What good team spirit is capable of

A possibly record-breaking school class

by Heini Hofmann

The old secondary school in Uetendorf with bell tower, to the left of it the old
primary school Berg; both do not exist anymore. (Picture FWU)

The old village school was more modest compared to today, but not as bad as modernism often discredits it in retrospect, maybe it was even a better life education. The evidence of this is the example of a secondary school class whose team spirit was so strong that, decades after graduation, they were able to realise a class reunion with a class mate who emigrated to Australia when they were still at school.
An almost complete class reunion at the other end of the world, that is probably record-breaking. And also the descendants of this classmate in Down Under, who now, at the age of 80, can be proud of six children, 17 grandchildren and already 17 great grandchildren!

Like a big family

Most of the classmates of Uetendorf Secondary School near Thun who were born in 1938 and left school in 1954, now have 80 years under their belt. Of those 27, however, 11 have already died. At regular school reunions memories are recalled of a school time, when many things were different: In the old secondary school on the Uetendorf mountain with the creaking wooden stairs and the turret, from which the eleven o’clock bell sounded, you sat at wooden boards, wrote with pencil and ink and the teacher with chalk on the blackboard. No calculators, mobile phones or computers and certainly no designer clothes, but woollen jumpers hand-knitted by mother. They carried satchels, the girls wore braids and aprons, the boys short hair and knickerbocker trousers.
The staff room was a wooden bench in front of the schoolhouse, under the open sky, even in winter! PE lessons took place on a forest clearing, with rolled-up trousers and sleeves. In the break there was milk; Uetendorf at that time was still a farming village. And because this school also served other communities in the hill country in front of the Stockhorn Mountains, the pupils - from Thierachern, Uttigen, Seftigen, Gurzelen, Amsoldingen, Uebeschi and Höfen - came with their bicycles or in snowy winters with their skis, one from Höfen even with horse and sledge. For them, there was soup, bread and apples for lunch. In short, the class was like a big family; that bound together.

Farewell and reunion

But in 1950, in the 6th grade, there was a turning point: One day the class teacher announced that Vreni Schärer would leave us – forever. Her family migrated to Australia, that distant continent that was usually hidden on the back of the globe at the front of the classroom. After a cumbersome voyage across the Suez Canal, Vreni arrived in her new home and then sent the class regularly letters with kangaroo and koala pictures, and this favour was returned by the class with letters and calendar photos from the old homeland. However, after the school years, this contact then ebbed away a bit.
Until one day – in 1993, more than 40 years after her emigration – Vreni unexpectedly turned up in Switzerland. And – the old class spirit worked: Within just 24 hours, an almost complete class reunion in Burgdorf near Kirchberg, the birthplace of our expat-classmate, whose name now was Verena Johnson-Schärer, was successfully summoned and Vreni was visibly pleased. She brought her husband Kevin, a nice Australian, and proudly showed the photos of her six children (four daughters, two sons) and the already large number of grandchildren.

Class reunion in the garden of the classmate in Nabiac, Australia. (Picture HHJ)

Crazy class reunion

Everybody reminisced, joked and laughed, and the author jokingly suggested that the next class reunion should be held in Australia. A short silence, a soft murmur, then suddenly from several sides a timid, then more and more decided: “Why not?” The fuse burned, and once again the class spirit was there: The crazy idea was adopted! So it happened that three years later, in September 1996, the majority of the class (including partners) boarded the plane with destination Sydney at Zurich Airport – for a perfectly planned, three and a half week journey through Australia with the – possibly Guinness record-breaking – class reunion at Vreni’s as the highlight!
All were still fit enough, perhaps thanks to break milk and forest gymnastics of yesteryear … The journey took us from Sydney along the east coast via Brisbane and Cairns to Darwin and from there through the middle of the continent via Alice Springs and Ayers Rock to Kangaroo Island and Adelaide – and from there via Singapore back home. But besides all the sightseeing and excursions and the amazement of the mighty natural wonders, including the Great Barrier Reef, the visit to our classmate in Nabiac/NSW, counting just under 600 inhabitants and located upcountry the east coast at the height of Surfers’ Paradise, on the sixth day of the journey, was of course the most emotional highlight of our trip.

