My kinda place

28th September 2001 at 01:00
It is the closest one can get to the United States without leaving British soil. At the vast Lakenheath air base in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, several thousand Americans keep the Liberty Wing in a state of constant readiness. And with them are their children. In the days before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, David Newnham went to this little bit of America in East Anglia to visit the schools and to find out at first hand how the children cope with living and learning in a foreign country. He found that, even in times of relative peace, they live precarious lives, never knowing when their friends will be moved on or their parents called to action

No matter how often you drive past it, the United Kingdom's biggest American air base never fails to leave an impression. It's not the jet fighter stuck on a pole next to the main entrance, or even the sight of its modern counterparts wheeling in the Suffolk sky, or coming in low over the main road to the delight of passing lorry drivers. It's the sheer size of the place that makes you stare in wonderment.

Just a few yards inside the wire fence, with its notices warning that "This is a prohibited place within the meaning of the Official Secrets Act", are what look like the beginnings of a small town. There are well-lit streets, a water tower, a toddlers' playground, and whole estates filled with low-rise flats. Around the entrance itself, with its checkpoints and guards regulating a constant stream of traffic, are several larger buildings - shops and offices perhaps, and what looks like the top of a massive subterranean installation.

Beyond this, you can see men in shorts pushing golf carts up and down a nine-hole course, and, behind them, a great open plain flecked with scores of concrete hangars and criss-crossed with the ranks of tankers and trucks that service their costly occupants.

And then you are suddenly at the sharp end of this place - a vast runway that serves 72 of the most dangerous fighting machines on the planet. They call themselves the Liberty Wing, the men and women who keep these aircraft ready for action, and their motto, "Integrity. Service before self. Excellence in all we do", is displayed at the main entrance.

Driving through the checkpoint - you need a pass, of course - you begin to grasp the enormity of what it means to station six dozen sophisticated aircraft on foreign soil. Eight thousand people live or work in this little piece of the United States in the Suffolk countryside, including 5,000 military personnel and their families and 2,000 civilian staff. And that means supermarkets and restaurants, hospitals and churches, hairdressers and dry-cleaners, garages and vets - all the services, in fact, that you might expect to find in a small town.

So it comes as no surprise to find a couple of schools here, with two more at the linked base of Feltwell, a short distance down the road. Built in the run-up to the Second World War, RAF Feltwell (like Lakenheath, it's now an RAF base in name only) is home to the Fifth Space Surveillance Squadron. Three golf-ball radar domes similar to those on the North Yorkshire moors dominate the skyline, but the elegant Thirties dormitory blocks remain, and it is these that provide accommodation for both the elementary and middle schools here.

Although they are staffed entirely by civilians, these, like all schools on US military bases, are Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DoDDS). There are 13 schools in the DoDDS UK district, but as Ben Benoit, principal of the elementary school at Feltwell points out, this includes Iceland and will soon take in Bahrain too.

Amusing though this bureaucratic quirk may be, it is also a serious reflection of the transnational nature of these schools. For by the end of their teens, many of the children here will have lived in half a dozen countries. And while it is theoretically possible to remain on base for the duration of a tour of duty (usually three or four years for families), most of the children have a split existence, enveloped within American culture, yet living off-base in one of the nearby towns or villages.

The group of eight to 10-year-olds Mr Benoit has assembled this morning to describe what it's like being an American child abroad all agree that houses are bigger off-base, and that it's fun to mix with the local community ("We just took an English friend on holiday to Florida," says one girl). But when it comes to shopping, buying cheap imported petrol, watching a film or even buying their favourite American sweets, families gravitate to Lakenheath, where goods can be bought for dollars (the exchange rate is terrible) and Hollywood movies have a habit of showing up a week or two early.

While a few parents send their children to local English schools, most plump for DoDDS schools, where the education is almost all-American and standards are up with the best schools at home. "We are mandated by Congress to administer a week-long test called the Terra Nova every year to grades 3 through 11 so they can be sure our students are performing to levels of students in the better districts in the United States," says Mr Benoit. "It's the equivalent of your SATs and covers literacy, numeracy, science and social studies."

