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U3A Writing: A Very Important Day

Elizabeth Robinson recalls her exciting and traumatic first day as an exchange teacher at Huron High School, Michigan, USA. Elizabeth had been teaching at Heckmondwike Grammar School in Yorkshire.

The day occurred at the very end of August 1970 and it was the first day of my incredible year as an exchange teacher at Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. The ramifications of that day still continue because it was also the day I first set eyes on my future husband, Jim, who was Head of Art at the school – I still call him ‘my souvenir of America.’

I had had a week’s ‘orientation’ in Washington DC with all the other English exchange teachers where we stayed in a hotel overlooking The White House – I had never stayed in a hotel before. We saw all the wonderful Washington monuments, visited the Smithsonian Institute and had dinner at the British Embassy where we were entertained by the choir of the US Marines.

Then we all had to make our own ways to our destinations. I naively asked in a travel agents when I could get a bus to Ann Arbor only to be told: ‘Honey, I think you’d be better flying – the bus takes three days.’ My first real introduction to the vastness of this country I was going to spend the next year in. So I flew to Detroit and then got a bus to Ann Arbor – only forty-five minutes, this one.

I was met by my hosts, the Steinicke family; the beginning of a relationship that strongly endures to this day. From their living room I could see Huron High School, across a railway line and across the Huron River. It looked enormous with a vast acreage of parking lot [as I soon learnt to call it.], for students as well as staff – or faculty members as I soon learned to call them. There were also huge sports fields where ‘jocks’ [another new word], were doing pre-season training.

I had a day’s staff induction and was shown around the buildings by a teacher called Susan Clegg who had started life in Beaumont Park, Huddersfield and had been a pupil at Greenhead Girls’ High School. As I had spent my entire teaching career up to then at Heckmondwike Grammar School, this seemed quite a coincidence, but I later discovered that she was the girlfriend of my exchange partner who was just embarking on his year’s teaching at said Heckmondwike Grammar School.

Now the first teaching day had arrived. Coming from a very conventional English grammar where the 11-18 year old pupils wore brown blazers and yellow and brown striped ties, you can perhaps imagine my feelings at 7:55am that day to be confronted by a class of what at first glance appeared to be made up entirely of six-foot plus, long-haired, bearded hippies who addressed everybody as ‘Man’.

Looking back, I am not sure who was the more surprised, they or me. As soon as I spoke there was a chorus of: ‘Man, you sure do talk funny.’ - or ‘cute’ in some cases, and I think the first lesson passed in a blur, me learning their many different names – the Ann Arbor phone book hardly had two consecutive names the same, there was such diversity of backgrounds and ethnicity. I’d also been used to calling boy pupils by their surnames. ‘That’s pre-historic, man.’ I was informed when I told them this.

It all seemed very liberal and casual, yet scary as well. I was down to teach something called Creative Writing, which we did not know about in England then, at least by that name, and as the previous person who had taught it was now over two thousand miles away in Heckmondwike, I had to learn on my feet. Another English teacher said that I should get the students to write a daily journal, and oh, how full of teenage angst they turned out to be.

I had been warned the teachers were known by their first names so I wasn’t phased when they addressed me as Liz, [or ‘Teach’], but when I saw a big hairy hippy chewing gum and blowing bubbles on the back row I decided enough was enough and said, sharply: Charlie Wunsch are you chewing gum? Come out here at once and empty your mouth,’ holding out the wastepaper bin. Charlie ambled to his feet, deposited the gum and ambled back scratching his head in a somewhat bewildered manner. Later in the year when we were all well-acquainted, he said: ‘You know, Liz, that first day it was SHOCK that made me throw my gum away!’

Everything was so strange and different that day – even the chair desks the students sat in. There was a big Stars and Stripes flag by the board in each classroom though we did not have to pledge allegiance to it. There was a tannoy system, a telephone in every room and a Campus police officer. One day the telephone rang during a writing workshop and before I could get to it a boy picked it up and said into the receiver: ‘Ed’s Morgue – You stab ‘em, we’ll slab ‘em.’ To my horror when I took over the phone it was the Vice-principal, who asked me to come to his office when I was free because he wanted to talk about discipline. I was dying the death until I got into his office and it turned out that he just wanted to pick my brains about discipline in English schools. Phew.

That first day it seemed like people were talking a foreign language, there were so many new words which later became so familiar – sophomore, semester, schedule for timetable, fill out a form, not fill in. Mind you it worked both ways. When I said to someone: ‘I think so-and-so’s got and awful cheek,’ they replied: ‘What happened, did he cut himself?’

Meanwhile back at the ranch in Heckmondwike, Andy Carrigan is alarming colleagues by saying he’s going to give the kids a li’l ol’ quiz – his word for test. One of my friends invited him for Sunday lunch and when he appeared at the front gate in his cowboy boots, fringed jacket and boot-lace tie, my friend’s father said: ‘Bloody ‘ell, there’s a flippin’ cowboy coming up t’path.’ Andy drove to Scotland in the Easter holidays to play golf at St Andrews. The colleagues who were with him still laugh when they remember how he turned off the A1 because he just could not believe that this was the main road to Scotland.

That day was memorable for so many things – not least for my first experience of leaving an air-conditioned building and coming out into baking heat. It was the first time I drove, on the right, the very ancient VW Beetle which Andy had kindly left for me. It had never been waxed and had a kind of matt finish as well as springs poking through the seats. A colleague who was a friend of Andy’s came up to me in the car park and said: ‘I see you’ve inherited the grey turd.’

Huron High School was only in its third year when I arrived there so the buildings and the institution in general seemed very new to me after the Victorian core of Heckmondwike, but they already had a school song which went like this:

We sing of grand and glorious Huron High School,
Still victorious Huron High School,
Play the game, salute the name etc.

Back at HGS they would sing:

Though we dwell in dull surroundings midst the gloomy haunts of men,
Yet a school we may be proud of rears her head in the Vale of Spen Heckmondwike, the school we honour, keep its name forever bright,
Winning, losing, neither matters, if the game be played aright.

Gradually as the weeks passed life at Huron High became routine. I learned a great deal about creative writing – we produced a fine anthology at the end of the year. I enjoyed teaching American writers like Richard Wright and Robert Frost. I made some great friends, travelled in the vacations: Colorado, Mexico, Canada, New York, and generally absorbed the new culture, but I have never forgotten my first day at Huron High School.


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