Berlin wasn’t well that summer. Every third storefront in the center stood empty; the young and ambitious fled to Frankfurt or London. The last GIs pulled out, taking their PXs and tax money with them, leaving only a generation of mixed-up children and questionable international schools. Martial arts classes and gyms were unusually well-attended, as were mosques. Berlin’s young men seemed to be training for the end times. The newspapers filled up with chatter of third-worldification, so-called Brazillian conditions. Both Germany and Turkey performed incontinently at the European cup. Food prices were up. All the weed was damp with hairspray. The summer was lukewarm. A crazed man haunted the city, stabbing random pedestrians with an AIDS injection. The Euro was on the way, making everything more expensive. The mood in the city was dejected, and contrary to the beliefs of certain materialists, social atmosphere is no small matter.
“It’s so…drab here, don’t you think?” my father said to me upon arriving back in town. He had spent twenty years in Berlin, grown tired of the Germans (including my mother), returned to his native New York, and now visited once a year to chart my deterioration and propose rapid fixes. Finding me aggressive and stoned, with declining grades and fading English, he decided to drag me to an open day at a weird international school on the margins of the city. This would do it, he must have thought, chatting with British teachers outside the white villa, among parents of various shades — an international school. This would provide me with a natural path out of Germany.
IBS, I would find out soon enough, after my dad had left again, was the third world of Berlin’s international schools. While good international schools educated the sons and daughters of ambassadors and rich Germans, IBS catered to the sons and daughters of embassy secretaries and crooked local businessmen, peddling the illusion of a fine English education. IBS treated education like cricket, an inclusive sport that necessarily makes every participant a gentleman. At the time I was still impressed by depravity, and my main goal was to be left alone; it couldn’t have been a more perfect fit.
Sitting in on my first class, I was intimidated by my fellow students’ mathematical prowess. Mr. Free, a short, redheaded man with weak childish features, droned his way through equations, concluding with questions from the textbook. My fellow students answered them all effortlessly, while I crunched the numbers in vain. After class, Anthony, who would later become my best friend, did his best to explain away my deficiencies. “The answers are in the back of the book,” he exclaimed with happy disbelief. And so we cheated, effortlessly, for the rest of the year. This would be the last math class I ever took.
Appearances were very important to IBS. Investments were allocated where parents would see them. Perfectly manicured shrubbery and a tidy gravel road led up a majestic staircase into a pristine white villa, and from there along unshaven black carpets into shabby classrooms under low ceilings and greenish light fixtures. The school seemed to hire teachers with a look in mind rather than a field of expertise, and often made them teach multiple classes outside their qualifications. The younger students were kept in posh, royal blue uniforms, making them suspect to the inhabitants of the suburban project buildings that lined the way to the nearby bus stop. Mr. Burtonsmith, the school’s superbly-dressed “head of business,” spoke to parents with professional care and empathy, and regarded students with self-important irritation. In my three years at the school, Headmasters came and went, but he remained. The school liked to imply that it was a non-profit organization; Mr. Burtonsmith’s cars suggested otherwise.
Mrs. Lloyd hadn’t studied Biology and didn’t enjoy teaching it. Her main aspiration in life was to avoid ridicule. Teaching a subject she knew nothing about did little to advance that pursuit. The textbook seemed authoritative, so she read aloud from it. Too much of that made her uneasy, as the class would start to chatter. As soon as the din came to her attention, she would glare around until it died down, then keep reading. I failed that class, but it didn’t matter: this would be the last science class I ever took.
The school’s permissive acceptance policy attracted students with disciplinary problems and long records of academic failure, many of them characters as if devised by Brecht to demonstrate the corruption of new money. The tuition costs kept classes small; there were only 10 of us in 10th grade.
