Category Archives: Education

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I love America. No, that’s really not a day-late April Fool’s joke, for the doubting thomases amongst you. This summer will mark the 16th anniversary of me first coming to the States, and from that first trip to the present day, I’ve had an endless fascination with all things American. Marrying one of them may seem like an excessive demonstration of that; playing a part in creating a whole new one, even more so. But each to their own, huh?

However, there are two things that I fear I will never come to terms with – the obsession with college sports, and tabloid newspapers.

It’s fitting that I should mention the American obsession with college sports ahead of a weekend in which a crew from my old university will row four or so miles up a British river against a crew from another university 65 miles away, with millions of people watching on television. The irony is not lost on me, fear not. But the frenzy that accompanies March Madness (a basketball competition between various US universities, I believe) or the start of the college football season makes the Boat Race look like the non-event it almost certainly is.

Similarly, for a man who hails from a country boasting The Sun, The Mirror and the Daily Mail, some might say that it would be hard for a Brit to complain about the quality of the American tabloid. But I’ve been in The Sun’s newsroom, and for every “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”, there’s a hard-hitting news story that brings about true change. The same cannot be said about, say, the National Enquirer.

Anyway, every so often, these two worlds collide, as they did this week with this stunning frontpage headline from the New York Daily News.

Now, my journalist days are long behind me, but last time I looked, “New Local College Basketball Coach Has Hot Wife” is not listed in the ‘no brainer’ section of the Dummies Guide To Front Page News. Nor does it suggest that the “stunning starlet” ((c) New York Daily News) need to be still taking up valuable column inches three days later. I’ve heard of slow news days, but come on people…

By the way, the coach himself is set to earn $9 million over the course of his six month contract. For teaching college kids. I’m clearly in the wrong business. And Mary Ann Jarou knows a good thing when she sees it.

What have I got myself into?

I went back to pick up my diary yesterday. I allowed fifteen minutes, but it took 45. I’ve been given reading material now, and been told that I will be moved on to something a little more advanced when I’ve finished it. It’s like being back at school, only without the ever-looming threat of wedgies.

What the visit told me is that after thirty years of living in the United States, even foreigners start to lose their ability to understand when someone is making a joke.

As I walked in, the owner took in my fresh-faced good looks, and with a twinkle in his eye asked, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” Recognising that he was – and please excuse the American parlance – “busting my chops”, I responded without missing a beat, “I want to be an astronaut.”

Sadly the childlike declaration was lost on my new friend, and he had already started to question me on the logistics of entering the NASA space programme before I could cut him off. I fear I may have to use all my Photoshop magic later this year to create a picture of me floating in zero gravity, to avoid accusations of lacking ambition in my lifetime’s pursuit.

Anyway, must go – I need to get on with my reading if I’m not to be put in detention.

Early to rise, early to grump

Four times this week, I’ve woken from my deep and blissful slumber at 6.30am. And not just because one of the cats is aggressively scratching the door in an attempt to persuade me that it should be fed.

Each time I have reluctantly emerged disheveled and groggy from under the duvet (which I believe for legal purposes I have to call a comforter in the United States, despite the fact that it makes it sound like some kind of security blanket), and reached for the closet to pluck out my dressing gown. Ten minutes later – having finally managed to find the armhole in the pitch blackness of the room, put it on, taken it off so that it wasn’t back to front like a straitjacket, put it on, taken it off again because it was inside out, put it on again, and finally grappled in the bottom of the closet to find the missing waist cord – I get my day started.

Now, this week was an unusual week, given that I had very early starts at work, but nonetheless there are always two or three days a week where I have to get up an hour earlier than strictly necessary. That’s sixty minutes of lost sleep, making me sixty times more likely to be grumpy by the end of the day (as I’m sure The Special One will happily confirm with a world weary roll of the eyes).

And the reason? Clearly it’s not a desire to go for an early morning jog along the Atlantic Ocean coast. Nor is it a willingness to skip merrily to a delightful little patisserie nearby, to pick up croissants and fresh baguettes. I mean, I would, but trudging through the cold to get a loaf of Home PrideWonder Bread just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

No, it’s because The Young Ones have to start school at 8.15am, and given that we live an hour or so subway ride from their educational establishment, one of us always has to get up at 6.30 to wake them and make them lunch.

I’m not complaining about making the kids lunch, obviously. Well, I am, but that’s a different matter. In the end, despite a certain amount of grumbling, I’m happy to accept the role. What I struggle to understand is why they have to be at school at 8.15am.

The strange thing is, they seem to be the lucky ones, with other kids having to be at school for 8. Of course, I understand that parents work, and so dropping them off before they head off to the office is a necessity for some people. But in New York, most kids at high school either live within walking distance of school or get the subway on their own. Classes finish at 2.30 or 3, but show me a kid who wouldn’t swap an hour of freedom in the afternoon for an hour of extra bed, and I will show you a 13 year old who probably has extra-curricular commitments as a shoplifter.

