German exchange chaperones Sascha Ruf (left) and Michaela Burger (right) took time Monday to relax and catch up with conversation in the home of Sandy Creek High School German Teacher Bill Bryan. (Photo by Danny Harrison)
German exchange chaperones Sascha Ruf (left) and Michaela Burger (right) took time Monday to relax and catch up with conversation in the home of Sandy Creek High School German Teacher Bill Bryan. (Photo by Danny Harrison)

Thirty-six years ago, Bill Bryan, now the German teacher at Sandy Creek High School, got his first glimpse of Germany while on a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship in the summer of 1979. He was based at the Goethe-Institut in Blaubeuren, near Ulm.

From that point, there was no going back. He was in love with German culture.

Of course, he did have to physically go back after the summer experience ended, but four years later he returned.

“I scraped together some money and all my accumulated vacation leave and spent 54 days in Germany, visiting friends and exploring,” Bryan said.

During that time, he spent a week in a little village called Himmelsreich (means “realm of Heaven”) just outside Freiburg, which is a town in the southwest of the country, on the western edge of the legendary Black Forest, just north of Switzerland and just east of France.

Bryan remembers sleeping in a room above the cows on that farm, and he says he went hiking daily in the Black Forest.

Freiburg is also a few kilometers south of Offenburg, Germany, which is home to Oken Gymnasium, whose students not quite two weeks ago arrived here in Fayette County as part of a cultural exchange with Sandy Creek High School and Bryan’s German classes. All being well, Bryan and several of his students will reciprocate with a visit to Offenburg in June.

If you’re still hung up on the word “gymnasium”, no, this is not a gymnastics group who have come to visit. Gymnasium is a type of prep school, not an all-sports institution, though they do have sports options.

In fact, one of the German chaperones, Sascha Ruf, a fourth-year English and Physical Education teacher at the gymnasium, is a semi-pro soccer (or “football”, as they say in most of the rest of the world) player. Before becoming a full-time teacher, he was a pro with Lahr City.

The group’s other chaperone is 15-year teacher Michaela Burger, who instructs in English, German and Social Learning at the gymnasium. When Burger isn’t laden with her professional responsibilities, she enjoys studying Hellenic culture. She is literate in both ancient and modern Greek.

Together, Ruf and Burger 16 gymnasium students to Fayette County on April 6. They spent that first week in the country enjoying “spring break”, and the students got their first American classroom experiences this past Monday when school resumed after the break.

During the break, the German students and their American counterparts visited the preserved antebellum town of Madison as well as the University of Georgia campus in Athens. At UGA, the group heard from Germanic & Slavic Studies Department Head Martin Kagel.

“That surprised me,” Bryan said. “I didn’t know they had done that for us.”

Ruf and Burger say they are enjoying their returns to the States. Both have been in the country before, but neither have been to Georgia, or even to the Southeast for that matter, until now.

Both say the vastness of the country and of Georgia fascinates them, as does the scale of so many other things American. Food and drink portions, for example, at restaurants are much bigger, for better or worse, than what you’d find in Germany. Distances between homes and other buildings are greater.

And so far, the both say encounters with the locals have been positive.

“Americans are very polite and friendly,” Burger said.

One big difference to Ruf and Burger is that generally speaking American teachers get their own classrooms. In Germany, or at their gymnasium, at least, teachers have to move from classroom to classroom while students typically stay put.

“We are jealous,” Burger laughed.

“For many Germans, it’s a real dream to come to America,” Burger said.

Perhaps so, but Bryan says its a bit of a dream come true for him, too.

“These guests are the real deal,” Bryan says, explaining that this visit represents one of the most significant teaching experiences he will be able to offer his German language students all year.

“I’m not a native German, and I’m so not a teenager,” Bryan said. “We will make full use of them while they’re here.”

Bryan said the German guests will spend time in his classroom conversing with his own students, helping them sharpen their German-speaking skills and helping them get a better insight into life in Germany and into modern-day culture there.

“This is very valuable to us,” Bryan said.

And then in June, Bryan’s dream of returning to his beloved corner of Germany will come true.

While in Germany, Bryan’s Sandy Creek students will get the same treatment as the German students are getting here. In fact, Burger and Ruf say they will put the American teens to good use in their English classes, speaking English and speaking about life in the States.

And they’ll have fun, too, touring bits of Germany, France and Switzerland.

“It’ll be summer, so we can pretty much do a lot,” Burger said.