School In America

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.

AFS - 01

A typical classroom, America 1975. (Yes, that might just be a kiwi dangling from the light fitting!)

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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22 replies »

  1. I really enjoy your installments – and side note – I also do not use the related post feature either… well I maybe right now as i am in between theme change, but anyhow…
    back to your post – I love learning about the comparisons between here and there – and also just the little tidbits of your experience.

    “They were strict about different things…” and sadly, in my opinion, so many schools end up squashing the spirit of children – they don’t mean to – and they have to have order, but many schools are a sad place. Even though I ma very grateful to have had an overall decent school experience all the way through – whew – very grateful.

    and I love this
    “It’s life folks. We all need to get along – boys and girls.” tru dat!

    oh – and my husband said our next date night is going to be to “burger bach” – a popular place for great food – and guess what? it is a new zealand place and they have a kiwi style burger – hmmmmm- and after I go I will be sure to tell you all about it. 🙂


    • Thanks for visiting, Y. I’m glad you’re enjoying the series.
      A kiwi style burger! You’re in for a culinary delight/challenge/surprise. Traditionally kiwi burgers have a mince patty, tomato sauce, an egg, onion, and beetroot. And no dill pickle. Keen to know what you think of it! BTW “Bach” = holiday home at the beach.


      • yeah, well I leaned that about bach last night! and guess what, I also caught a little video footage of an employee talking about it – and we thought it was pronounced different than it is! lol. she also told us about the beetroot, but they stopped carrying the beets because nobody ever ordered it -hm) – but I would have loved to try it – instead I tried the queens town lamb burger – mmmmm – and oh – and they did have a burger with an egg… and a mun

        anyhow, I am going to draft up a quick little post about it later, but how cool that they love New Zealand at this restaurant, and thanks to my blog world, I was able to share about my NZ friend Jill 🙂 – and I told them I was going to tell you all about it! very high quality meat here…. and guess what else? they had WAIWERA water… we did not get to try any on that visit – but we are going back for sure!

        more here:


        • What a thrill that you went there! I checked out the website – definitely kiwiana. The header is a classic NZ scene. And Silver Fern Farms are well known here. Kiwis are fussy about their meat – especially beef and lamb!
          Ah, the water. I’ve seen Waiwera water in the supermarket. But generally we don’t drink bottled water that much. In my part of the country the water is from artesian supply. We drink it from the tap and I have to brag now – our tap water is the best I’ve tasted anywhere in the world.
          I did wonder whether they’d have beetroot – it is a very localised speciality. But McD’s here have even included it in their “Kiwi burgers”, or they had the last time I ate there which is some years ago now! (I’m not counting the McDonald’s I ate last year in Bangkok – that was different).
          Oh, Y, – I am looking forward to your post!


  2. Two things: One, when I was in elementary school we had a girl come from New Zealand. She was from Christchurch, and I don’t know why she was there, because I think she only stayed a couple of weeks. But I do remember that we all loved her, and her accent, and while she was here, we spent as much time with her as we could!

    Also, I went to high school in the United States in the sixties, and my experience too was different from most American high-school students because I went to a Catholic girls’ school. Uniforms, strict rules, lots of traditions. I really loved it!


  3. Interesting comment….in someone elses country…you keep their rules.
    Too often we forget. North Americans often get a negative rap because of training that says/thinks USA= THE BEST so everyone should run things the way we do. We’re the younger sibling fighting for MY WAY with the rest of the world. Although I also know the Anglicized part of NZ is relatively young too but many traditions are older. Perhaps that’s true of all the wandering cultures come to think.


    • Hmmm … it’s the socialisation that takes place in all cultures and societies – we are raised in it, it’s what we know, therefore we approach it as “The Way” rather than “A Way” – at least until we’re exposed to different cultures and then maybe that changes things.


  4. I really enjoy reading these stories about your experiences and your reactions to life in the states. It must have been a great life-experience for you and it sounds like you made your parents and your host family proud.

    I wonder if I would have visited the Principal less often if I had been living with a host family instead of my parents. By the time I got to high school, contact between my parents and the school were pretty regular. Actually, it dropped off in high school because the school was under construction and the rules, especially the dress code, were greatly relaxed.


  5. Hi Jill – Your writing has a way of drawing people in and is always interesting reading. I think school in the states has definitely changed since we went to BHS. I don’t know if they do the “block” system anymore and I think the kids get away with a whole lot more than we ever did. But, I think society in itself, has changed and evolved. I’m sure the kids learn much more at an earlier age than we did and technology has definitely played a role in that aspect. I remember walking into my daughter’s school when she was in high school in 1995 and the language used when making an announcement over the loudspeaker really took me by surprise. You never would have heard that over a loudspeaker when we were in high school. I think while buildings change little, the times do. Things were much more simple when we went to school. But, I’m sure our parents thought the same thing when we were in school. It is fun to step back a few years through your eyes and re-experience life in the 70’s. Thanks.


  6. I find the differences and your reactions to them so interesting. The things you encountered and had such a different opinion about were (and still are) so everyday here in the US growing up.

    I like the links you have to related posts at the end of your piece. I’m still considering the different ways to draw readers to older posts.


    • Hi there, Kat, thanks for visiting. I do wonder how these posts come across to people living in the States, now. When I visited my old school back in ’06 it did seem very much the same as when I’d attended. But I know a lot of would have changed – technology for one thing.
      I decided not to use the related post feature because it was connecting to posts that didn’t seem relevant at all to me. This way I’ve got the control.


      • The technology component does make classrooms look very different but the general idea- needing a pass in the hall and all that- still hold true even today. 🙂

        I hadn’t even thought about the possibility that the related post feature might do that so I’m glad this came up. I was just looking over notes and thinking about modifying some of my recent posts. I would like to think if I had used the related post feature that I would pay attention to the posts that it thinks are relevant but who knows? I’m tired. it might have slipped my mind. 🙂 I’m glad we talked!


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