Greta’s teacher – about the activist’s difficult years

Foto: Kristina Sahlén och TT
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Greta Thunberg turns the world upside down with her potent speeches and her engagement for the environment and the climate. Back home in Sweden her teacher and mentor, Anita von Berens, follows the development.
– I think what she’s doing is fantastic.
Last friday, she has participated, as have millions of other adults and children, in the world-wide manifestation for climate action.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg’s teacher Anita von Berens lives in an apartment that is filled with books. She has recently retired after having worked as a teacher for 40 years.

Today, Friday 27 September 2019, she has marched side by side with students on the streets of Stockholm in a strike for the climate.

When Greta Thunberg told her, just over a year ago, that she was intending to take time off from school on Fridays to go on strike for the climate, Anita could never dream that Greta’s strike would have such an impact throughout the world. Anita explained that as a teacher, she believed Greta should be in school.

But when Greta asked her to join her at the inception of the strike Anita came. Sometimes when Anita was free from teaching she would sit with Greta for a couple of hours – sometimes she would come for a little while just to say hello.

–      I saw that she was doing something that was good for her. And my goal was to support her both with regards to her school work and to her general wellbeing.  Some knowledge can also be acquired outside of the classroom, out in the community, says Anita von Berens.

Since Greta Thunberg started her school strike just over a year ago, the climate movement, Fridays for future, has accelerated like a hurricane around the world at a breathtaking speed with 16-year old Greta Thunberg as its figurehead. Several millions of students all around the world have chosen to do the same thing as Greta Thunberg – go on strike from school in their cities for the sake of the climate.

Now Greta Thunberg is in the US and earlier on in the week, on 23 September, she held an emotional speech to world leaders at the 2019 UN  climate action summit in New York. Her message was crystal clear: Adults with power and money must begin to take responsibility, listen to the scientists, act for the environment and not steal from their children’s future.

–      I think what she’s doing is fantastic, says Anita von Berens.

During the entire week, students, all around the world, have striked, had meetings, spoken to the media and tried to make an impact. Today, Friday 27 September, the climate week culminates with a major strike for the climate. Students are also calling upon adults to leave their places of work and go on strike for the climate in the places where they live.

School attendance is compulsory in Sweden, but individual teachers choose to handle the school-striking students in different ways.

Some of them take their students with them and go on strike while others stay behind in classrooms with empty chairs. The parents of some students are contacted and the children’s absenteeism reported while others are offered help to catch up on what they have missed at school.

For Anita von Berens it goes without saying that the knowledge and experiences acquired by the striking students should be used in the classroom. At the same time she also recognises the importance of considering the individual reasons for going on strike. For example, do the students have enough motivation to catch up on what they have missed by themselves or do they need extra support?

–      When it comes to Greta, she’s very intelligent and learns a lot when she’s interested in something. Her climate engagement is something she’s managed on her own, but I have also tried to give her as nurturing an environment as possible to help her cope in difficult times.

In the family’s book “Scenes from a heart”, which was published at almost the same time as Greta began her strikes, the parents describe Greta as having a photographic memory. In the fifth grade she could rattle off all the capital cities of the world backwards and forwards. And the Periodic Table.

But she also had an eating disorder, was depressed and lost 10 kilos. The only person she spoke to outside of the family was her teacher Anita von Berens who had been her teacher since the fourth grade.

Greta’s mother Malena Ernman describes in the book how Anita von Berens takes Greta under her wing when she can’t cope with being in the classroom any longer:

“Greta’s teacher gives her lessons in her spare time. Two hours a week, during breaks and free periods, in the library. In secret. It’s enough to enable Greta to pass all her subjects in the fifth grade. Without that teacher nothing would have worked. Nothing.”

–      When I began teaching Greta in the fourth grade I saw straight away that she was a very quiet child. And as a teacher I’ve always listened with an extra ear to those who seldom talk. Greta only spoke when spoken to but if she could act in a play her classmates thought she was so good, says Anita von Berens.

The school psychologist and also Anita von Berens suspected as early as in the fourth grade that Greta Thunberg was a high-functioning student with Aspergers, but her parents Svante Thunberg and Malena Ernman write in their book that they found it difficult to accept that Greta might be autistic.

In the fifth grade Anita von Berens noticed that Greta Thunberg had become even more withdrawn and she was very unwell.  She had got anorexia. And in the end she couldn’t cope with going to school. At that stage Anita offered to teach Greta in her spare time in the school library.

–      We worked by ourselves through the whole of the fifth grade. I started by reading for her. But with time I began to teach her. It wasn’t popular amongst my colleagues that I used so much of my free time to help Greta but that didn’t bother me, says Anita von Berens.

When Greta Thunberg finally began to overcome her eating disorder and she started gaining weight her family could start with a neuropsychiatric evaluation:

It turned out, the family writes in the book, that Greta had Aspergers, high functioning autism, OCD, compulsive syndrome and was even regarded as having selective mutism but, according to the evaluation, she would most probably grow out of the latter by herself.

Greta moved to a school for students with Aspergers but after a few weeks her parents phoned and asked if Anita could possibly go and see her at the school and after a while they asked if she could even apply for a position there.

Anita started working at the school and taught Greta in a small group of six students. Anita also stayed with her during all her breaks and ate separately with her since at that time she couldn’t eat together with other students because of her previous eating disorder.

–      I stayed with her the whole time for the remainder of the sixth grade. And in the seventh grade we carried on in the same way. And she also came home to me during leisure time. We baked together, made apple purée and sometimes she also brought a classmate. In the eighth grade we sat and sewed  stage clothes. I did all of this because at times like these she talked and was happy. I think I became her best friend, teacher and extra mother during those years, she says.

Foto: Kristina Sahlén

Greta went back to school in the ninth grade after having been on strike every Friday for a period before the elections but none of the other students could embrace what her environmental engagement was all about. She became frustrated that nobody cared and she no longer wanted to go to school. Eventually her parents managed to secure a place at Kringlaskolan, in Södertälje, where she was offered an adapted education so she could continue her involvement with the school strike.

– I felt that I didn’t want to go with her there. It was too far to commute to Södertälje, she says.

But the friendship remained. Before Greta was about to go to the US her parents phoned Anita and said that she wanted to see her.

–      She said she wanted to see me and her horse before she left so then I understood my value, says Anita von Berens and laughs heartily.

Why do you think that just you and Greta could have such good chemistry? And what made you become so engaged?

–      Quite frankly, I don’t know. We just had good chemistry. When Greta was at her lowest she needed somebody outside of the family and I felt that there was nobody else there right then. And I also got on very well with her family. But I’ve always cared a lot about the weaker students. In the schools I’ve worked at I’ve always been assigned the students who’ve needed some extra care and attention. I both see and hear the students who aren’t otherwise noticed, she says.