Yazan, son of a Saudi oil merchant, enrolled the same day as me and soon lost himself entirely. He was thin, lonely and helpless at the beginning but all those things would change. Buying drugs on the street, he accidentally contracted an entourage. Soon he was being picked up from school by Nose, a Kurdish dude who lived in a giant apartment building inhabited solely by members of his family, many of whom partook in his business ventures when they weren’t in prison. Seemingly overnight, Nose and his cousins became Yazan’s guides to Berlin, driving around in his limousine, supplying him with girls and pot. They couldn’t have valued his company. Nearly all of his sentences consisted of a tale of personal failure (“I couldn’t do it man….”) followed by his favorite catchphrase (“if only I hadn’t been high”), a convoluted reference to a popular song at the time. Pot made his speech slur, his face smile and his body plump. One day, his diet changed abruptly. A visibly pale Yazan appeared in school, hands shivering in his pockets. He told me that he’d smoked something advertised to him as “white hash.” He was absent from school for the rest of the year. He returned in fall, about 40 pounds lighter.
Ahmed tried his best to cure confused Yazan through faith. The son of an Egyptian doctor, Ahmed was the only person I knew at IBS before enrolling, though he was of little use to me by then because he had given up drinking beer and smoking pot in favor of a rigorous Islam. He was the tallest member of a group we called the Muslim delegation, who eschewed girls, ate meals together, debated why one shouldn’t drink pepsi etc., and prayed in a paper storage room in the basement, which they had secured from the head of business via petition. I liked sitting with them, teasing them to try and convert me, enjoying the childish disposition of a sexless all-boy crowd. Eventually Ahmed gave up on rap music and masturbating, at which point we had nothing in common anymore.
Umut, the school bully, was hostile to the delegation’s message of piety. He only identified as Muslim occasionally for contrarian purposes. A few days after 9/11, for example, he phoned me to include me in his celebrations (“We fucked you! We fucked you!”). Another time, he mocked the Islamic delegation as a bunch of terrorists (their righteousness intimidated him). At least he was pragmatic, hating us Jews for our depravity while respecting our keen business sense. He and several other sons of shady businessmen made up the entrepreneurial branch of our school. IBS was fertile ground for such business. There was a healthy balance of supply and demand, of capitalists and consumers, of criminal energy and diplomatic immunity.
Only weeks into the school year, Umut started co-opting receptive members of the diplomatic class. Soon, he had two South African diplomats working for him. Among them: Anthony, who became my best friend at the school. Anthony had been a genius soccer player when we met, courted by professional teams, but unfortunately more gratifying forms of fun got to him first. From then on, he spent most of his time thinking up ways to afford him them. And so, when Umut beckoned, Anthony followed. He was to become his most credible employee, riding the train down to the police state of Bavaria with a conspicuous supply of coffee.
Alpay completed the business class. I got along with him. He had grown up without his father, who had spent the first 15 years of his son’s life in jail for stabbing the head of a prominent Lebanese clan. Although Alpay aspired to be otherwise, he was mild-mannered and conscientious. Regrettably, he was derailed by the expectations of the rich German kids he palled around with. When he got drunk he felt like he needed to live up to their stereotypes. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t fight. He would bellow insults, pump his fists, and invariably end up bloodied on the ground, making excuses. Then he would call Umut for back-up.
The sons and daughters of open mobsters were looked down upon by those students whose parents had made it to more legitimate money. This small group was almost entirely made up of Eastern Europeans, some of them with questionable Jewish credentials. Alfred, my other best friend at the school, the son of a cultural leader in Berlin’s Jewish community, had the scoop on them: Ukranian conmen. The Versaces, as we called them, found the lax policies of the school altogether convenient — more time to buy things that distinguished them from the rabble (preferably something with a brand-name visible from outer space). To them, an English education was just another asset among Italian suits and French handbags. But their royal masks would slip as soon as they felt intimidated. Then they’d invoke the goons which their fathers apparently still kept on payroll. Rebecah, the only girl in our class, was loosely affiliated with the Versaces, but, beautiful and refined as she was, exuded the sense that she was too good for all of us, which may well have been true.
