A wall divides a Md. school, then unites it

This November marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Washington Post Editor Marc Fisher, who served as The Post's Berlin correspondent in 1989, remembers the jubilation on the streets and reflects on the lasting legacy of the fall of the wall.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009; 7:41 PM

It was 1989 all over again: a wall dividing East and West, long lines, passport checks.

But this time the confused spokesman who announced that the borders were open was the principal of the German School Washington, the wall was made of plywood and foam, not concrete, and it simply kept two sides of a school apart, not two sides of a city.

The wall fell in Potomac Monday at 2:25 p.m., to the celebration of 150 fifth- through 12th-graders who were marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the real one in Berlin.

"One of the most surprising things were the reactions people gave you," said Miles Haggerty, 17, whose mother grew up in West Germany and who played the role of a guard Monday on the communist eastern side of the border. Some students were defiant when he checked their documents, he said, "but some people actually started crying."

Students arriving Monday morning had to line up to go through "Checkpoint Charlie" -- in Berlin, the main border crossing between east and west, and in Potomac, the school's front door. The lines stretched dozens of feet, all the way into the parking lot, and they shocked parents and students, most of whom hadn't been warned about the transformation. The border stretched through the entire school. Portions were 12 feet high, the same as the original, and the western side was scrawled with graffiti.

The walls toppled once Principal Waldemar Gries gave the go-ahead.

"This is a very important day in German history," he said. He mentioned the abdication of the Kaiser in 1918, Hitler's attempted coup in 1923 and the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938, all of which share a Nov. 9 anniversary with the fall of the wall.

Steffi Colopy, a science teacher at the school, taught in East Berlin in the 1980s.

"It's very difficult for this age group here to understand how Germany was divided," she said. For her, though, the school's fake walls still had "emotional impact." Even within the school itself, Colopy said that real divisions existed between east and west when she started working there 15 years ago.

"It was sort of a secret" that she was from East Germany, she said. "It didn't go well with some of the teachers and some of the parents," who doubted her credentials. That's long gone, she said.

The school serves 620 students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, is supported by the German government and conducts its classes in German.

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