In 1975-6, instead of attending my familiar neighborhood school—Flatirons Elementary in Boulder, Colorado—I spent what would have been fourth grade at the St. Stephens School in Canterbury, England. I did not have much choice in the matter: my dad had exchanged his teaching job for one at the University of Kent for a year. It was quite different for me: kids in that new school officially wore green uniforms; Monday assemblies included the Lord’s Prayer; there was a lot more boiled cabbage and hot pudding in the dining hall; and the other students kept asking me if I really was a “Yankee.” It took me quite awhile to adapt to a foreign country, a different school and new classmates, unfamiliar sports and words and customs.
Some things that I was resistant to at first I later assimilated as my own. For example, the first time my parents took us to see a castle (in Chatham, I believe), I refused to get out of the car. But I eventually acquired a lifelong interest and appreciation for ancient stone walls, castles and cathedrals. During that year we traveled a lot. I remember seeing the many sights in London, the Edinburgh castle, the York minster, Dover castle, Stonehenge, Canterbury Cathedral, old ruined abbeys, great houses, Roman mosaics. I read a lot about the English history.
I had some fairly cliché run-ins with language differences: for instance, when I had an initial interview with the headmaster to determine in what class year I would be placed I had to read a selection from a book. I remember that I was not familiar with the word “gaol” (their spelling of jail) and I did not know what it meant and pronounced it “gay ohl”. Or the time I had a blister on the heal of my foot caused by borrowed soccer cleats. My teacher sent me in to get a “plaster” and I requested it of the school nurse with absolutely no idea what I would receive (turned out to be a band-aid.) I was also puzzled by a request to wear “plimsolls” (tennis shoes).
Looking back, I have the sense that I benefited from a more serious attempt to teach writing. My teacher in England, Mr. Searle, assigned frequent little essays, and he gave them real attention. I also remember taking and doing well on the 11 plus, an exam that apparently sets the direction of your schooling.
I took at least as much from the kids outside of the classroom as within, particularly in sports. I played some cricket, rounders, badminton, shinti, and netball, but soccer was far and away the main sport. It was played before and after school, during recess, gym and weekends. I had never played before (our move to England ended my little league pitching career). It took me many fairly lonesome months to slowly migrate into a respectable position with the boys who had played since infancy. For a long time I was consigned to hang out with the less athletic kids during recess. Over time, however, I found a place with the boys who played soccer since infancy. And a position, left fullback, with the class team. With the intensive practice that came from playing at every opportunity, I returned to Boulder well ahead of my peers.
Spending a year in another place was not easy for me at ten, but it turned out to be a good experience. I remember many of my classmates from that time: Mark Leeson, Andrea Leach, Sarah Thomas, Joanne Dobson, Virginia Page, Haydn Gilday, Andrew Tyson are names that come to mind. If, through the wonders of the internet, anyone from that class finds this, write me a note (it has only been thirty years).