Surprises in the States

Things I Thought Would Bother Me About America, But Don’t:

  • Driving on the right
  • Guns
  • Republicans
  • The Food
  • The Peppiness
  • The Accent
  • Being asked if I know the Queen. Or Prince William. Or the Beatles.

Things I Didn’t Know Would Bother Me About America, But Do:

  • Fraternities & sororities
  • 15 year-olds driving SUVs
  • Drink-driving
  • FedEx
  • Walmart Food
  • The obsession with getting an ‘A’ in everything
  • Spider egg sacs

From the 1918 Hansard

Reading the Hansard publications of education debates from the past is a glorious habit to get into (the best links are pointed to via the Living Heritage website).  Not are the debates frighteningly like those ongoing today, but they provide a welcome sense of reality into political debate. In 1918, unafraid of being picked on by the media, MPs seem to speak more candidly about what they see around them, and do so in ways that are less combative and much more concerned for children. The same concern is evident today, but far too often it sounds phony in comparison to the genuine alarm raised in the past – possibly because so many MPs genuinely had no idea about poverty but the only way they could find out was going out and meeting people, not hiding at photo opportunities and reading about ‘the average man’ on Twitter.
One of my favourite quotes comes from a debate on the 1918 Education Act, a very important Act that raised the school leaving age to 14 and provided some, very patchy, provision for 14-18 education.  It also attempted to ‘raise the status’ of the teaching profession by providing teachers’ salaries more centrally and at higher rates.
However, the quote that made me nod so furiously did not raise any of these. instead the speaker discusses why schools needed to be improved, and it is still pertinent today. It is amazing how often the debate in education concentrates around ‘saving’ the disadvantaged or ‘dragging them from a horrible life’. What this forgets is that many people in limited economic situations are not unhappy, nor do they wish to become ‘posher’ nor take part in ‘higher culture’. Their issues are ones of poverty not of ignorance or misunderstanding of the beauties of, say, Latin or Opera.  To confuse the two is to misunderstand how poverty feels or what its consequences are.  In general, life is not significantly upset by not understanding Wagner if you have other music you find comforting; in contrast, it definitely is worse if you don’t have enough to eat.
And so to the quote from the echoes of time:

“This Bill, at any rate, does recognise that education is a social problem, and, like all social problems, is interdependent with other social problems. You are not going to make the best of education if children live under adverse physical conditions-and in the moral atmosphere of slums and of poverty. I desire every child to have a fair opportunity, and I am quite sure that education is going to play a great part in that regard. I do not want that chance to be given to the child in order that it may escape from its class or get the better of other people, but in order that it may become a better citizen and be able to give greater service to the community.”

Meditating in Missouri

“Breathe in deeply…..then, breathe out….Breathe in! Breathe out……”
I have been in town for seven minutes. Unceremoniously dumped at the back of the campus I legged it to the student centre and managed to slide into the last available seat at the Sponsored Students Orientation seconds before it began. Somehow, we are now meditating.
“Imagine all the people you love at home. Go on, just…. imagine their faces. Put them clearly in your mind next to your home, maybe your town, and all the places you like to be”
What is this man trying to do to me?  I left home less than 24 hours ago and the leaving pains are raw.  Mum often explains how on my first day at school I ran inside without looking back while other children clung to their parent’s legs. Times have changed; I wasn’t clutching her leg when I left, but I might have done if no-one had been looking.
Luckily I’m not completely alone. Somewhere in the town my husband is trying to park an SUV (he’s usually a Ka driver) and move our many over-sized suitcases into a new apartment.  But I’m also aware that a quarter of the world away are all the people we love and hold dear, along with our beloved Stratford town, and the teaching job I left behind. Bringing them to mind is not helping with letting them go.
“Now I want you to imagine all those people and places melting away. See them fading away and becoming smaller.”
He’s killing me. I think my heart might explode.
“And in their place is Missouri. This beautiful campus, its fabulous people, this…family. We’re all here for you.”
All I’ve seen is a back staircase and a boy on a skateboard. It’s not exactly a fair trade.
“As you breathe in one last time I want you to think about the message you are bringing from your home nation. Think about what it means to you, what it means to the people at home, and as you breathe out I want you to breathe that message into our community and into our family.”
Dammit. I can’t think of anything. My mind is entirely blank.
Becoming a Fulbright scholar involves explaining very clearly why you will be a great ambassador for your country. I’ve spent hours writing statements about my messages, convincing people that I have the leadership qualities necessary to imbue this message on host nations and now, though I feel the weight of expectation bearing down like Atlas’ globe, I am suddenly like a psychic with stage fright: No messages are getting through.
Thankfully, we stop meditating and I hear some news that perks me up even though it’s not ‘good’.  More than 75% of the students at the University of Missouri are from within the state, and only approximately 5% hold passports (“Though even then that’s mostly to visit Cancun” quips the Director).  Of the 33,000 students here, less than 1% are from overseas.  The consequence of this becomes apparent in my first class on the History of US Education, when we are each invited to talk about our own schooling. The first half of the room have been entirely educated in Missouri. They are baffled when I begin describing my education. Bafflement turns to incredulity when explaining that most people at our school left at 16 and this becomes open-mouthed amazement at the idea that less than 20% went to university. But the thing that seems to shock most? The fact that I wore a tie to school. Uniforms are fairly rare in the US anyway, but the idea that a British girl would need to wear a tie throughout her education seemed genuinely brain-splattering.
That’s when I realised that whatever my intended “messages” were, the ones with the most importance will probably be entirely accidental. Fulbright’s purpose is to facilitate mutual cultural understanding and much of that true understanding is in the small things, in realising that someone’s background can be different in ways you didn’t even know possible – especially if you’ve lived all your life in one place surrounded by people who have never lived anywhere else either. In that same class I heard from a Taiwanese student, who described his experiences of nightly cram schools; I learned about the one-room schoolhouses that littered America and I thought carefully about why it is that in Britain we have traditionally segregated boys and girls, whereas US schools have segregated blacks and whites, and I pondered why it is that the UK still finds our form of segregation acceptable when the US quite clearly does not.
I left class a lot happier than after the meditation. Turns out the messages will come of their own accord, just so long as I keep breathing in and out.
My move to America has been made possible by the help and generosity of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, to whom I am extremely grateful. This is not an official US Department of State blog. The views and information presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Programme or the US Department of State.