Have a Marmite sandwich and a nice day
It is with some trepidation that I am returning to the Old Country for good this summer, together with my husband and a daughter who has almost more of a twang than your average American 11-year-old. Will we find new attitudes, a nation invigorated by a spruced-up Labour party? Or will we simply see the same old country through new eyes? What will English education feel like after all these years in the land of parent power?
We have no idea. As we throw out the detritus of American suburban living - the torches which ward off fearsome bugs in the Washington dusk, the microwaves and our cherished Chevy station wagon - we try to prepare ourselves mentally for what lies ahead. The little roads. The little cars. The traffic. North London on a grey day. Islington dustmen.
I could go on. There are such vast disparities between the Old and New Worlds - much bigger than each realises - that it is difficult to get one's head around them. For all my misgivings about leaving the United States, though, I know which place I call home. Whenever I came home - which I did most years - I found myself aching with homesickness on my return to America. It would always take me weeks, if not months, to pick up the pieces of my life in the New World and to forget the heady, cosy, dirty bustle of London.
In recent weeks I have taken to scanning the television schedules in British newspapers to get a feel for what we have in store. Sometimes I read out the offerings to my daughter in the hope that she will be as enthused as I am about coming back to Channel 4 News, The South Bank Show and other improving matter. Fat chance! The one bright spot for her is that British TV shows Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a soap about rich, black people in Beverly Hills. We adults will not miss our 68 channels much. What we will miss can be summed up in two words. Space and attitudes.
There is so much room in America that it boggles the British mind. Everything expands to fit the vast horizon. Anything seems possible in so huge a continent.
You need a shopping mall containing three giant department stores, as well as a Sears, a Walt Disney store, an MGM store, endless shoe shops, a naughty knicker shop and a hundred and one other shops? Build one. You fancy a swimming pool? Easy. The United States is a shoppers' paradise. You can buy anything you want at unbelievably low prices. And it is all so hassle-free. Everyone smiles and tells you to have a nice day. The positive mental attitude even extends to the public sector. Our garbage collectors are only too happy to take any old trash we throw out, however large and difficult to manoeuvre. A pair of old skis? No problem. And have a nice day, they tell us with big smiles.
Actually we have three kinds of garbage disposal men in our Washington suburb: one lot to take away the regular trash of everyday living, who come twice a week; another lot who take away garden rubbish; and a third who remove the recyclable stuff. The latter - plastic and glass and tin foil - we dump in a blue box provided for us by our local authority.
In schools, much emphasis is placed on building these positive attitudes. Children are greeted with big, beaming smiles. Teachers may be strict about swearing and talking out of turn, but they are also very matey with their charges. The aim is to nurture self-confidence. Children are taught social skills - how to relate to one another. "Compromise," they are told. "Co-operate."
In class, students, as they are known in America, are encouraged to voice their opinions. They learn to give speeches. It is noticed when a child does not join in a discussion. "Who have we not heard from this period?" asks the indefatigable teacher, prodding at the introverted. Children are encouraged to follow their interests on the basis that you do best at what interests you.
If a child has a good self-image, the argument goes, the learning will follow. All of which is fine and dandy in theory, but difficult to implement in practice. Particularly in a system which lacks a national curriculum and national exams on the European model.
For parents - particularly foreigners cowed by years of being taken on sufferance - the openness of the American system is astonishing. Parents are treated as a resource. They put on mini-courses to impart skills to children. They raise thousands of dollars for computers. They produce elaborate school newsletters. And they host Hallowe'en and Valentine's Day parties in the classroom.
Teachers make no bones about needing parents. They ring parents up to help out with teaching computers, teaching writing, working in the library, school trips or to make costumes for a class play. I have spent many busy hours in the past two years organising costumes and making scones and Marmite sandwiches for the English tea at my daughter's spring bazaar. I borrowed cups and saucers from the British Embassy (so, you see, it does have its uses), inveigled other parents into baking cakes, and helped to raise a tidy sum for the school.
The quid pro quo for all this effort is a flourishing relationship with your child's teachers. That is what is so wonderful about being a parent in America. You can call teachers any time at school, or even at home, to raise concerns about your child's education. It is considered a perfectly normal activity.
Teachers may want to tell you to bugger off. They may want to tell you you're an over-anxious parent. But they don't. Because to do so would be considered unprofessional. So, instead, they smile and listen, and make you feel your views are being mentally digested. As a parent, you put the phone down, feeling that you have made your point, even if nothing is done.
I wonder how easy it would be to ring up a teacher in Britain, leave a message and have your call returned. If you tried, I suspect you would be greeted by a harassed school secretary who would tell you to put your concerns on paper.
We will find out. Maybe it will take five years.