Letter from America 5: At the heart of America

My host family. Let me tell you about my host family here in Michigan. Their name is Roberge, a family name that



originates in French-speaking Canada. Ed and Libby have three children. Alex their eldest, who was born in Korea and is currently at College in Kalamazoo, was adopted soon after birth. Vince, also at College in Dearborn, is training hard in the world of competitive cycling, and works in Starbucks in his spare hours. The youngest is Jacqueline, a sophomore at High School, and currently training hard at her ice hockey. Ed is a counsellor at a prominent private High School nearby, whereas Libby, a former attorney, is now teaching Global Education at Stevenson High School itself. They are a remarkable family, and have given me the warmest welcome any human being could hope for. Through them I have been able to learn so much about the less visible aspects of the American way of life, and it is so much more appealing than the stereotypical images that we receive through the media. Their sincere and unpretentious approach to life has been an inspiration.

Social times. Since the novelty of my presence at Stevenson hasn’t yet worn off,

John Brown

Sojourner Truth

the flow of invitations has made life exciting for all of us. And I am pleased to say that Ed and Libby have frequently been included, and the social timetable has all too often extended into routine sleep time. Amongst the highlights have been several at home dinners, a meal at a Jewish Deli (matzoh ball soup, blintz and potato latkes), a meal in Mexican Village in down town Detroit followed by a couple of fascinating one-act (two character) plays in a small 50 seat theatre. Both plays had been written and directed by a couple who, in the daytime, teach High School. Their pieces not only introduced us to some prominent personalities in the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century (John Brown, Sojourner Truth and Mother Jones), but also challenged our perceptions of what the reality of slavery and servitude was really like. I was deeply moved. During the interval, they served an Irish cabbage soup and soda bread, and afterwards we repaired to an Irish pub just down the road.

School drama. In the drama department at Stevenson, the director Mike Corliss took on an ambitious project. Not only did they stage a production of Neil Simon’s Odd Couple, but they also staged two separate versions, one with a female cast, and the other with a male cast. I had the opportunity to see the female cast, which included two male characters playing the roles of Spaniards from Barcelona. Their imitations of the Spanish linguistic and physical mannerisms were so good that I thought they were senior students of Spanish. But I was wrong. I discovered later that they had used a special home tutoring course (with CDs and videos) that coaches budding actors in these areas. I later met one of the girls featuring in the boys’ performance coaching herself in English mannerisms of speech. She was walking the corridors plugged into headphones and audibly repeating lines!

Caught in the press. The American press has prominently featured the visit of our beloved Prince Charles and Camilla recently to the US. Their life story has been billed as the “longest running British show since ‘Upstairs Downstairs’!. By their quoted manners of speech you will recognise British royalty. Of the British Memorial Gardens at Ground Zero, Camilla was heard to say: “It was terribly, terribly moving”. The Americans wanted to know if her image had improved from the “ungainly frump” they were familiar with. I’m not sure they have drawn a conclusion on that. The most closely guarded secret, however, was the menu of the dinner at the White House. The NY Times must have had an insider because they revealed that the main course included buffalo tenderloin and chanterelles. To be compared to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, perhaps?

Did you know? Yesterday, I discovered a truth of world-shattering importance. This will be of special interest to chocoholics out there who have a taste for Mars Bars or Milky Ways. I picked up a Milky Way from the Halloween candy basket yesterday, and when I bit into it I was shocked to discover it was really a Mars Bar in disguise! Well, I happen to be a Mars Bar fan anyway, so I was pleased with my find, but if you really want a Milky Way you must look out for Musketeers! Did the war over the 13 colonies really develop such an aversion amongst Americans to names so importantly British?

School attire. Dress code for both students and staff is quite different at Stevenson. All students wear their own comfortable casuals, and there is a great deal of flexibility for the staff as well. Fridays, however, are subject to an interesting tradition. Staff, not only dress down, but many wear something white and blue (school colours), which bears the school logo and name. To observe this tradition is a demonstration of spirit and loyalty, and it is also interesting to see how many of the students are proud to wear their own personalised kit that announces their membership of a team or club in the school.

Ah to be in England….! Last Sunday I was invited by the Buckley family to share a quintessentially English meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Not too surprising, perhaps, since they are English (from Cheshire) and have been living in Michigan for two years, now with permanent residence. It was so good to see the whole family so obviously well established and thoroughly enjoying the American way of life. Their two daughters, Stephanie and Charlotte, are extremely happy with their schooling here, and it was interesting to hear them draw comparisons between the British and American systems.

A night at the movies. Monday saw many of the Stevenson staff and student Senate take advantage of free cinema tickets at the Emagine Theatre out in Novi. I was fascinated by the name “Emagine”, but also the name “Novi” was originally “no 6” in roman lettering. With almost 20 screens, people chose a wide variety of different movies. My choice was “Good night and good luck”, the signature farewell of the CBS broadcaster Edward Murrow in the 1950s. The film recounted, in black and white version, the Macarthy persecution of the communists in the post-war period, and gave a singular insight into the deep rifts and tensions of that period. At the conclusion of the screening the small audience broke out in applause, obviously experiencing some kind of catharsis when the tragedy was over. Other colleagues, looking for emotional hype, came out of movies called “A History of Violence”, “Jarhead” and “Saw II”, many visibly shaking from their experiences! My second choice would have been “North Country” which touched on the challenges that women faced establishing themselves in male dominated work environments like the mining industry.

Curriculum Day. Today has been a Curriculum Day for the staff. This has meant another day off for the students (they are so happy!), but we have engaged in a series of meetings both at school and district level. To help everyone into listening and participation mode, we were served a bagel and doughnut breakfast from 7am. Oh the joys of rising early! When I get back to the UK, I shall forever think that a normal workday provides me with the opportunity for a lie-in!


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 10, 2005, in Letters from America and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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