Letter from America 6:Time is up as leaves come down!

Autumn leaves. As the autumn nears its end and the leaves fall fast and furiously, the mechanisms for dealing with the countless tons of leaves swing into action. You can either deal with the problem yourself by raking the leaves and bagging them for the special ‘leaf collection truck’, or by blowing them to the side of the road for the leaf garbage truck to suck them up. Or there are countless little enterprises that will call around and clear your gutters, rake up the leaves, cut and treat your lawns, close down your automatic watering systems, clean out and prepare your swimming pool for its winter rest. In fact, there is nothing that can’t be handled by some eager odd-jobber, and the dedicated DIY person (ie. Don’t Involve Yourself) can sit back and have all his domestic needs covered.

Christmas in style. I was astonished to find out that many Americans of ‘certain economic means’ will pay an expert to decorate their homes for Christmas. And I don’t mean put up a tree, a few lights and streamers. We are talking about a full-scale designer makeover that costs $1000s. All the customer has to do is decide on the year’s theme, discuss a few generalities about colours and so on, then leave the rest to the experts. When the festivities are over, the same experts will ‘expertly de-decorate’ your house and dispose of everything. Generally the customer will keep nothing because, next year, he will choose a completely different theme that will require going back to the drawing board! Only in America……………..!

George W. Bush. I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the hairdressers the other day. After my haircut, at the hands of a former Texan cowboy called Howard, I had a few minutes to read an item from the Detroit Free Press about using search engines on the Internet. Apparently (and please don’t try this at home without a safety net!) if you type into Google the key words “miserable failure”, the first website to come up will be George W. Bush’s biography! Some hacker has done an effective job of discrediting the most powerful man in the world. Everywhere I go, I bump into people who have few kind words to say about their President. Many have expressed their admiration at how Tony Blair not only faces up to regular public criticism and debate in our House of Parliament, but also at the way he seems to handle it. George W. is only ever heard in public (I am told) when he has 4-5 lines carefully rehearsed, and he delivers them without interruption. Confrontational scenes that we are well used to in our House of Commons, would be held behind closed doors here, well away from public scrutiny.

My birthday. To celebrate my birthday, we went out to an Ethiopian restaurant

Ethiopian dish

called the Blue Nile. This was a ‘life-first’ for me, and I did not know what to expect. The food was served in an “eat all you can” feast in the form of small portions of several different meats and vegetables on a large circular platter. Most diners did not sit at table, but around an elevated round font into which the platter was placed and provided a communal source of food for everyone. The food was then scooped up using thinly sliced doughy bread, and the portions were continuously replenished until you called a halt. Both before and after the meal, we were offered hot scented hand towels. The service was impeccable and the food was delicious. I would recommend it to anyone.

Henry Ford Museum. On my last weekend in Michigan I took advantage of a fine day to cycle over to the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn (an area which, incidentally, has the largest Arabic community outside the Middle East). I expected to view the whole history of the automotive industry, and I did not

Ten man bike

anticipate meandering through the entire history of invention and engineering, from the sewing machine to advanced forms of aviation.  All this was housed under one massive roofed 8 acre site, in which they had assembled whole aeroplanes, including the one flown by the Wright brothers over 100 years ago. It is amazing to think that, within 65 years of that historic moment, man would be walking on the moon! As you step outside the museum, you enter Greenfield Village, a 28 acre development that brings together samples of housing, factories, shops and restaurants from the last 200 years of American history. It was a real historic adventure to walk through the family homes of the Fords, Edisons, Wrights and Heinz, and then by contrast to step inside a slave dwelling from a local plantation. Henry Ford’s vision of what was good about America rose well above the mere assemblage of the Model T.

The highlight for me, however, was not only to see the famous bus in which Rosa Parks had staged her sit-down protest, but also to sit in the very same seat. Unfortunately there was no elderly San Diego lady in sight waiting to receive her lesson on race relations!

In my last few days, I have had the pleasure of dining out with the Principal, Steve Archibald, and his family, and with several colleagues in the World Languages Department. I have been overwhelmed by kindness from all directions. Everybody has been so warm and welcoming that it is going to be hard to say goodbye.

Time to depart. My time at Stevenson High School is drawing to a close. Six weeks have been too short, but my time here has given me a privileged insight into the mechanisms and dynamics of a very good American High School. A school is a complex organism, and one the size of Stevenson is more complex than most, but my immersion in the life here has been uplifting, and has underlined  a certainty in my life that, no matter how long I have been in teaching, the summit of the mountain of knowledge still remains obscured in the distance. Engaging the minds of teenagers and empowering them to learn is a never-ending quest for all teachers. Doing an exchange is one way of exploring some of the myriad possibilities of succeeding in that quest.

With that, I sign off and say “cheerio” for the final time.

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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 18, 2005, in Letters from America and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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