PHOTOGRAPHY AND TEXT BY BERT STEPHANI
Flanders, the North part of Belgium, has a good and affordable public school system. That is: if you can get your child in. A lot of schools struggle with too little capacity for too many kids. And in more and more establishments, the only way to get your son or daughter in, is to camp at the school’s gate long before registrations open for the next year. My twelve year old son is very much looking forward to start high school in september, but to make that happen I had to go through the camping ordeal myself.
Last year people started to queue around midnight, so my plan was to drive by the school to check the situation the evening before registration. But at ten in the morning I received a phone call from a friend who told me that if I wanted my son in, I’d better jump in my car. I dropped everything and rushed out. Generally the atmosphere was relaxed as everyone present at that point was pretty sure to get their kid in. As the hours progressed more and more people, armed with sleeping bags, tents, camping chairs and food started to occupy the sidewalk. Food and drinks were shared with friends and strangers while laughter filled the air.
As the sun set, the atmosphere stayed pleasant but some paranoia began creeping in. None of us knew the exact number of places available but we could guess by looking at the crowd that most spots would be filled by now—yet more people kept arriving. The first person in the queue had started a list and we all agreed that it was only fair to enter in the order in which we'd arrived. But would the latecomers respect this? Every parent knows how far a mother or father can go to get the best for his or her child.
Around midnight the temperature dropped to just above freezing and most retreated to their sleeping bags, trying to get at least a bit of uncomfortable sleep. After only a couple of hours, people started to get up, in desperate need to get their blood circulation going again. It was collectively decided to start lining up according to the order of the list. New people kept arriving and you could see some of them evaluating their options to bypass the queue; but people who have been waiting for a long day and a cold night can be a menacing crowd so luckily, none of the latecomers took the risk of being lynched.
Eventually we were let in and one by one, we orderly registered our kids. I was exhausted but very happy I got my son in. The effort had paid off but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for all those people who would be told the school was full. My son got in because I have the freedom to arrange my own agenda, the local friends to let me know when the queuing started, the physical ability to endure a cold night and friends and family who brought me hot drinks and took care of the kids. But how would you do it if you were a single mom with three kids, had a boss who wouldn't let you take time off and nobody to help out?
I don’t blame the school or even the bastard who decided to start that line at eight in the morning. But I do blame politicians who don’t look further than the next elections.