Ring… Ring… Ring… Click!
A small tape started to spin in the machine.
“You’ve reached the Meier household. We can’t answer the phone right now, but please leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.”
Click! Beep! Click!
“Oh, Anna - sorry, maybe you’ve left already? It’s only just gone six… uh, well, if you’re still there, I just wanted to say to have a good first day at your new school. I’m sure you’ll do great. Sorry I can’t be there to see you off, but you know, I’m still at this conference… Anyway, see you later, and you can tell me about it then.”
The machine fell silent, still unheard beneath the drone of the hair dryer upstairs. Anna sat perched on the edge of her bed, wrapped in a cream-coloured towel, holding the appliance in one hand while running the other through her hair. Otherwise, the room was neat and tidy with pale blue-painted walls, furnished in a simple Scandinavian style with a chest of drawers, a wardrobe, a half-stocked bookshelf, and opposite the bed, a desk topped with several well-thumbed books underneath a window looking out towards the lake. The wall adjacent to the bed was adorned with a Clara Porges landscape print. Next to the bed stood Anna’s mother, a tall and fairly slim woman with dark permed hair fringing her olive-coloured face. She was already dressed in a red dress with white spots, hairbrush in hand.
“Anna dear, let me -” She reached out with the brush to Anna’s hair, met with a flap of her daughter’s hand and flinch away from the implement.
“Mum, I know how to do my hair,” Anna replied, not entirely succeeding in hiding her exasperation.
Her mother pulled away slightly at the response, shaking her head a little and tossing her long brown permed hair. “Okay,” she conceded. “But don’t take too long. I’ll go finish up breakfast.” She put the brush down on the bed, then turned and left the room, momentarily turning back to look at her daughter before closing the door.
Anna watched as her mother left her alone, allowing herself only a moment to appreciate her temporary solitude before continuing to get ready. Picking up the brush, she finished off her shoulder-length brown hair by tucking it into a ponytail, then replaced the towel with a pale blue blouse and a navy skirt, paired with a pair of grey socks. Pulling up the second, she checked herself in the mirror. She was a little taller than average for a girl of her age, and perhaps slight of build, rather like her mother. She nodded to herself, feeling that she looked smart in her outfit.
A voice filtered through the door. “Anna! Breakfast is ready!”
With one more check in the mirror, Anna snatched up the near-empty satchel leant next to her desk and swept out of her room and down the stairs.
The kitchen was homely, with wooden-fronted cupboards lining the walls around the stove, while the room was large enough to accommodate a small table. This room, however, was somewhat less tidy, the countertops dusted with flour and strewn with bowls and utensils. The table was set for two, but perhaps stocked for four: bread, butter, honey and cheese sat around a pot of coffee, a mug of milk and several small cakes.
As Anna walked into the room, her mother pulled out a chair for her. “I made magdalenas,” she explained, gesturing to the breakfast cakes as she sat down in the other chair herself.
Anna gave a kind but nervous smile. “Thanks Mum,” she replied, “but I don’t think I can eat all of this. We need to leave in fifteen minutes.”
“My little girl needs to eat or she won’t have energy for the day!” She flicked her wrist in conciliation. “But, have as much as you like.”
Anna poured herself a mug of coffee with milk, then set about eating a slice of bread and butter with cheese, plus one of the magdalenas. The latter, at least, was mandatory given her mother’s effort, and the sweet lemony cakes were a part of her Spanish heritage.
After a couple of minutes, her mother paused her own breakfast with a slight cough. “I’m sure you’re going to do great today!”
Anna shot her a hesitant smile, chewing for a few moments and swallowing before replying. “I hope so. I don’t want to lose my place.”
A light tinkle of laughter and rolling of eyes preceded her mother’s reply. “Of course you’ll do well! Don’t worry so much.”
Anna shrugged and took a few seconds to drink some coffee. “Not everyone passes.”
Her mother just smiled again in response, her expression just a little pained.