Anjem was a midget that derived great pleasure from being duplicitous. Among teachers, he had the reputation of being the only serious student in our class; he dressed managerially, spoke beautiful German and English, and actually did the reading. Amongst his fellow students, he had the more accurate reputation of being a depraved pervert. He would sell CD-ROMs containing hardcore pornography to the students of the younger classes. Frau Bauer, the German teacher, and the most dedicated member of the staff, fell in love with Anjem. Discussing literature, he would give detailed explanations of characters and their motives, eliciting loving sighs from her. “Take an example in Anjem,” she once said while scolding me. “He is such a fine Bengali.” Sitting behind her, he giggled cheekily. Anjem had the sense to leave the school before it derailed him. When he did, Frau Bauer invited him to a party at her house. The story made the rounds that he had managed to sleep with her. She soon disappeared from IBS altogether.
In the meantime, my good friend Anthony stopped attending classes. He was clearly quite sick, though no one knew what it was. Every week or so, he would wake up lying on the street, bleeding from his mouth, unsure what had occurred. Epilepsy turned out to be the culprit. Unfortunately, Antony couldn’t stop smoking weed, so the attacks became more regular occurrences, and his habit kept him selling for Umut. As his brain deteriorated, he started to lose much of the products he was vending. After running up over a thousand Euros in debt, Umut’s friends took to his house. Little did they know, Anthony’s mother was a retired army officer, a veteran of the Angolan war, who didn’t like being blackmailed. She defended the apartment with a kitchen knife, and quickly persuaded the flustered gang to bail. She was harder on Anthony. I brought him to the airport the next day, a bruise on his face. His family back home had been instructed to ignore him. Before long, he ended up in prison for stealing a relative’s television.
As a rule of thumb, principals only lasted a semester at the school. Mrs. Wispen was a senile old lady that called spontaneous assemblies to decry the state of the boys’ bathrooms. Mr. Lodge was an old military man who would wander through the school with his arms folded behind his back, muttering to himself. Mr. Rodfield was a heavyset, gruff middle-aged buffoon that once held an impromptu assembly to announce that the weed-stench outside the school gates had prompted a police investigation (thus foiling said investigation). While principals and teachers disappeared, even the most violent students remained. The school was a business. It was near impossible to get kicked out. After all: why kick out your cash cows?
Unfortunately, for all co-conspirators, there was a glitch in the racket: eventually, in order to graduate, all students had to take A-levels exams. This meant outside scrutiny, an empirical measurement of the academic quality of an institution designed only to provide the appearance of excellence. Every year, around the same time, the teachers and administrators looked sick with panic. Several were let off when the results came. As our year’s final exams drew closer, we were encouraged to hire home tutors. (“If they’re doing their job, why do you all need tutors?” my father asked, calling from overseas.) The trickier ones amongst them suggested that we hire them as tutors. We were all signed up to take exams in our native languages, because they were tailored towards second language speakers and guaranteed us at least one good grade.
With a week left, even Mr. Burtonsmith, head of business, started to take an interest in our progress. Sitting in on an English class, he looked at us quizically and kept scribbling in his notebook. Towards the end, he took Ms. Fallon outside for a talk. “The standard of English in this class is appalling,” students from the class below us heard him say. It was a sign of things to come. When the standardized exams came from England, few of my fellow students understood them. Out of twenty, only two of us passed; Vajinda and I were the only half-way capable English speakers.
Lawsuits followed. The Russian delegation sued the school for millions. It shut down shortly after. The African diplomats were sent back home, where they became bricklayers, preachers, restaurant owners. Yazan returned to the gulf to engage in confused polygamy. Anjem went to Harvard. Umut killed a guy, went to prison, was deported back to Turkey. Ahmed became a full-time fundamentalist and part-time chemistry student. Anthony returned to the city two years later with a faceful of scars and a genuine devotion to Jesus.
Mr. Burtonsmith, the head of business, fled to the Middle East. Two Years later he returned to the site, on a wave of Emirate money. Soon after, the school building reopened under a new name: The Oxford School.
(Note: In the hope of avoiding legal recourse, all names of brands and people in this story have been changed.)