On May 1, which is a public holiday in Germany, we went on a daytrip to Celle, a town some 140 kilometres southeast of Bremen.
I hadn’t been in Celle for more than twenty years now, ever since in schooltrip there in 9th grade. That long ago schooltrip to Celle was truly a schooltrip from hell. None of our class really wanted to go to Celle – the teacher picked the destination because “he wanted to get to know us” and because it was nearby.
First of all, hiring a bus for a whole week was deemed either too expensive or too ecologically incorrect or most likely a combination of both, so we were forced to go by bike on all of those outings to interesting places in the area, which sometimes meant going forty or fifty or sixty kilometers by bike in a single day. If you got tired or couldn’t keep up, you were bullied as a weakling.
What was more, I had problems with a boy who pursued me. The boy had been infatuated with me for a while, but his behaviour on that trip really crossed the line into harassment. The teachers didn’t step in – indeed, they found the whole thing funny. Finally, I told the boy very clearly that I wanted nothing to do with him, whereupon the boy threatened to commit suicide with a pocket knife. The teachers didn’t care. One of the other kids who was worried came to get me to persuade the boy to give up the pocket knife. I was frantic and pleaded with him, because I was genuinely scared he’d hurt himself, while the teachers stood by and laughed. I don’t blame the boy BTW who was after all fourteen years old, a bundle of hormones and had as little respect for personal boundaries as most kids of that age. But I blame the teachers who should have stepped in as soon as they noticed I was uncomfortable.
However, the episode above was not the worst of it. For the youth hostel was run people who either hated teenagers or couldn’t handle them. And when someone from our class scrawled the words “arsehole” and “wanker” into the registration book of the youth hostel, the manager freaked out and threatened to throw us all out and send us home, unless the perpetrator were found and sent home, because the defaced registration book was an “official documents”. It is probably telling that I actually hoped we’d all be sent home. The teachers should have placated the manager and told the man that if the book was really so bloody important, maybe he shouldn’t have left it lying around in the open, since teens are known to scrawl rude words on anything that isn’t nailed down (I regularly get back worksheets with rude words or penises scrawled in the margin). Our teachers, however, proceeded to identify the perpetrator in the most humiliating way possible by making us all line up and calling us separately into a room to be interrogated. Eventually, they found a perpetrator, a boy who was a notorious troublemaker, who was promptly sent home and ostracized and humiliated in the process. Now this boy was a friend of mine and someone I felt fiercely protective of. He was also a favoured bullying target by other students and teachers. At the time, I was convinced that he didn’t write those words or at least that he didn’t do it without prompting by others. A friend and I also suspected someone else. However, we didn’t speak up, because we had no proof, though we did comfort the boy who was sent home, two of only three students who did. In retrospect, he probably did write them, since that was totally the sort of thing he would do. And the guy I suspected was someone I hated, so I probably was biased.
Not everything about that trip was horrible BTW. I discovered the Rocky Horror Picture Show during that classtrip because someone had the music on tape, though I didn’t see the film until the following year.
Actually, the main problem was that the teachers were incompetent idiots who forced kids on monster bike tours not everyone could handle, who didn’t step in to stop sexual harassment among students (I wasn’t the only victim, plenty of girls and some boys were harassed and no one ever said anything) and didn’t even stop a freaking suicide attempt (okay, so the blade was only about three centimeters long, but he still could have hurt himself) and who threw a kid to the wolves at the behest of a despotic youth hostel manager. These weren’t the only bad things one of those teachers did in the two years he was my class teacher (I didn’t know the other teacher very well, she was a French teacher and I had Latin) – he was horrid all around. Nonetheless, the class trip destroyed my confidence in teachers for good. And indeed, that one teacher is my model for the teacher I never want to be.
So while the blame for that schooltrip from hell clearly lies with the teachers, my teen self squarely put the blame on the town of Celle for some reason, which is why I never visited the place again in more than twenty years. And even now it’s still difficult for me to write about what happened on that trip, because part of me is still angry.
Visiting Celle again after more than twenty years, I noticed that I actually remembered very little of the town itself. I remembered the Castle and vague flashes of pastel coloured houses. It was an odd town at any rate, so odd that I privately pretended I had been deposited on an alien planet.
As I walked through the town, more flashes came back. The butt ugly 1960s department store smack in the medieval town centre brought back memories of being in the food department in the basement, while my then best friend couldn’t decide which ready-made meal to make as a “Honey I’m home” treat for her moronic boyfriend. I remembered standing for what seemed like hours in some chain boutique in the city centre while my best friend tried on jeans in five different sizes and couldn’t settle on one to buy, even though we had the very same chain at home. I remembered how her inability to decide on anything snatched away the two hours of free time we had, so I couldn’t even check out the bookstore (it was still there, too). I remembered being forced to do a “ralley” through the town, fulfill stupid tasks and answer stupid questions (such ralleys were very popular at the time), while the boy who was later sent home ran through the pedestrian shopping district asking every passer-by whether they happened to know the formula for a fart, which was one of the questions. I half wished that I could briefly step back in time and give the answer to my old pal (and perhaps warn him not to write rude words in that bloody registration book). But apart from those flashes, I might as well never have been in Celle at all.
In our way into the city, we even happened to drive past the youth hostel where we’d stayed during the schooltrip from hell. “Crap, it’s that fucking youth hostel”, I exclaimed. The place still looked the same, too. It hasn’t even been painted in twenty-five years, it seemed.
“Well, which way to the city centre then?”, my companion asked.
“I don’t know.”
“But you’ve been here before.”
“Yes, but we used to bike all the time back then, and besides I’ve been trying to forget all that.”
I had the brief temptation to stop at the youth hostel, walk in and confront the manager. But then I realized that it would be in vain, because I was more than twenty years too late and that the old manager is probably long retired anyway.
There are photos of Celle as it actually is (rather than the distorted memory I have), namely a historical town with beautiful medieval and renaissance architecture, in the next post.