Meal over, Anna strode off to the bathroom to finish her preparations while her mother tidied away the embarrassing surfeit of leftovers. They met again at the front door, Anna buckling up her shoes and settling her satchel on her shoulder as her mother left the kitchen.
“You know you don’t need to drive me today, Mum,” Anna started. “I’m going to take the bus every other day.”
“Nonsense. I want to see you off on your first day properly!” Her mother took a wide-brimmed hat off the hatstand and placed it upon her head, checked herself in the adjacent mirror and adjusted it slightly, then stepped into her shoes and picked up her handbag from the table beneath the mirror.
The light on the answering machine flashed silently, unheeded, as they both walked out of the front door onto the drive.
The white Ford Escort parked outside was mostly clean, sullied only by slight streaks of dust around the wheel arches. Anna’s mother fumbled in her bag, then produced the car keys, with which she unlocked the doors.
Anna had already strode over to the car, and got in quickly. “You don’t need to go all the way there,” she tried again as her mother sat down in the driver’s seat.
Another smile in response, the pain being hidden slightly less well this time. “I know you don’t want to be embarrassed by your mother, but I want to see you there.”
Another shrug. “I know,” Anna replied, letting it drop.
The engine sputtered, then spurted into life as the car set off on the road into the city. Anna looked out the window for a minute, then opened her satchel, checking her stationery and notebook, then unfolding and re-reading a familiar letter of acceptance to the Realgymnasium Rämibühl.
She had already memorised the instructions for her first day, and her gaze slid down the page quickly. She was relieved not to notice anything new, but it couldn’t holder her interest. Letter exhausted of interest, she sat back in her seat and looked out of the window. The streets of Zürich streaked past the windows, punctuated by moments of stasis when the car came to a stop. It was a warm mid-August day, the light of the morning sun filtered through layers of cloud. The buildings and people passing by barely registered as she rehearsed the day again and again in her head.
The car came to a halt again, Anna’s mother pulling up the handbrake with the car on the side of the road. “Well, we’re here,” she said brightly, breaking her daughter out of her reverie. “Just down the road, anyway. I suppose you don’t need me to walk you to the door.”
Anna looked down momentarily in embarrassment, then fixed her expression and looked back at her mother, tucking a lock of hair behind her left ear in the process. “Ah, yes, I’ll be fine! Thanks, Mum.” Her mother smiled and brushed her cheek with a hand, then leaned over and kissed both. “Now, you have a good first day, and tell me all about it, okay? I’m sure you’ll do great!”
With a brief smile and a nod, Anna briefly embraced her mother and then let herself out of the car, satchel settled on her shoulder. She shut the door and waved, calling out “See you later!” as she set off to the school gate, casting the occasional glance back at her mother watching her as she went. Rounding the corner to the entrance, and finally out of sight, she stopped for a moment to look inside.
Up a few steps was a quadrangle bustling with students. Some stood around in small groups, chatting animatedly, while others hurried across the square towards the large, multi-storey buildings which dominated the other three sides. Anna already knew that she, too, would soon need to head inside, but took her time, scanning through the throng. Two other students from her primary school were also to start at Rämibühl - Stephanie and Thomas. While neither had been close friends of Anna’s, she wouldn’t mind seeing some familiar faces amidst the sea of others.
Familiar faces were, however, hard to find in the crowd. After a couple of minutes of weaving through it without finding any, she supposed that the other new students who had already arrived had probably gone straight to the auditorium. Passing by the large building opposite where she had entered, she followed a sign with an arrow which had been stuck to the wall directing her to the “New Student Induction”. Another sign directed her into the auditorium itself, in which the tiered rows of seats were already filling up with her future classmates.