In the UK, school starts at 9, and finishes around 3.30. Much more civilised if you ask me. Maybe there are studies that show kids are more receptive to learning early in the morning, and I would kind of understand that, and should certainly respect it. All I can say is that there are studies that clearly show that I am substantially more tetchy having got up at ridiculous o’clock in the morning.

It’s time for change in more ways than one, I can tell you.

A distaste for the good life

Maybe it’s because I’m British and we’re quick to put down anybody who is popular and successful, or perhaps it’s because I’m becoming insufferably crotchety in my old age. Whatever it is, I’m here to hold my hands up, look vaguely sheepish, and tell you that I just can’t stand The Do-Gooder.

Now clearly I don’t have an innate distrust of anybody who does good in the world. Bob Geldof may have lank hair and dubious taste in women, but you can’t fault his humanitarian efforts. Although, to be fair Bob, none of us like Mondays so it’s probably time to stop going on about it. Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King et al don’t bother me one iota, despite having the temerity to put the well-being of others above their own. And I’ve even been known to do my own bit for charidee on occasion, although the less said the better about the sponsored wheelbarrow race I organised back at school.

But The Do-Gooder is a different beast altogether. The Do-Gooder can’t help but make sure that every last person knows that they’re doing some ‘selfless’ work, and is guaranteed to make my hackles rise, even if the good deed they’re performing is pretty damn good indeed. Actually, the better the deed is, the more irritated I get with The Do-Gooder. You should see how I tear into those cancer research specialists…

The thing is, every community has its own Do-Gooder. Most people tend to ignore them, work around them or – more usually – give them the fancy sounding title that nobody else really wants. If you get introduced to your local community’s Executive Vice Chair of Waste Management Issues, run a mile.

Of course, there wasn’t a single Do-Gooder in sight when The Special One and I attended the first PTA meeting of the year for The Young Ones’ school. Ahem. All I can say was that I was the only man wearing jeans, and that if ever you hear me ask a question about voting procedures in any meeting anywhere in the world, you have my permission to shoot me.

What was particularly interesting about the meeting was actually the number of people who managed to prove themselves the absolute antithesis of the Do-Gooder. Bear in mind that this is a great school with results that outstrip those of better funded schools across the city. There was the goth looking mummom who played her Nintendo DS throughout the meeting. And the ice-crunching older mother who managed to scoff her way through an entire giant plastic cup of ice in ten minutes, and would probably have eaten the cup as well if she’d been given half a chance. And the family of four who may well have inadvertently wandered into the cafeteria, but still decided to eat their dinner there anyway as the meeting carried on around them.

Add in numerous Blackberry-viewing, diary-filling middle-aged folk, and it seemed at times that The Special One and I were pretty much the only ones actually listening to the headmasterprincipal’s (pretty inspiring) words.

Oh no. You know what this means, don’t you? I’m one step away from being a Do-Gooder. Quick, somebody get the rifle.

Going back to school the expensive/American way

I never really minded going back to school when I was a kid. I lived a fair way from the rest of my schoolmates, so it was always good to catch up with friends. And besides, I always had a relatively immature fascination with getting a new pencil case, and filling it with HB pencils, a four colour crayon pen, and a rubbereraser that I’d probably picked up as a souvenir from Rhyl or Porthmadog.

Fast forward 20 years, and The Young Ones are currently in bed ahead of their first day back at school after more than eight weeks of blissful freedom. To say that they’re less keen on the first day back (and for The Youngest, the first day at a new school) would be an understatement. I’ve seen happier inmates chomping down a last cheeseburger on Death Row.

The dismay they’re feeling right now is nothing compared to what I felt trooping around Staples on Saturday, seeking all the items on a school supplies list that covered two sides of a fairly large piece of paper. From a set square that The Youngest will categorically never use in her life right through to a remarkable sixty ballpoint pens, I’ve seen shorter Oscar acceptance speeches than this list.

Some of the requirements made no sense. Is there really any need for two pencil sharpeners, for example? The Young Ones are pretty damn talented, don’t get me wrong, but even they draw the line at sharpening two pencils at once.

The thing that I quickly realised is that all the pens, mechanical pencils and paper aren’t even for the individual use of The Youngest and The Eldest. The school they both attend is extremely well-regarded and successful, but like most state-funded schools in the US it would appear, the phrase “state-funded” doesn’t actually mean that much. And it certainly doesn’t mean “we’ll buy pens and paper so that your kids can get a basic education.” Luckily, if the government gets parents to buy all this stuff instead so that the class can have a well stocked stationery store for the year ahead, it can afford to spend that little bit extra on new air fresheners for tanks in Iraq. Makes me proud to be a taxpayer, I can tell you.

