First encounters

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Nicholas Woolley is glad he met the Queen

This vast place must cost a fortune to heat, but everyone knows its occupant has one. She's over there, wearing a purple cardigan, shaking hands with lines of ladies in hats. She's the Queen, and this is her home. If you plan to teach in Canada, get yourself invited.

I was lucky. Before I left England earlier this year, I tagged along when my cousin, Susan, received an MBE at Buckingham Palace - but I didn't consider the implications of my visit. Now, three years later, I understand. I sense the atmosphere as soon as I walk in the classroom. It's on the first floor of a secondary school in Kingston, Ontario, and it belongs to a group of baseball-capped, dungareed 18-year-olds who stare at me with slack-jawed curiosity. Not only am I a new teaching body, I am a foreign one too. And when I am inaccurately introduced to them as "Nick, a volunteer from London", I see big red buses, Grenadier Guards and the Crown jewels rise to the ceiling in fluffy white thought-bubbles. I swallow hard, bracing myself for the test of patriotism the class is bound to throw at me. I have a lot to live up to.

Here, it seems, national pride is a given. Students in corridors wear leather coats emblazoned with red maple leaves and their parents fly Canadian flags in their back gardens. In the staff parking lot, peeling bumper stickers tell me that Buick-driving teachers are "Proud to call Canada my home".

I make a big mistake immediately. My interrogation is delayed by what sounds like a bilingual version of the Neighbours theme song coming out of the Tannoy - and the students watch intently to see how I'll react. I smile and nod. They all stand up; some let their hands float in the general area of their hearts; others begin to mumble.

It's the national anthem. I jump to my feet and just manage to squeeze in a last "We stand on guard for thee!" before the music fizzles and everyone turns to stare at the British imposter.

"I didn't recognise the tune," I say truthfully. "A terrible version, that."

I hope they agree, and am relieved when heads begin to nod and a low, collective "mmm" cuts the silence. Only then do I appreciate the risk I took with my remark: it could have sunk me.

My reprieve is short. I'm approached by a round-featured, big-eyed student wearing a baggy t-shirt. His name is Peter (it says so on his baseball cap). I noticed, earlier, how rarely he blinks; now, his wide shoulders rock as he moves towards me. Everyone else is silent, watching.

"Y'goddaqueeneh?" "Sorry?" This is a bad start. I lie: "My hearing's not too good. Could you slow down?" He nods, and his words become long and thick: "You have the Queen in England, eh?" "We do, ye....."

"The Queen! Jesus, she must be pretty rich. You should buy a chainsaw and take it to her big house - that Buckingham Palace - and cut down her trees. Yeah! Chop 'em all down! Show her your Canadian chainsaw full of gas! Vrrrroooom! You could burn 'em on a stove and she'd make you a King! Jesus, if I had as much money as her I'd go to the motorbike store across the road and go: 'Hey! I'll take that four wheeler and that dirt bike!' I'd go to the John Deere place and go: 'I'll take that tractor and that tractor and that tractor!' Wow, she's got a pile of money, eh? You should do that thing with a chainsaw. Vrrrooooom!" I smile, and say something about the high level of security at Buckingham Palace. Peter looks disappointed. He is panting. And then quiet. Someone farts and someone sniggers.

Then, encouraged by the class's silent focus, Peter regains his composure. He looks serious; he is still. Heads lean in towards him, waiting. And I think I know what's coming. "So, have you seen the Queen?" "Yes." And that's all I need to say.

Nicholas Woolley taught English for two years in a Manchester comprehensive. He now lives in Ontario, Canada

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