Gabriele Mathiske was more than a little surprised when everyone in the classroom sprang to their feet, right hand over heart, and started reciting the Pledge of Alliance. There was nothing like that back in East Berlin.

There were political clubs that every child was supposed to join, which had a loyalty oath at the age of 14, a sort of political confirmation. And there were textbooks dripping with dialectical materialism. "The history of every country is the history of class struggle," Mathiske said, jokingly regurgitating a little Marx.

After 20 years of teaching in East Germany, one learns to say things like that. But after the upending of communism all over Eastern Europe last year, Mathiske has to learn everything all over again.

Which is what the 42-year-old is doing as a teacher at Woodbridge High School for the 1990-91 school year. One of the three first -- and with reunification, last -- Fulbright fellows from East Germany, Mathiske has been teaching a German class at the Prince William school for the last month.

"I'm so happy it's Virginia and not some other state," said Mathiske, an English teacher in East Germany who was never allowed to study the language abroad, but nevertheless converses fluently. "It's the cradle of the nation."

And like the homage to Old Glory conducted every morning at her new school, Mathiske has found no small amount of wonder in the little things Americans take for granted.

"I did not have any ideas what America should be like," she said one day after class.

Going from a 600-student school where pupils have no electives to a school with 2,800 students and lots of choices is the most obvious sign of the difference between the two educational systems.

"A very good thing for the individual," she said of the American approach to school. "Our education is sort of collectivist."

But in the United States, students seem more driven by a desire for success instead of excellence for its own sake, she said. One student dropped out of her German class at Woodbridge because she feared she would not be able to earn an "A."

"She panicked," Mathiske said. In East Germany, she said, "There is competition, but not in a way that is self-destructive."

Students are kept together in the same class for all 10 years of mandatory education. And unlike far-flung Prince William County, no one was bused to school in East Berlin. "It was easier for the teacher to have an advantage," she said. "There was a greater familiarity."

But after a fire was set in a classroom last week and the student body was evacuated to the gym, Mathiske was impressed by how orderly almost 3,000 restless youths were. "I was very impressed," she said. "It was a totally disciplined atmosphere."

She also was impressed with how religious many are. One day she asked her class in German what they did over the weekend. Many said they went to church. To an atheist from a country where very few people publicly practiced any kind of religion, that sounded strange, indeed. Recently, Mathiske attended her first church service. In Germany, the only time she was in church was for classical music concerts.

Mathiske arrived in Virginia at the end of August, leaving a daughter, 18, and husband in a country that is being subsumed into a unified Germany this week. Mathiske will get a peek at the new Germany when she ventures home for Christmas vacation, but it will be almost a year until she settles back in her homeland -- after her family spends next summer in the United States.

In some ways, Mathiske said, returning home might be as disorienting as coming to America.

"If you were not allowed to go there {West Germany} for 28 years, what could you learn of the system?" she said. "I will have to learn what the West Germany education system is like by being in it."