Letter from America 4: Two nations divided by the same language

I can’t believe that I am now past the halfway mark of my time here in Michigan. Almost time to be summing up, but not quite.

Divided by the same language? We are two nations divided by the same language. Is it true? Well you judge for

Another of my classes

yourself. In the classroom, we refer to erasers (not rubbers!), checking (not marking or ticking), “turning in” homework (not handing in), “reviewing” (not revising) and behaviour is called “citizenship”. If you are “tardy” you are late, if you are a “junior” you are 16-17 years of age, and you go to the football “game” not match. When you have left “school” you then continue with “school” (college) where you start as a “freshman” all over again. During the school day each “student” (not pupil) will have a “homeroom” (not tutor room) where, at the beginning of the 3rd hour, they will listen to announcements via the PA system (on the school’s 40th birthday, we had a rendering of ‘Happy birthday’ by the school choir!). The school year is divided into “quarters” and “semesters”, holidays are usually referred to as “vacation”, and I will leave you to work out why Wednesdays are “hump” day!

My classroom

Outside the school, your bum-bag is your “fanny pack’(!) and a “fag” is definitely not a cigarette! A Californian PE teacher who had just spent a year teaching in Scotland discovered she couldn’t tell the children “go shag the ball” (fetch the ball) nor could she tell them to “put their fannies on the bench” (sit down)! If you are a car owner, you put “gas” in the tank, and you must know your “trunk” from your “hood” from your “fender” from your “shifter”. As a cyclist, I am frequently obliged to ride on the “sidewalk”, and I have yet to meet a walker sharing the same space! And I love the many and varied observations on life such as “they are as busy as a West Virginia tooth-fairy”!

During one of my classes last week, one of my students popped her head through the door and gave me a little decorated brown paper bag. Guess what was inside? Yes, more candy for the teacher and a note that said:

Thanks for all that you do “The task of the educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts” (C.S.Lewis)

Staff appreciation day I discovered later that it was staff appreciation day, and the student Senate had put together

School trophy cabinet

little appreciation bags for all the staff. Since coming to Michigan, my sugar intake has tripled!

Later that day I discovered the appreciation of the staff had extended to free cinema tickets for November 7th. All we do is take identification to the cinema to qualify, and we can take a guest. I believe some colleagues will start the session at 4pm and try to fit in at least two movies.

We had further visitations to my classroom yesterday by young ladies carrying red buttonhole roses (no, not for the teacher this time!). I noticed some of the boys were wearing ties, and correctly assumed they were performing in some competition that evening. It turned out they were cross-country runners, and the red roses were a token of the school’s appreciation of their efforts, and they would be recognised along the corridors as being special that day. The same happened to the girls swimming team later that week.

“Card marking” The last few days have been a little frenetic for all the staff. We have entered the “card-marking”

Corridor mural

period that effectively concludes the first assessment period for all the students. Many were working overtime to log all their data onto the school system before the deadline. As I battled through the unfamiliar systems for the first time, I couldn’t help remarking on the huge and varied range of surnames amongst my 165 students. There is an Atiyeh, a Correlissen, a Costa and a Depowski, followed by an Dostal, an Eideh, an Elghoul and a Ghannam. And they are just eight names of one of my groups! The colonial and immigrant past of this country has me enthralled. I am such a sad person that I’ve begun reading a sophomore text on the history of the USA, but it’s easy reading with lots of pictures and photos!

Sephardic Jews Talking of immigrants, my attention was caught by an article in today’s copy of the New York Times. Several Hispanic families and communities in the south have recently discovered (some through DNA testing) that they are descendants of Spanish Sephardic Jews that escaped the Inquisition in Spain more than 400 years ago. Some had their suspicions raised because they remember their parents and grandparents observing certain religious rites that did not fit with their espoused Catholicism, but they never talked about it. The impact of the discovery has been so great with some that they have converted (or, as one said, “reverted”) to the Jewish religion and way of life.

Sweet smell of success? In the same edition, they reported a strange, sweet smell (of fudge or caramel) that pervaded the whole of down town Manhattan the other day. Forces were out to investigate its origin and nature, but they eventually decided it was harmless. At first they put the blame on a local chocolatier (sic) but he announced that chocolate in the making has a bitter, not sweet smell. The Mayor of Manhattan, who is currently riding high in the election polls, was asked if this was the “sweet smell of success”, to which he replied enigmatically “Nature should be allowed to take care of its own”.

Halloween has been arriving for several weeks. Gardens have been decorated with all sorts of evil, but friendly looking, ghosts and ghoulies. Children are encouraged to get into the spirit early and choose their costumes for the “trick or treating”. Parents and grandparents wear suitable Halloween colours and buy in the mountains of candy that will inevitably be distributed. I had the opportunity to join a family with young children, dressed like little princesses, and we went out to call on all the neighbours and shout “trick or treat”! The candy changed hands by the kilo and the dentists will be doing good business in a couple of weeks!

A royal coffee. As I was having breakfast this morning, I noticed a small parcel with bags of coffee from New Mexico. I was intrigued by the product description on the packet. The beans are roasted in a Royal#5 replica of an 1890 version of a roaster which “returns to the days when a less hurried pace produced a higher quality product”. This is called “romancing the beans”! I took a flask of it with me to school to find out what it would do to the hustle and bustle of my working day. Would it increase the length of my breaks, I asked myself?

Traffic etiquette. As we were returning from school this afternoon, a school bus stopped in front of us to let children off. What surprised me was that all the traffic, both behind the bus and on the opposite side of the road, stopped until the bus moved away. Apparently it is law that all traffic must stop when children are getting on or off buses. I was immediately struck by the intelligence of such a safety measure.

Positive vibes. I mentioned in an earlier letter the positive visual messaging around the school corridors and classrooms. Every Monday, staff receive in their mailboxes their message of the week, which is to be posted somewhere prominently in the classroom for the students to see. Here are some samples:

You always pass failure on the way to success(Mickey Rooney)

People show their character by what they laugh at(German proverb)

A man should never be ashamed to admit he has been wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday (J.Swift)


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on November 4, 2005, in Letters from America and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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