Adventures of a Kiwi AFS exchange student.
I knew from the tele that school in 1975 America was different from school in New Zealand. But there’s nothing like being there, living it, to bring those differences home.
I left New Zealand, swearing that at school in America I’d keep to the Kiwi way and wear my uniform – yes, hand on heart, every single day – just like at home. Well, thaaat worked!
I might have been brave, but I wasn’t stupid. It’s a long time ago now, but I have a funny feeling my school uniform didn’t make it out of my suitcase. No one, except Martians and crazy AFSers from NZ, wore the same thing within a fortnight. Forget the same week, or two days in a row. Or every day – as you do when the school decides for you what to wear. Luckily for me, my host mother was amazingly adept with a sewing machine.
I had a lot of explaining to do with my own parents nine thousand miles away, because school uniforms were expensive – very expensive – especially the tartan kilts we wore in winter. Mum and Dad sent me off to America with a brand new one.
The other big change was, well, boys! People my own age in trousers were in the same building at the same time, in the same class, learning exactly the same things. That hadn’t happened since I was twelve. In New Zealand I saw boys as I cycled to school – they were cycling in exactly the opposite direction to the boy’s school. And I did get to talk to boys when I joined the combined Boys High and Girls High orchestra. I even sat next to a boy. We both played the clarinet. He was a better clarinetist than me, which may have been to do with natural talent, but it may have also been something to do with the fact I didn’t practice much.
Were the boys a distraction for me when I was at school in America? It’s the truth when I say now, I don’t remember. But, surprise, surprise, I didn’t get into “trouble”. Not that sort! Years later, I made sure my sons went to a co-ed high school. It would have been the same if I had girls. It’s life folks. We all need to get along – boys and girls.
In America I thought, because you didn’t have to wear a uniform, because boys were there, and because we didn’t start each day with assembly, which involved the entire school singing songs and then getting a telling off from the headmistress, the rules weren’t as strict. I was wrong. They were strict about different things. Like requiring a pass to be in the corridors when it was class time. My friends did try to warn me. I just didn’t take them seriously. There were some things I had to find out the hard way.
I wound up in the principal’s office. He was a patient man. But he was cross with me. He told me he would be contacting my host parents. I thought that was an extreme reaction but I wasn’t going to challenge him. I promised I’d never make the same mistake again. And I didn’t. There was no way I wanted the shame of my host parents getting a call from the school about me. Luckily, I got off with a warning. Lesson learned, at last: in someone else’s country, in someone-else’s school, you keep their rules, not the ones from home.
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