She quickly noticed Thomas sitting on one end. He was a fairly stocky boy who seemed to be entirely clad in denim, despite the warm weather, with a pair of round glasses perched upon his similarly round face, which was framed with a tousle of blonde hair. Anna hadn’t spent much time with him before - they’d both mostly kept to themselves. But familiarity was, nevertheless, welcome. He already seemed to be engaged in conversation with the boy sitting beside him, though. Anna raised her hand in a half-wave, attempting to draw his attention, but there was no response.
Shrugging, she went to find an available seat instead. The auditorium was filling up quickly as the students arrived; surely, none wanted to be late on their first day at the Gymnasium. Soon enough, her other former classmate walked through the doors. Stephanie was a little shorter than Anna, with her brown hair drawn back into a ponytail, wearing a green blouse with pink trousers. She, too, was more of an acquaintance than a close friend; Stephanie had been one of the more popular students at their primary school, and had chosen her associations correspondingly. They had never come into conflict, though, and in this new place they were, for now, equals.
Anna once again waved her hand, a little more vigorously than before, and this time the gesture was successful. Stephanie smiled and rushed over to sit next to Anna. “Anna! I’m glad to have found you!” she exclaimed, lowering herself into the adjacent seat. “How are you doing?”
Her effusiveness surprised Anna to some degree, given that they had never been that friendly before, but she supposed that she was just as glad to see a familiar face. “Hi Stephanie,” she replied, “I’m okay. I hope -”
She was cut off by a rapidly-growing silence in the room which heralded the arrival of a middle-aged man wearing a grey-checked suit, the scattered grey in his neatly combed hair betraying his years. He walked up to a podium and drew a pair of glasses out of one jacket pocket, perching them upon his nose as he glanced at an index card.
“Ahem,” he coughed, quieting the last of the chatter. “It is my pleasure to welcome you to Realgymnasium Rämibühl. I’m sure you’ll hear a lot of names today, but I’ll start with mine. I’m Mr. Eberhard, the new rector as of this year. I look forward to meeting all of you in time.”
“You’ve already done very well to have passed the entrance exam and to have made it here, and I am sure that you will all do extremely well. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that we will be expecting to see your ability shine in your first months here.” Some members of the audience shuffled in their seats uncomfortably, and Anna tugged at a lock of hair.
“But that’s for later. First, I’d like to introduce you to some of our second-year students who will be taking you on a tour, and you’ll have an opportunity to meet your class teacher before having lunch. If you could divide yourselves into groups…”
Half a dozen students sitting on chairs behind the rector stood up and distributed themselves around the floor space, and the new arrivals stood up and started drifting towards the closest one. The murmur of conversation started up again as Anna approached the nearest guide, a boy of only about her own height who seemed rather pleased with himself. Stephanie accompanied her, and the two stood nearby as their small group grew.
“The rector seemed nice,” Anna volunteered.
Stephanie shrugged a little. “Maybe! I wonder if we’ll be in the same classes?” Anna looked once more around the room. There must have been over a hundred new students waiting to be taken off on tours. “I don’t know. When do we get our timetables?”
Their conversation was once again interrupted, this time by Christian, their tour guide, whose name was printed neatly in capitals on a name badge. He carried a sheaf of notes and an air of solemnity. “This way, please.”
The tour brought them around the various buildings on the site, including the piazza, library, canteen and sporting facilities, and also introduced the new students to the history of Rämibühl from its founding in 1832 and the four schools on the site. To Anna, none of this was new; she could practically have recited all the literature she had been sent, and it didn’t escape her notice that Christian was reciting from the same sources.
At the end of the tour, he brought them to a board in the piazza where a list of all the new students had been pinned, with a teacher’s marked next to each. These, Christian explained, were their class teachers, who would shortly be along to collect them. Anna scanned down to the “M”s to locate her name, and read “Ms. Rissler” in the other column.
Stephanie nudged her in the crowd. “Did you find your name?”
Anna stiffened briefly at the contact. “Uh, yes… with Ms. Rissler.”
“Oh, I’m with Mr Miller, that sucks. Take care!” Stephanie pushed through the students approaching the board, leaving Anna behind. Before she followed, she checked Thomas’ name on the list; he, too, was assigned to a different class teacher.
