¶ … interview was my mother Saleena Irani, who was born to Mexican and Parsi parents in Germany, and who spend the greater portion of her childhood in Berlin. Because Saleena attended an international school in Berlin and grew up in a multicultural and multi-linguistic household as well, her educational background and socialization experiences differed significantly from those of her peers. This interview elucidates many of the aspects of education that may be traditionally overlooked in the emphasis on test scores.
The interview took place in person, over the course of an evening. Having dinner and after-dinner drinks allowed for a long and pleasant conversation that allowed my mother to reflect deeply and provide her story in a non-linear fashion in accordance with the order in which her memories arose. Moreover, Saleena was able to bring photographs to the interview in order to trigger her memory and enhance the accuracy of my mental images. As a result, I have copious notes that include rich details of what it was like to grow up in Berlin and attend an international school.
The Kreutzberg International Academy was a British institution and has been providing instruction for an expatriate community for over a hundred years, with the only hiatus being during the Second World War. Total student body was around 1200, including students at all grade levels. Only about ten percent of the students in attendance were German. Most of the students were the children of diplomats whose parents worked in the government or business sectors. The school expanded considerably in the late 1950s and 1960s.
My mother was born in Berlin in 1960. She attended a local preschool before enrolling in the Kreutzberg International Academy, which was ironically not located in the area of Berlin known as Kreutzberg but rather, in the former West Berlin. The teachers came from all over the world, as did the students. In her early childhood, Saleena had only five different teachers throughout six grade levels. She recalls an American mathematics instructor, a German science teacher, an Indian arts instructor, and an African history and social studies teacher. Her academics were rigorous and remained so throughout the duration of her education at the Kreutzberg Academy, but the most difficult aspect of school was the fact that many of her friends would only stay in Berlin for a few years. The high rate of turnover at the school made it so that few deep and lasting friendships were formed. Of those students that did stay for a full twelve years as my mother did, only one remains a good friend. The rest are Facebook friends, but not people who Saleena would call.
The Kreutzberg Academy housed students from kindergarten to "twelfth standard," which is what Americans call twelfth grade. Because there was an entrance examination and most of the students' parents were highly educated, no student flunked out. A few did better than others in some subjects, but there were no students who actively eschewed their work or who did not like school. The classes in elementary school were highly social in nature, involving sitting in circles more often than in desks until the fourth standard. After the fourth standard, the classroom was structured so that the teacher stood at the head of the class as more of an authority figure, and students were expected to sit more quietly and interact less with their peers than they had in the younger years. Saleena recalls the change from early elementary to late elementary and middle school difficult for some students who were energetic and highly sociable. However, the music and arts classes were structured differently and did not involve an authoritarian teacher model.
By the time the Kreutzberg Academy students entered their high school years, classes were held in a different building attached to the central one. This high school building had four stories, compared with the two-story building housing the elementary classes and the administrative offices. Reflecting on her favorite subjects or courses, Saleena replied that she liked them all and that it depended on her teachers which classes she most looked forward to attending. Her strong points were literary in nature, which is why she eventually pursued a career in writing. However, she was also good at math because her teachers taught well, had patience, and maintained a challenging but manageable work level. Reading was Saleena's favorite pastime during school, and in high school, she delved into the literature of different cultures....
She attributes her love of languages and language arts to a high school teacher from Ghana who introduced the class to African folk epics and modern African literature. If she had to choose a subject she liked least, it would have been chemistry. However, the Kreutzberg academy had a clean and well-stocked laboratory and many of the students excelled at science and went on to find lucrative jobs at major international firms located in Germany including those in the biotech and manufacturing industries.
The teachers were almost without exception good at what they did, with a few teachers who might be considered eccentric, but all of whom had a strong command of their subjects and methods of classroom management. Reflecting on her classroom experiences, Saleena notes that the types of misbehavior and mischief most common included silly pranks but nothing more serious than the occasional schoolyard fight between boys. None of the extreme violence and senseless anomie that characterizes the American school experience was evident at the Kreutzberg Academy.
In spite of being an international school, the Kreutzberg Academy was associated with the Anglican Church and therefore did include some extracurricular activities that were religious in nature. However, Saleena notes that the religious activities mainly included memorizing hymns to sing in church rather than the study of theology or organized prayer. The great diversity of cultural backgrounds of the students and teachers made it so that by the time she was in middle school grades, my mother and her peers were familiar with every major world religion and many minor ones, including her own Zoroastrian heritage. Other extracurricular activities included frequent field trips to local museums. The students were also treated to guest speakers, whose areas of expertise ranged from music to biology. As the students reached their junior and senior years in high school, academic advisers who were on contract with the school came to talk to each student and help them devise a proactive plan for the future that involved job seeking or graduate school tips.
Saleena had no actual enemies, but she did occasionally have a clique of friends who developed an "in group" status. Yet because of the relative impermanence of many friendships, students at the Kreutzberg Academy remained fairly open-minded to new friends and generally tolerant of each other. The majority of graduates from the Kreutzberg Academy went on to a wide array of careers. A few followed in their parents' footsteps and became involved with international relations and politics. Several work in economics-related fields, with two people she knows working with the World Bank in the United States. A few of her peers from Kreutzberg Academy are like her and pursued careers in education or literature. The most famous of the students who graduated from her school has her own television show on the BBC.
Oral histories can be fruitful, especially when they rely on specific techniques. One of those techniques is creating a setting in which the subject is comfortable. A comfortable setting is conducive to relaxation and reflection. It allows the subject to get into the mood for talking about the past. The second technique involves preparation. Before the interview, I came prepared with a list of questions and also general topic areas I hoped to pursue. Third, I asked both open-ended and specific questions. A variety of types of questions helped prevent too much rambling or tangential information, while allowing for rich and nuanced responses. A fourth technique was listening. Instead of interrupting, I simply stopped taking notes and then moved onto another subject matter. Finally, I did use technology during the interview as a means to refrain from excessive note-taking by hand. The digital recording also ensured that the interview transcript accurately reflected the responses.
As a result of using these oral interview techniques, I was able to ascertain exactly why interviews differ from normal conversation. I had known about my mother's school in Berlin before, because we have discussed it in casual conversation. I have even asked pointed questions about certain issues. However, the interview presents both of us with the opportunity for structured dialogue, focus, and more pointed questions. At times, my mother or me would appear fatigued, and we would simply take a break. If I were performing the same oral interview with my mother at a later date, I would not change much, but I might ask for a meta-analysis on her part, to reflect on broader issues like the role of social class or gender in her education. It is…