With the whole of New York seemingly heading back to school on Tuesday, one of those tanks would actually have been useful in navigating the aisles of Staples. Imagine the carnage of the JanuaryThanksgiving sales, but with the unmistakeable candy-induced violent blood-curdling screaming that can only brought on by being unwillingly dragged around a store. Luckily the effect of the Skittles I’d eaten wore off eventually, and I calmed down long enough to engage in a lengthy discussion with The Youngest about the dubious merits of buying left handed scissors when you’re distinctly right-handed.

All I want to know is why we didn’t have to buy a protracter or a pair of compasses? I’m guessing that trigonometry is dead. Who needs angles when you’ve got the Jonas Brothers, eh?

School papers

I’ve blogged before about the impossibility of doing anything in this country without some form of ID, and rarely a day goes by without me thinking that I should muster the will to go get a driving license. Not so that I can drive, you understand, but just so that I can spend more than $75 on a credit card at Virgin Megastores without facing a full cavity search by over-zealous staff.

To be honest though, lack of ID can be a benefit as well as a burden on occasion. I’ve managed to use it as an excuse to get out of doing something I can’t quite summon up the energy to do. Go to the bar to get a drink, you say? Sorry, I don’t carry photo ID on me, and you know what they’re like in this place. You want me to pick up that package you ordered? Erk, no photo ID so I’ll probably just have to go home and watch Padma Lakshmi on Top Chef I’m afraid. Do the washing up, you say? I seem to need photo ID to get into the kitchen unfortunately.

In the UK, ID is something that you see as often as Heather Mills at a Justice For Fathers demo. There’s plenty of talk of introducing a national identity card, but at the moment people have to rely on their good looks and charm as their sole identifier. Is it just that the British are more trusting? Or perhaps it’s merely that we don’t insist on using a 220 year old document to justify carrying a sub-machine gun in our back pockets, so there’s less to worry about from a security perspective.

Whatever the case, it’s not just moaning newcomers who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous admin. The Special One took The Youngest to a middle school this morning, to be interrogatedinterviewed about her ability to give a good wedgieacademic record with a view to being given a place in the school later this year. Given that the interview was at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, The Special One just grabbed her phone and some cash, and then made her way to the subway. Having returned a few moments later after forgetting The Youngest, the two of them trekked into the city.

In retrospect, the sound of an SMS arriving early in the morning was never going to be a good sign, and I could feel the seething resentment from five miles away as I picked up the phone and read ‘we don’t have photo ID, they won’t let us in’. Early morning humour isn’t a key attribute for The Special One at the best of times, and if the poor unfortunate security guard on duty isn’t this evening looking for a new job where he has to take less abuse, I’ll eat my Manchester United bobble hat.

Don’t get me wrong, I know all about Columbine, Virginia Tech and Dunblane, and how utterly terrible those events were. I understand the need for security to protect people in large establishments. But to my knowledge, Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho and Thomas Hamilton didn’t turn up at school with a written appointment for an admission interview and with a ten year old child in tow. And with nothing other than a phone and a scowl in their possession.

I’m sure that the school prinicipal was delighted to be dragged down from his 5th floor ivory tower to pick up two (by now) irritable individuals. Fortunately the interview went well, but it didn’t exactly get The Youngest’s relationship with the school off to a flying start.

Come on people, just because we’ve got rules doesn’t mean that we leave good sense at home. Unlike our ID cards, that is.

Counting on it

When I was at school, which is quite some time ago now, your school year related to the number of years that you’d been in that particular school. So, when I first turned up at West Lea Infants School, I was a 1st year. And when I left the 3rd year there, I went into the 1st year at Buckley CP. Admittedly my Not-So-Posh-As-It’d-Like-To-Think-It-Is secondary school in Chester had ‘Removes’ and ‘Shells’ rather than first and second years, but at least there was still a linear progression after that.

Then everything changed, with the introduction of such terms as “Year 6” and “Key Stage 92”, and I lost all track of where I was with the UK school system. Then again, I got confused when they changed the front cover of the British passport from black to maroon, so that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Needless to say that when I got to the United States, the grade system appeared about as penetrable as Fort Knox. Indeed, my attempt to explain the relative school years of The Youngest and The Eldest to a friend this weekend was only finally resolved with complex algebraic formulae, a road map and a small tube of Super Glue.

As a result, “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” which I was regrettably forced to watch this evening, could have been Mastermind for all I knew. For those who haven’t had the ‘good fortune’ to see the show, it’s basically a quiz show where people pit their wits against (or alongside, really) ten year old American schoolkids. It’s a bit like Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire, with added humiliation.

Really it should be called “Are You As Stupid As These Americans We Found From Who Knows Where?” This evening’s show featured a woman who would have been knocked out had she not been able to rely on a ten year old to tell her how many centimetres there are in three-and-a-half metres.

Frankly, however much Americans rely on feet and inches, there’s no excuse for not knowing that there’s 350 centimetres in three and a half metres. And if you don’t know that kind of thing, please don’t go on national TV and let the world know that you don’t have a clue.

By the way, did I mention that she was an American high school teacher?