Ms. Rissler was a young, mousy-haired teacher wearing a maroon jacket and matching skirt. She led a group of two dozen new students, Anna included, to an empty classroom in the languages department, posters in French adorning the walls. The desks had been pushed to the side with the chairs arranged in a circle, with the teacher sitting down nearest her desk, looking over a list on her desk and pointing at each student in turn before speaking. Anna took a seat near the front of the room.
“Right! I’m glad to see you all made it here today. I’m going to be your class teacher, so we’ll all be meeting up together regularly, and I want you to feel you can talk to me if you have anything on your mind. I’m sure you’re all excited to be here today! Would any of you like to introduce yourselves and tell us about your hobbies?” She paused, and looked around the room expectantly.
The students did the same, none of them breaking the silence.
“How about you?” She pointed to a student sitting a few to the left of Anna. The victim, a mousy-haired girl with a side ponytail and round glasses, looked briefly alarmed, then swallowed and introduced herself. “I’m - I’m Elisa Bossart. I’m eleven. I like, um, listening to music. And… watching TV.” She looked around the room nervously, then looked down at the floor.
A boy with slicked-down hair and wearing what clearly looked like a brand new suit was next. He seemed rather stuffy and overdressed, particularly for the time of year. “I’m Julian Tober, and I’m twelve. I ride horses and enjoy going to the theatre.” A couple of students murmured to themselves, seemingly either impressed or envious.
Anna half-listened to the introductions, but quickly found she was focusing on mentally rehearsing what she would say once the teacher moved on to her. Her neighbour started speaking before she had finished thinking, and she sat up straight and tugged at her collar in preparation for her own presentation.
Once the student next to her - whose name she had missed - stopped speaking, Anna waited a moment, then spoke quickly and confidently. “My name is Anna Meier, and I’m eleven years old. Nice to meet you!” She smiled broadly and looked around the room at the staring students. “I enjoy reading, drawing and swimming.” She scanned the circle again with a hint of nervousness, looking for any reaction to her introduction, but little was forthcoming. After a moment, she turned to the neighbour on her right, and the process continued around the circle.
Ms. Rissler thanked the class, then continued to explain the rest of the day. As she spoke, she handed out timetables, and Anna looked over hers. After the induction activities this morning, and then lunch, she would have two lessons today: mathematics and then geography. She rolled her eyes momentarily upon reading the latter, it not being one of her favourite subjects.
Once the session with Ms. Rissler was over, it was time to go to lunch. The class all walked to the cafeteria together, briefly in hushed awkwardness before the more outgoing members of the class started to address their new classmates.
Having set off from nearby seats, Anna walked next to Elisa, who seemed to be studying the patterns on the floor. Anna walked alongside her in silence for a minute, then cleared her throat. “Hi - Elisa, right?” she asked, trying to be polite and friendly.
“Oh,” the other girl replied, looking up. “Yes.” She paused a moment. “Nice to meet you.”
Anna gave her a broad smile. “Nice to meet you too!” she replied. There was no immediate response, so she followed with, “Ms. Rissler seems nice, don’t you think?” They joined the queue in the cafeteria. “She seems nice,” agreed Elisa, but proffered no further thoughts. Anna smiled again, a little awkwardly, then waited as the line shuffled forwards.
The class sat down together on a long table once they had made their selections. Elisa sat opposite Anna, their flimsy connection seemingly counting for something amongst a crowd of perfect strangers. Anna saw her looking at her between bites, and she tried again to make conversation. She learned about Elisa’s previous school, that she had one sister, and which music she liked, but the conversation was awkward and mostly one-sided, so she was glad when lunch was over and it was time to attend her first class.
