GESS50: Interview with Dr. Ines von Uexküll

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When we look back at 50 years of GESS history, there are certain individuals who truly stand out as once having been the anchors, steerers and guiding lights of the school and its vision. One such individual is Dr. Ines, Baroness von Uexküll Güldenband, whose love for the school went beyond a mere sense of duty and responsibility to one of true care and personal investment. For her special contributions to education abroad in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, she received the Federal Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1992.

In October 2021, Dr. Ines von Uexküll passed away at the age of 96. But a few months prior to that, we were fortunate enough to record an audio interview with her, with the valuable support of her son, Mr. Nicolai von Uexküll.

Here is what Dr. von Uexküll had to say about a school so close to her heart!

Here you can watch an excerpt of our interview with Dr. Ines von Uexküll.

Tell us a bit more about yourself!

My name is Dr. Ines von Uexküll and I have a very special relationship with this school. For 18 years, from 1974 to 1992, my family lived in Singapore. 15 years of which I spent teaching at the German School Singapore (DSS). I taught different subjects like German, French and History. For a while, I was the principal of the school but mostly I acted as deputy principal.

What brought you to Singapore at that time?

My husband and I have spent our entire professional lives in Asia. As early as 1954, we moved to Hong Kong where I taught at the Goethe Institute. At that time there was no German school there. In 1963, we moved to Tokyo where I taught at the German school until we moved to Singapore in 1974.

What was Singapore like when you arrived here?

At that time, Singapore was more traditional; it was exciting but also still quite a sleepy city. Orchard Road was just being converted into a one-way street, the Mandarin Hotel at the time was the tallest building in all of Singapore and this didn’t change until 1981. The downtown area had rows of small Chinese shophouses, stretching along almost all of Orchard Road. The streets were narrow and there were still strips of jungle. There were many beautiful black and white colonial houses and we were very lucky to reside in one of the most beautiful ones.

There were many street cats and dogs and before long, we had saved quite a few animals from death. We had a total of 19 cats, 7 dogs, 2 snakes, one armadillo, 5 horses and 5 geese. The horses, however, lived at the Saddle Club. A jungle connected our house to the riding club and often my children rode the horses to our house. They didn’t have to cross a single road in those days. It was an absolutely fantastic time.

When did you start working at the German School?

A few months after we arrived in Singapore, in 1974. I couldn’t sit still for long and longed to teach children. After all, that was my profession.

What was the school like back then?

The resources were extremely modest. There were only a few classrooms. And there were almost no school activities beyond the classroom. There was often a shortage of teachers. The number of students was constantly increasing and the infrastructure could not quite keep up. Fortunately, I had some particularly nice and always helpful colleagues who helped bridge the gaps. With a lot of dedication and imagination we had to find solutions ourselves.

We offered children the stimulation they needed to grow intellectually. Along with it, we also found it important to offer reality checks to help them understand that they were growing up in extremely privileged circumstances. It was important for them to internalise that all people – no matter their background or financial situation – are equal.

Back then, a big problem was the constant coming and going of students. Families were often transferred to other countries. This caused considerable emotional problems and stress for many children and the class dynamics were affected. For this reason, I organised many theater performances with the students.

There were also various activities in-house, such as ballad and song recitals, which the children helped to organise and participated in. We always kept our house open to the school for this and had many other events with the children or individual classes at our house.

Thanks to our many pets, it was a comfortable and familial environment for the children. Class parties were organised for younger students. Among other things, the older students made up their own Punch and Judy shows to perform to the younger ones.

For me, the children’s commitment to the Singapore animal shelter was extremely important. In addition to the classroom lessons, the children were taught other values; self-confidence and commitment were promoted. The children participated in street collections for the SPCA, the animal shelter, and for other aid organisations on Flag Day. On several occasions, the children of the German School collected the most donations on Flag Day, often by a wide margin. At their best, the children collected 12,000 Singapore dollars in one day.

Another big problem we faced was the growing competition from other schools. They had a better budget and much more support from their governments and authorities. The German School on the other hand had to fight even for the recognition of the teaching level – i.e. the German school leaving certificates. This cost me a lot of extra time. I often had discussions with parents to keep their children at the school or to win them over to the school. We were only able to do this with the commitment of extracurricular activities.

For this reason, I tried to inspire the children with plays and other stimuli. At the same time, I wanted them to recognise their privileges and not take their situation for granted.

Tell us more about the theatre plays you have organised!

There were 13 plays in total, which I brought to life in my own time with the support of a few of my dear colleagues. One of them – “No admission for teachers” – I wrote myself. Some I remember fondly are “Arsenic and Lace”, “Charley’s Aunt” and “The Ghost of Montevideo”. This included regular rehearsals, building sets, and advertising so that we could play to full houses.

There were also several ballad and song recitals and other performances that I prepared with the children and which were performed in our home in the most ceremonious manner.

These performances strongly fostered class bonds and also helped the children to become confident. They really grew through their roles.

One of my most vivid memories is witnessing the children beaming with pride on stage after spending many hours with them. Inspired by these experiences, one student even became an actor and another a theater director.

How many students did the school have when you joined?

In 1975, there were about 45 students. Almost all of them lived in Watten Estate at that time, where our house was.

They were all transported to school by a single school bus. The bus driver was called “Bobby” and he was especially popular with all the students. A particularly warm and appreciated person. Among other things, he put on music and the children often sang along together. This contributed greatly to the children getting along with each other better and also to friendships forming. Everyone was upset and deeply saddened when he was dismissed one day.

What few know is that the beginnings of the German School took place partly in our house – 126 Watten Estate Road! Before our arrival in Singapore, German children were taught in 2 rooms in our house. This was between the years 1970 – 1973. There were about 10 children between the ages of 5 and 8.

Are there any funny anecdotes you would like to share?

There are many anecdotes and funny stories. One story that I remember particularly fondly is a prank played by a boy who was shy at first and was teased by many. He took a lead role in one of the plays and became a confident and a sociable student. He found an alarm bell during the demolition of a house, which he then always rang 15 minutes before the end of lessons and he had blocked our school bell with paper. Because of that, he was able to extend the breaks by 15 minutes. His prank was covered up by all his accomplices (there were many of them!) and was only discovered a few days later. Just like that he suddenly became the hero of the whole school!

Have you been back to Singapore since then?

Since we moved away in 1992, I have been there several more times. But the feeling was very different. Without my school, without our house and without the animals, it had become very foreign for me.

What would you like to wish GESS for its 50th anniversary?

My beloved school is now 50 years old and has received the honourable title of “German European School Singapore” a few years ago. I congratulate our school and especially all students and teachers on this special occasion!

I am sure that there will be many more occasions to celebrate GESS!

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