Unforgettable experience

Since their retirement Vreni and Kevin have been living on small self-catering farm there, after previously operating a garage in Sydney. Actually, one could call it a subtropical paradise; because the house is surrounded by a magnificent flowery park-like garden, overgrown by tall eucalyptus trees, where wallabies (small kangaroos), wild rabbits and colourful birds are frolicking. Around it are pastures for cattle and horses. A large drinking water cistern serves to bridge the often extreme dry-season.
And what a reception on arrival! Everyone is standing in front of the house waving Bernese and Swiss flags. Obviously the old home has not been forgotten. After eating, drinking and chatting, there is an unplanned climax of the journey: a digestive night walk through the dark outback. No one speaks a word, everybody listens to the strange animal sounds in field, bush and swamp. And above us the southern starry sky sparkles with the magnificent Milky Way and the Southern Cross, as we have never seen it in such intensity, because there is no light pollution. One begins to understand that Vreni has become fond of her new home here.

Little epilogue

Since then, Vreni with her Kevin came to Switzerland once more in 2004, which again was an opportunity for a spontaneous class reunion at Lake Thun, where the two from Down Under (then) were surprised to spot Australian black swans among the white swans. However, these illegal immigrants later fared less well than our legally emigrated Vreni in the land of kangaroos, koalas, and kookaburras. After the death of her husband, she came once more to the old homeland in 2012, accompanied by a son, to visit her almost 100-year-old mother and participate in the 20th class reunion. On her 80th birthday, which she celebrated in Australia as the first of the class, all her six children, 34 grand and great-grandchildren plus relatives met, although they live scattered across half of the continent, 85 people in total. The team spirit lives on in the extended family!
What probably also speaks for the former village school: Even today Vreni writes amazingly beautiful letters by hand in her mother tongue, which she could never use in everyday life, what is more, she writes in an amusing style and almost without mistakes. Think of our email “culture”! In short: the old elementary school, today, from the point of view of permanent school reforms, often ridiculed as “Pestalozzianian”, was definitely much simpler, but maybe this is why it generated close-knit communities. And notabene all students have made something of their lives, both professionally and physically, despite the inexistence of the Internet and the gym. This is not sentimental romanticism, just a statement.     •
(Translation Current Concerns)

Tastings from Vreni‘s Letters

“My grandmother, a ‘Verdingkind’* (‘contract child’) from the village Seftigen, always said that she never needed to go hungry, she had enough potatoes and vegetables but never enough bread. Therefore we, her grandchildren, had to pay attention that no ‘Brösmeli’ (breadcrumb) be left behind, that was a sin in her eyes! If she had to eat bread here (in Australia), it was, for her, less of a sin (to leave breadcrumbs); because our bread is not as good as in Switzerland! But one gets used to everything.”
“On my 80th birthday I became great-grandmother for the 17th time. Once great-grandmother and the 18th grandchild is already on the way. I have a difficult time remembering all the names, let alone the birth dates of everyone! On my Round Birthday, I received a card from the Swiss Consulate in Sidney and from an official in our parish as well. One has to reach the age of 100 in order to receive a card from Queen Elisabeth. That will no longer be possible for me…“
“Due to the dryness, the kangaroos come closer to the houses where the grass is a bit greener. Unfortunately, many are hit by cars in searching for grass. Our 32 year old horse had to be put to sleep by the veterinarian. The first few days for his ‘son‘, also already 23 years old, were difficult, he didn‘t want to eat and simply remained standing under the same tree. Now he‘s doing better and our two dogs are around him often. Even animals have feelings!“

*Verdingkinder – children in Switzerland who were taken from their parents, often due to poverty and sent to live with new families, often poor farmers who needed cheap labour.