As I stumble day by day to speak and read German, I noticed more and more in my Weimar daily Thuringen Allgemeine a page reserved for almost illiterate kids. Like me!
Upper left corner, a place for sounding off. In lower right corner, an eight- or nine-year-old's idea of humor. I usually get it, with some vocabulary help from my wife. In between are staff-written stories aimed to attract kid-level attention.
Now imagine me on a six-hour train trip from the Baltic Sea (known hereabouts by the compass as the Ost See). I notice a Gramma across the aisle reading today's edition of the OstSeeZeitung. Finally, she stuffs the paper in the pocket of the seat ahead of her. I politely ask if I can read it. She genially reaches the paper across the aisle.
The front page features a fascinating essay on the tradition of giving students about to enter the first grade a tall slim bag of goodies they'll need as they enter school. It's called a Zuckertute— literally, "sugar sack." This 200-year-old custom alerts the new students (including our almost-seven-year old Danny) to the seriousness of their new adventure. By making a party of this collective gift giving, the solemn Germans make their kids smile broadly as they begin an important part of their lives.
The second last page is entitled KIDZ, as in "Kinder in Die Zeitung." (It consists of two mini-editorials, one celebrating a new singer's success, the other advising how to dress outside when it's hot. Both are clearly written. (That is, an American like me can understand them.)
Hay vs. straw
Below these pieces appears an implausible editorial entitled "Ach so, Wer weiss es: Stroh oder Heu"? (Who knows if it's straw or hay?) Heh, for an urban kid like me that's a serious question.
The first hint: "Both are dry. Both are needed by many farmers. Both are similar but they are not the same. Do you know the difference? Hay is dry grass. It is cut in the field and left to dry in the sun. The farmers need it later to feed their animals. Straw, on the other hand, are the dry stalks of the grain that must be thrashed. They can be used as fertilizer on the fields. Or strewn in the stalls."
Guess what? The kids have started learning!
Next below is the "Witzig" corner, as in "Funny, ha ha!" To wit:
Klaus came home filthy from football. His mother points without a word to the door of the bathroom. Klaus replies: "That doesn't make any sense— because we have a return match in a week."
High school essays
At the bottom of the page is a color drawing of a zillion images, next to the same image with nine tiny changes. Yikes, I could only find two! My seven-year-old year fared much better.
After I had returned the newspaper to Gramma, the man across from me (who turned out to be a professor of mathematics at Griefswald University) launched into a fascinating conversation on the reason for these kiddie pages: The Germans are afraid the trashy Internet media will undermine print, and so they're devising methods for hooking the next generation on the printed word.
And a few days ago I stumbled across a page full of high school essays written by teenagers about to graduate. When those Germans get serious, they cover all the details of keeping alive the next generation of newspaper readers.
I couldn't help recalling the time in Philadelphia, a half century ago, when I was awaiting an academic meeting at Penn's Annenberg School of Communication with its namesake, Walter Annenberg. The day before, Annenberg's daily, the Inquirer, had vastly expanded its comics section. To kill time, I teased the billionaire: "Is that what you mean by raising journalistic standards in your graduate school?"
His mouth dropped open, speechless— puzzled by the gall of a newly appointed assistant professor who lacked tenure. Penn's president, Gaylord Harnwell, looked like he was about to piss his pants. That was my first insight into the university's craven posture toward donors— a disgust that led more than 20 years to my preference of writing for the alternative weekly Welcomat rather than suck up to rich thugs.
Rather than further expand our comics section, shouldn't we Americans be exposing our kids to some things equally intellectual, as the Germans are doing?