Letter from America 3: Stevenson celebrates 40 years!
The agenda for the Thursday Staff Meeting came through to us on the internal email. Curiously, none of the points to be discussed bore the Principal’s initials. When we arrived in the LMC (Library Media Centre) we were served cakes and cookies (again), and on the tables there were little baskets filled with a variety of little offerings. I was intrigued.
Apart from a few minutes of announcements by the Principal, all the major items were presentations made by members of staff or education administrators, ranging from classroom assessment to a video communication by the Education Superintendent of the local authority. The item that caught my attention was given the title of “Peer Conflict Mediation”, led by a member of staff, and followed by some twelve students. These students had been hand picked from the top two year groups to serve as official go-betweens in solving conflicts amongst students, and might be the first port of call in such instances before the school administration were called in. The little baskets on the staff tables contained little offerings by each of them that reflected something of their personality and talents. These ranged from little bags of candy, to post-it notes, and one even left his calling card! They each gave a mini-presentation via a microphone (Stevenson has a large number of staff!) and explained who they were, described their own talents, and said why they chose their offering to the staff. I was impressed at their self-confidence. They all came across as well-rounded human beings who would conscientiously fulfil their duties as mediators.
That morning, during my 4th hour, a visitor called on my classroom. She turned out to be a representative of the
Teachers’ Union, and she came to bid me welcome to Livonia and brought with her a bag of gifts. As I was in the middle of a class, I left opening it until after school. When I did open it, I found it was not only full of all those little items that you find useful in life (key-rings, torches, pens and writing pads), but also chocolate, caramel toppings and the naughty things that pick you up after a tiring day in the classroom. When I get back to the UK, I will have to contact ATL to find out why my 25 years of membership has never even merited a pencil sharpener.
The 40th Anniversary
The Principal announced at the staff meeting that Stevenson would be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its foundation on October 21st. To commemorate the event, all students would receive an engraved pencil, and all staff were given a specially designed T-shirt bearing the school crest and a creative re-wording of the school motto: “Striving for XL-ence; learning for life”. It only occurred to the most savvy that XL was also chosen for its numerical value! I now find my Stevenson wardrobe expanding exponentially! Furthermore, 2,500 cup-cakes had been ordered so that students and staff could enhance their mid-morning lunch break (and their midriffs)!
A trip to San Diego
The natural flow of my teaching engagement at Stevenson was interrupted for five days by a trip down to San Diego, California, to attend a Fulbright Fall Workshop. These workshops are deliberately organised in highly desirable locations and in smart hotels so that exchangees can mix business with pleasure, and return to their schools feeling uplifted. This workshop, however, was intended principally for teachers serving in California. My arrival from Michigan caused more than a ripple of surprise when they learned I had taken two flights and my journey via Phoenix, Arizona had been over 2000 miles and had crossed three time zones (so big is America!). San Diego, only 10 miles from the Mexican border, is one of those sunshine venues that enjoy an annual average temperature of 70 degrees, a place to which many Americans in the north hope to retire. Amongst many enthralling aspects, the highlight of the visit for me was to climb aboard the USS Midway and discover a little of what life was like on the biggest aircraft carrier in the world. This carrier was built in only 23 months, and was completed in 1945, just before the end of WW2, but went on to serve in many later world conflicts. It can only be described as a floating city, accommodating nearly 5000 personnel and hundreds of aircraft, and boasting the full services of a post office branch to safeguard the letters and parcels that were the human lifeline between servicemen and their families. The sick-bay, too, was a busy place, the most frequent injuries being to the head, caused by sharp edges and cramped conditions.
When I returned to Stevenson High School, all my students wanted to hear about San Diego. I thought at first this was a cute way of keeping me from the purpose of my lessons, but I quickly found out that southern California holds eternal fascination for them. “Did ya have a great vacation, Mr Burns? Did ya go swimmin’ ‘n surfin’? Bet the Mexican food was cool!” What I found truly amazing, and being so close to Mexico, was how little Spanish was spoken by the white community. Perhaps a clear indication of the social and political status of a language that is associated with poverty and the source of much of the rampant drug industry that is claiming hundreds of lives south of the border.
Segregation lives on?
As I was sitting on a bus to the airport in San Diego, an elderly lady sitting next to me leaned over in a posture of conspiracy, and quietly announced to me that we were the only two white Caucasians on the bus! I pretended to follow up on her observation and answered her as kindly as I could with a “well, isn’t that amazing!” which seemed to keep her satisfied. She then complained excessively about the speed of the bus, until I realised it was being driven by an African-American. When I arrived at the airport, a headline in USA Today caught my attention, revealing that Rosa Parks had just died at the age of 92. This lady became a powerful symbol of the black liberation movement in the 1950s when she refused to obey a law in Montgomery which stated that a black person always had to give up their seat on a bus if there was a white person standing. Rosa Parks refused to obey the law and was fined $14. This action heralded the beginning of a yearlong boycott of the public transportation system by the black community in Montgomery, and saw the rise of Martin Luther King whose influence, and tragic death, brought about major changes in modern American society. I thought again about the lady on the San Diego bus and wondered if she had read the same headlines.
When I got back to Michigan, I discovered that Rosa Parks had eventually moved to Michigan and, in fact, had been
living in Detroit, just a few miles down the road from Stevenson High. Not only that, but the very bus on which she had staged that famous protest, number 2857, is now an exhibit in the Henry Ford museum of motoring in Dearborn. Perhaps I’ll sit on her seat and turn to an elderly San Diego lady next to me and say conspiratorially (in the words of Jesse Jackson): “D’you realise that Rosa Parks sat down so that black people throughout America could stand tall?”