What German Students Taught an American Author

By Tom Leveen

If it were up to me, American high school and college students would spend a mandatory year living abroad before a degree of any kind is conferred. This trip would be fully funded by the United States government. It’s difficult to quantify how exposure to a different culture can change one’s perspective for the better.

As a sophomore (tenth grade), I had the privilege of spending a week in London with several other students, during which we hit all the usual tourist spots and attended several musicals. It was a good trip, but honestly, I was too young to fully appreciate the new surroundings and the history of a city so much older than any in the States.

The next time I traveled overseas, I was 41 and brought my wife of nine years. I had become a published author with companies like Random House, and my German-translation publisher, Hanser, flew us to Germany for a ten-day book tour in cooperation with the embassy.

There are many things to recount – amazing German hospitality, breathtakingly intelligent students, gorgeous scenery… from the moment we first arrived in Göttingen, we were entranced.

Then came our trip to the Dachau memorial.

As my wife and I stood on the gravel yard of the Dachau work camp, we could not help but hear the voice of a presidential candidate back in our home country, who that very day had publicly made barely oblique threats to a Muslim foreign head of state.

“That’s how it starts,” we both said to each other. That’s exactly how places like this camp build their foundations: with violent, arrogant words. While we are both proud to be Americans, we were also filled with a sad rage that someone who is trying to become the “most powerful man on Earth” could show – on the world stage – such immaturity, ignorance, and lack of respect. What must the rest of the planet think of us? We were embarrassed, ashamed, and outraged to be in any way associated with that kind of pointless vitriol – the type of which is heard over and over again from our country, I’m afraid. If this is what our leadership has to offer, maybe we really are doomed.

Overwhelmed, we decided to leave the memorial and walk back to the bus station. On that walk, we discovered Dachau also happens to be a quiet, scenic town, the kind of place we wouldn’t mind living in if (when?) we ever moved to Germany as we were invited many times to do by our hosts.

Not long afterward, I did a book reading and question-and-answer session with students aged fourteen to eighteen and had the honor of having dinner with several of them. They’re called the Book Stars and are associated with the Carl-Schurz-Haus / Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut. Most (I think all) of these students are fluent in at least two languages; one of them could call upon four languages if need be. That’s unheard of where I come from. These students were bright, eager, and exhibited a joy for reading and learning that touched my heart.

The occasion for our trip surrounded the publication of my novel, Random, or, in German, Ich hätte es wissen müssen (I should have known), which is about a girl accused of cyberbullying another student. The German students I met on this book tour all responded readily to the story, showing that Western teens are really quite similar in their thoughts and concerns. They easily grasped the theme of the novel which examines the consequences of treating another human being as “less than.”

Upon returning home after a life-changing time in Germany, I received an email from one of the Book Stars. He told me (and gave his permission to share this story) that after our time together discussing the book, he saw a younger boy being insulted and pushed around by a group of other students. This Book Star said he probably would have kept walking, but now – having read the book and learned more about what other people might be going through – he stopped and told the group to leave the younger boy alone. Which they did.

Imagine that. A student, all of fourteen years old, stopping to make a difference in the life of someone he did not know, simply because it was the right thing to do. I have no doubt his fellow Book Stars would have done the same thing.

Hearing his story gives me hope. Hearing about a generation of German students eager to read about other perspectives and talk about them tells me the world isn’t as doomed as it felt that chilly day on the grounds of Dachau. Our nations and peoples can work together and resolve differences without resorting to rhetoric or violence. I, for one, would vote this Book Star into high office if I could.

Our students and our children are at risk from people seeking power and domination. The students I met in Germany all sought understanding and common ground. I’ve met many students in my book talks here in the States who seek the same thing.

Let’s continue to find them, encourage them, and support them. Let’s send them to other countries to really learn what perspectives other people have in the world. Giving them such an opportunity, they may save us all from ourselves.

Thank you, Germany! We are looking forward to seeing you again.

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Tom Leveen is the author of seven English-language novels, including the German-translated Party and Random. His novel Zero was voted a Best Book of 2013 by the Young Adult Library Services Association. He brings more than two decades of theater experience to his book talks and presentations.