for me to attend today. I was still feeling quite miserable from my cold but I didn’t want to disappoint her. We planned to meet at the Schloss-Johannesstraße U-Bahn stop at 1:15. I got there early and saw her coming; she was chowing down a pork sandwich slathered in ketchup. We walked a few blocks to her school, which is housed in a multi-story complex of nondescript post-war buildings. I think this is the first time I have ever stepped foot inside an “indoor” high school, as I went to school in northern California where it rarely goes below freezing and the school common areas are all outdoors. We went upstairs and down a hall to a small classroom, where a few of the debate club members were already hanging out. Oda introduced me and then we sat down with a couple of her friends, Therese and Vivica, and waited for the rest of the group to show up.

Their teacher walked in a few minutes later – a middle-aged German woman with long bleached-blond hair. She called the meeting to order and asked me to introduce myself. I told them my name and they all laughed, then I explained how I knew Oda. The teacher asked, “So you work with Oda’s mother?” and I said, “No, we just go walking in the mornings.” Then she asked, “So you have debate experience?” and I said, “Not exactly, but I worked for an organization in Michigan where I had to do a lot of public speaking and talking to reporters.” (Oda had told her teacher I was coming, but I got the sense that she was fishing for a reason to justify my presence.) Eventually the group broke in two to discuss the arguments they had prepared on the topic of women in positions of leadership. Oda’s teacher assigned me to the group arguing in favor, while Oda was on the opposing side. I found myself in a group of four surly teenage boys and one girl, none of whom had done much preparation because they thought their argument was so easy to win. Imagine my horror when I discovered that most of the boys in the group actually believed that women should not hold positions of leadership. A couple of them came across as real chauvinist pigs. It was quite an eye-opener, but I tried to keep my mouth shut and only helped them out with wording their arguments. In the end they didn’t have time to actually practice the debate, which was a shame. They spent a long time discussing their future meeting schedule and making arrangements for an upcoming debate competition, a weekend trip which several members of the group would be attending, including Oda.

On the way back to the U-Bahn I chatted some more with Oda and her friends. One of them had spent a year on a student exchange in Seattle and spoke perfect English with barely a hint of an accent. She told me that she had had a very difficult time when she first arrived in the U.S. because the American students all made fun of her German accent. I told her that they had no right to do that, since I was quite certain that none of them could speak a foreign language half as well! Even after four years of high school French, most of my classmates could barely carry on a simple conversation. I have been really impressed with Oda’s command of English and it surprises me that she finds herself struggling academically – she has told me that her teachers want her to read more English books and improve her grammar. Let me assure you, the German kids I have met put most American high school students to shame! I think I will help Oda out by getting her a copy of The Blue Sword, which was one of my favorite fantasy novels in high school. It’s not too long and should be right up her alley, since she loves fantasy and role-playing games.

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