adult education

Berlin’s Rebel High School

Graffiti on a Berlin school wall. Source: Getty

As a kid, Alexander Kleider never got on at school and left, frustrated, without a diploma. Years later, he discovered self-discipline and a passion for learning that saw him finally earn his Abitur in his mid-twenties. It was a wonderful time, he says. So wonderful, he went back to make a feel-good film about Berlin’s SFE adult education school

It was in SFE’s graffiti-smeared classrooms at the Mehringhof in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district that Mr. Kleider developed a love of film that has developed into a profession. Going, back he followed a group of dropouts, punks and potheads through their three-year transformation to Abitur exam candidates.

The result is a humane portrait of a unique place of learning, shot through with faith in the human spirit and the power of anti-establishment learning. Mr. Kleider, born in 1975 in Böblingen, believes these values are particularly relevant at a time when calls for authoritarianism are reemerging. “I have the feeling today’s jaded people need a utopia,” he says.

The SFE was founded in 1973, and things have changed over the years. Mr. Kleider says getting permission to film through the school’s democratic decision-making process would have been impossible in the 1980s. Today, dogmatic principals have relaxed a bit and letting the idea of letting the media in wasn’t so controversial.

Klaus Trappmann is perhaps the films’ real hero. He has taught German and art at SFE for more than 40 years. Mr. Trappmann doesn’t mind it being branded the “Rebel High School” – the film’s title. In one idyllic summer scene, he discusses literature with his students in a private garden. But his attitude is pragmatic. “It’s fine if we go pop – we need people.”

A bit of publicity can only help promote the school’s educational ideals. Particularly since over the years, the SFE student body, which the government subsidizes with €160, or $180, per student, each month, has shrunk from 800 to 2000.

School coordinator Beate Ulreich first arrived at the SFE as a rebellious pupil herself. She is committed to the ideal of self-directed learning and living. But she needs nerves of steel to work the interface between municipal bureaucracy and the non-conformist institution.

Especially when, once again, none of her protegés – with their tattoos, piercings and brightly dyed hair – has the right registration papers. Or when the free-spirited student body trickles back only gradually after summer vacation. And unlike the relaxed but professorial Mr. Trappmann, Ms. Ulreich does see a downside to the attention the film may focus on SFE.

“You can become an adult here without becoming middle-class and narrow-minded.”

Mixe, SFE student

Berlin Rebel High School was nominated for the German Film Awards, where presenter Michael Moore said he wished he had attended the school. “I have no urge to serve bored, middle-class children,” Ms. Ulreich says. “We’re no paradise for deadbeats.” In the film, she describes the three phases students go through settling into the school – “enthusiasm, disillusion, productive panic” – and explains that “anti-authoritarian” doesn’t mean “anything goes.”

Mixe, 26 from Bavaria, Claudi, 22 from Karlsruhe and Aron, 19 from Berlin, chime in. Like the films’ protagonists, they didn’t fit in at normal state schools but have found things fall into place at SFE, where outsiders are normal. Since appearing in the film, Lena, the frustrated punk from Mecklenburg-West Pomerania; Hanil, the pothead from Aachen; and Alex, the victim of mobbing from Luckenwalde, have all found their way into work or college.

Mixe, Claudi and Aron are still working towards their Abitur. They repeatedly quote the school motto on the banner above the entrance to the “forum,” where every two weeks students and teachers meet. “Self-administration isn’t a self-service store.”

Everyone has a say in decisions, each is also responsible for everything – cleaning the toilets, working in the kitchen, heading study groups. What looks might look casual on the surface is an ambitious model that sees many students abandon their studies. But without the driving principals of competition and achievement, their reasons for dropping out differ from those of students at traditional schools.

In spite of all the conviviality, anyone there just to have fun and unable to think and work independently won’t last long. But those who stick it out can receive government support for school fees find an academic home for the first time. “You can become an adult here without becoming middle-class and narrow-minded,” Mixe says, and proceeds to castigate the neoliberal achievement ethic and social isolation. Her peers nod in keen agreement.

Amid his enthusiasm for nonconformist education, Mr. Kleider also points out the things that get students down. Run-down classrooms, disorderly classmates who disrupt lessons, and the feeling of being overwhelmed by having to do everything themselves. But accepting these challenges builds character. Here, students are responsible for what they make of themselves. “I’m not dumb, just lazy,” Hanil says. “This time I’m going to see things through to a success.”

This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: 

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