Mathematics was taught by Mr. Heidecker, an older man with thinning hair and glasses, who spoke rather flatly. Anna was glad she had sat in the front row, as it might have been difficult to hear him well otherwise, especially as some of the students in the back row seemed to be whispering to each other. Perhaps they were carrying on conversations from lunch which had gone more successfully than hers. The subject being one that it usually paid to concentrate on, Anna listened intently to the teacher, pen at the ready to make copious notes. But the lesson was slow getting started, and seemed to be repeating material that she had previously studied, so she found herself staring at the checked pattern of his jacket between jotting down the occasional line. She supposed that he wanted to ensure that everyone had a solid grounding in the basics before carrying on; on the one hand, it was going to make this class easier for the first few lessons, but somehow it felt like she hadn’t really started properly.
The end of the lesson came slowly, and without any homework being set. The next lesson would be geography, and Anna was sure it wouldn’t go any quicker.
This time, the teacher was a rather eccentric character. Mr. Ruth had a shock of red hair and wore a yellow floral-patterned, open-necked shirt above his long trousers, seemingly looking a little out of time and place, and certainly a marked contrast to his predecessor. He strode into the classroom and stood in front of the desk, leaning back against it, then proceeded to alternate between drawing on the blackboard and walking between the desks as he started talking about the cantons of Switzerland. It seemed he was well-travelled and had plenty of anecdotes and interesting facts to drop into the lesson, and Anna couldn’t help but find herself surprisingly interested, despite her general lack of enthusiasm for the subject - Mr. Ruth was certainly an engaging teacher.
He was not, however, also to let them leave without setting any homework. In fact, he expected a researched report on a particular canton written within the week. Anna was assigned Thurgau, and noted it down with a little trepidation: she wanted to give a good first impression, but her first assignment was not straightforward, and she hadn’t had her strongest marks in geography before.
The end of the geography lesson also marked the end of Anna’s first day of lessons. Her class filed out of the room quickly, breaking off into groups either pre-existing or hastily formed through proximity and the day’s shared experiences. Of those in her class, she had only really connected with Elisa on any level, but she wasn’t enthusiastic to endure more awkward conversations, so she didn’t seek any out. Nor did she know where Thomas or Stephanie might be, or have any way to contact them short of stumbling across them on her way. She decided to stop off at the library to look for a book on Switzerland to research her report before heading home.
The library was, unsurprisingly, quiet, not only in volume but also in traffic. It being the first day of the year, it seemed that most of the students hadn’t started studying in earnest yet, and only a few of the rows of desks were occupied. The stacks of books around the walls, however, were enticing. Anna wandered around for a few minutes before finding the geography section, then spent a few more selecting an appropriate one to borrow. She took it to the front desk to be stamped by the librarian, then walked outside.
There were several small groups of students outside, but none that Anna recognised immediately. The clouds above had darkened and threatened a summer rain shower, so she didn’t wish to linger too long, as she hadn’t brought anything to protect herself if she was caught out. Nevertheless, the bus stop wasn’t far from the entrance of the school, and before long she was on her way home. A couple of others who looked a few years older than her, each with a bag, followed her onto the bus, then sat at the back. Anna wondered if they were also students at her new school. She had selected a window seat halfway down the bus, and leaned her shoulder against it as the other side started to become spattered with rain. She drew the book she had borrowed out of her bag and started reading.
The shower was short-lived, and was beginning to die down by the time that she got off the bus a few streets from home. Nevertheless, Anna walked briskly, clutching her satchel against her body to try to protect its contents from the last vestiges of the downpour. Fortunately, it only took a few minutes to get home, and neither she nor it were too worse the wear for the experience. Her mother’s car was back, so she hurried up to the front door and pressed the doorbell.
Her mother rushed to the door and opened it wide. “Anna!” She flung her arms around her daughter, who returned the gesture with rather less exuberance. “How was your first day?” Her mother’s expression suddenly turned. “Oh, you’re wet! You must take an umbrella tomorrow!”