There are no uniforms in most DoDDS schools - surprising, perhaps, given their military context - but every Friday is "spirit day", when students are encouraged to take a pride in the school and to wear a sweatshirt depicting the school mascot, and the flag is raised each day. The year is divided into three terms and two semesters, with time off for Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Jr Day and Presidents' Day, and no half-term breaks.

And yet in many ways these are far from typical American schools. For one thing, the staff of each elementary school includes a "host nation teacher" - a British national employed by the Ministry of Defence to provide local input, ranging from field trips and cultural events for the older children, to Paddington Bear sessions for the five-year-olds in the kindergarten. The main difference, however, is that these children can suddenly have their parents wrenched away when the Liberty Wing is scrambled abroad.

Such TDYs (temporary duties) can take a parent away for three months or more. During the Gulf War, staff learned new ways of helping students through difficult times - by encouraging them to keep in touch with family by email, for example.

The parent who stays at home has access to a range of formal and informal support networks, which also help teachers who are married to military personnel. One child, wise for his years, says the stress of TDYs becomes more bearable with age, and certainly the older children across the way in the middle school are bursting with enthusiasm for their nomadic way of life.

With a month's paid-for holiday back in the States every two years, these young teenagers have had plenty of chances to compare themselves with the kids back home. And they reckon they more than measure up. "It's a great learning environment," says one. "You learn other customs, and that helps you to be a lot more open and accepting of other people. Sometimes the language barriers are fun to deal with, whereas in the States you just know what the language is and go with the flow."

Another says: "If you stayed in one place, you just wouldn't know what life was like on the other side of the world. I've lived overseas my whole life, mostly in Europe. It broadens your perspective, and it's kinda nice."

It's kinda nice for the teachers, too. "We're very attractive as a school system because we have good salaries - better than at home," says Dr Jannett Klinke, principal at the middle school. "Plus you have a pretty even-keel population at your school, which makes a big difference."

But teachers working at a military base have to take account of their students' special situation. Amanda Trimillos, who teaches 12-year-olds in the sixth grade, says: "Our curriculum guidelines specify that we must focus in on the military. And in the sixth grade language arts curriculum, for example, there's a spot that says they will learn military acronyms, they will learn military speaking and they will understand rank. There will also be a focus on bringing the community on campus and taking the school off campus, be it into the British sector or into the military sector."

Perhaps it is this wealth of opportunity for connecting theoretical knowledge with a shared real-life experience that is the hallmark of a DoDDS education. Ms Trimillos, who taught at a British school before working for the Department of Defense, recalls taking a geography class at Feltwell and introducing her subject with the question: "Okay, how many of you have lived in Africa?" Half the hands in the room shot up, she says, and at that point she knew that teaching those students was going to be different from anything she had ever experienced. "I'd never been to Africa; all I had was the book work. So I turned to that half of the class and said, 'Right, you talk about the culture', and to the other half, 'You talk about the religion'. If you had come into that class you'd have seen that the students were actually teaching each other.

"It's the same with China or Japan or Holland, and of course everybody raises their hand if you mention Germany. I remember thinking that nothing like that had ever happened in a British school, and I'd never heard of it in an ordinary American school either. Ask a student in the States if they can point out England on the map and they can't. Ask a student here and they can point out England and every country around it."

And the downside? "Well, they get to understand that friends are important because their best friend could be moving tomorrow. The turnover is a third every year, so the end of every school year is a big transition because they never know who's going to come back. I'm flying back to the States on Sunday and I know four students will be flying back with me. At least we can commiserate on the plane together."

It's not the first time somebody says something like that, for there is a sense that even among these hardened globetrotters are many who would care to linger in this particular host nation.

Back at the main Lakenheath base, a party of parents and students, under the watchful eye of host nation teacher Janet Gough, are sampling an old-style English tea complete with scones, rock cakes and cucumber sandwiches made by the children. Like the constant field trips to York or the London museums, it's a way of giving the younger children and their families a picture of where they are.

And overhead, a brace of F-15 fighter planes thunders out across the pine forests so that passing motorists, not expecting to come across this little piece of America in the Suffolk countryside, peer through their sunroofs and wonder where on Earth they are.

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