They went into the living room, dominated by a large sofa rather dwarfing the television screen. Sitting down prompted a long conversation during which Anna was plied with another of the morning’s leftover cakes and asked to recount the events of the day. Her mother, it seemed, wanted to know every detail, and was particularly anxious to know whether Anna was happy there.
“Did you get to know anyone from your new class?”
Anna bit her lip. “Well, I talked to a girl called Elisa. She sits next to me.”
“Oh! Lovely! I’m sure you’ll come to be good friends!”
“Maybe.” Anna shrugged a little, and fidgeted a little on the sofa. “I need to start working on my geography report later.”
Her mother clasped her hands. “I’m sure, dear. Well, I should start the dinner before your father gets home.” She stood up and walked off to the kitchen.
Anna deflated a little into the sofa now that the questioning was over and sat there quietly for a minute, then got up again and turned on the television. There was a quiz show playing, and she followed along, trying to answer the questions before the contestants. She didn’t get very many of them right, but she felt quite good about herself whenever she did manage to. Afterwards, a cartoon started, which Anna half-watched while thinking about the events of the day and how she would approach the report.
She didn’t get to see the end before she heard keys rattling in the front door, followed by the door opening and her father stepping in. Anna stood up and walked over to the door of the living room to greet him. He was around average height and build, and wore his dark blonde hair short on the back and sides atop a face that was beginning to show a few wrinkles. He was wearing his grey suit, as normal, and carrying his briefcase, which he placed down once he came inside.
“Ah, Anna,” he said, taking off his jacket and hanging it up on a hook by the door. “How did it go?”
The conversation was, in many ways, a repeat of that from earlier, although this time Anna was leading the conversation, with her father mostly nodding to her in response.
“… and really I found the geography lesson more interesting than I thought! I even got a book to start my report tonight. I can show it to you if you like?”
Her father put a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe later. I’m glad it went well, but I expect dinner's almost ready. I should get changed.” He patted her shoulder and walked off up the stairs, leaving her to follow him with her eyes before she returned to the living room and sat down again. The cartoon had finished, and the news was starting. Apparently there had been some sort of protest that had made the news, but by the time the headlines were finished, her mother was calling her to dinner.
The meal was of pork filet and Rösti, and Anna sat down to eat. Before long, she was joined by both of her parents. Having largely exhausted the topic of the events of the school day previously, the conversation which did occur over dinner was mostly about her father’s conference. Anna didn’t entirely follow what it had been about, and she wasn’t sure to what extent her mother did, but she listened quietly to the conversation between them. It wasn’t unusual for him to be away on business or to work late, anyway, particularly in the last couple of years.
Aware that she hadn’t yet done any work on her report, Anna asked to be excused once she’d finished her meal, then went up to her room and sat down at the desk with a workbook and the information on Thurgau. It was only the first day, and she didn’t have to submit this for a week, but she would surely get more homework set in the days to come, and she didn’t want to fall behind.
By the time the sun went down, she had finished reading through the relevant parts of the book and started on her report, following the outline that she had written on the first page of the workbook. She was starting to feel quite tired, it having been a long and busy day, but was pleased to have made a good amount of progress on the report.
Before getting ready to sleep, Anna walked downstairs again to say goodnight to her parents. She found her mother in the living room, watching a drama production on television, while her father sat reading the paper. Her mother jumped up and embraced her, kissing her cheek and wishing her a lovely night. Her father put his paper down on his lap and gave her a wave.
Afterwards, she headed back up the stairs and got ready for bed. Before she slept, she pulled out a magazine from a drawer in her beside table. She wouldn’t like to admit that she read the girls’ weekly, particularly to her father, but it did have some fun stories, and some of the fashion tips were useful… and it was nice to not think about schoolwork for a while to relax. She turned out the main light and, leaving the bedside lamp on, settled down to read for a little while.
Finally, it was time to put away the magazine and get some rest. Tomorrow there would be a full day of classes, and she needed to be ready for the challenges the next day would bring.
Written by mithent