Adelaide, Australia. 2010. Raiding the supply of “blueys” or blue withdrawal room forms in the staff room of Le Fevre High School, I grabbed a substantial stack. Recently, I had been called a “f**king bitch” in class by one of my year 8 students, so I armed myself with the blue tickets to the “naughty room.”
The withdrawal room was where you sent unruly, belligerent or uncooperative students. As I contemplated how long my blue pile would last, the assistant principal Jane Prince, whisked into the staff room.
“Steph, we need you to teach the Year 7 transition class today,” she mentioned while filling teacher pigeon holes (mailboxes) full of paperwork.
“The what class?” By now I was so used to winging it at Le Fevre, where I had been assigned as an American exchange teacher, it didn’t faze me one bit to be given a class I didn’t have a clue about.
“The transition class. Year 7s from feeder schools will be visiting today. We need to introduce these prospective students to our maths and language arts programs.”
“Jane, you really want me to teach this class?
“Yes, why not?” Jane grabbed another stack of papers, licked her thumb and began rifling through them. Soon they were completely sorted. She turned to look at me, while peering over the top rim of her glasses frames.
Because, seriously, you want the kids to come here, right? To impress them.
“I just thought you might want an Aussie teacher who knows the system better than I do,” I said trying to think of a good excuse.
Surely, the other teachers must already be booked for other duties, and this had to be a desperation decision on Jane’s part, I decided.
“You’ve been here, what, eight months? You know the system,” Jane took something out of her own pigeon hole, frowned at it and put it back.
Yes, and for eight solid months I had felt like the worst teacher in the world. My “sleeve” was empty since I had used everything stored up there during the first week.
Kids literally had climbed the walls in my class or at least climbed into the window sills. I dropped the F-bomb in front of a classroom full of students — twice. Consistently I misunderstood or mixed up Australian slang — At one point, I told a kid he was too young to have sex when he asked me for a “rubber” (eraser). Equally as inappropriate, I confused “wank” (to masturbate) with “wag” (to skip class). Consequently, during another class, I said “yes” when a kid asked if he could use “wank” as an active verb (active, indeed).
“Yes. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Clearly, of course, Mitchell, I would prefer you don’t do it, but go ahead and use it in a sentence.”
I was an easy target for my students to set up for awkward moments. Fortunately, I still had a good sense of humor. But my confidence was shot.
Talk about “no worries.” If Jane could overlook this track record, it was clear that I was teaching this class.
“Just do some fun English games with them,” Jane pivoted and headed for the door. It was easy for her to say. She taught maths, which had plenty of games and puzzles built into the subject. I was pretty sure playing the “Grammar Hammer” wasn’t going to send enrollment off the charts for next year.
“I’ll let you know which room it will be in,” Jane said as she left the room. “They’ll be here around 10 a.m.”
I turned over a bluey on which to take notes.
Around 10 a.m.
The kids from Altherton Primary came in with their teacher and sat down quietly with ramrod straight posture. This startled me since my classroom usually had an asylum atmosphere from the start. I turned to face them.
“Hi everyone,” I said rather shrilly. “I’m Mrs. Glaser and you probably can tell by my accent that I’m not from Australia.” I was hoping I could work the accent angle and discuss how English can actually be quite different depending upon where you lived and grew up.
Again, somewhat unsettling, all kids focused their attention on me.
“I thought we could talk about these differences in the English language.”
Hands shot up in the air. I was familiar with this routine. On my first day of school at Le Fevre, I had been bombarded by questions about which celebrities I knew, what kind of gun I owned, whether it is true that McDonald’s delivers and if you get arrested when you don’t show up at church. It was clear from the beginning, that as a Yank, I had some major public relations hurdles to overcome.
I pointed to one girl who kept pushing her arm up as she raised it, trying to make it go higher. “Are you from America?” she asked, letting out a huge breath.
“Yes, I am. Good guess. And your name is?”
“Well, Kylie, Can you tell me what you call Tim Tams, which I LOVE, by the way?”
“Tim Tams.” She said smiling sincerely while other kids had their hands in the air.
“Yes, they are Tim Tams. But what type of food are they?” I asked looking around at all the attentive faces.
“They’re biscuits, Miss!” said a young Andy Warhol looking kid who just couldn’t wait for me to call on him.
“Yes! And your name is?”
“So, Travis, in the US we call biscuits cookies.”
I looked around for another item. A few kids sat looking ready to take notes.“And the items that you guys call textas, which you write with — we call those markers.”
“What do you call a pencil, Miss?” asked Travis.
“Actually, it’s pencil — same as what you guys say.”
“What do you call paper?” another kid asked.
It wasn’t going as well as I had hoped. Most of the interesting dialect differences occurred with words like “root,” which of course I couldn’t bring up with year 7s.
I had learned prior to coming to Australia that “root” Down Under meant “particularly active sex.” In the US, it means “to support” or “cheer for.” One of the problems with trying to avoid saying root is that Australia is such a sporting nation. It’s too easy to ask someone, “Which team do you root for?” I’m sure asking that question has the potential to send someone’s elderly auntie into cardiac arrest.
Unfortunately, I went there with my own class of year 8s. Telling them that Americans use “root” instead of “go for,” I added how awkward it would be if I were to use the term in Australia. Huge mistake. The class went ballistic with laughter and inappropriate comments and basically my authority disintegrated along with the lesson. I was used to teaching year 11s and 12s in the US and was ignorant that year 8s couldn’t handle that information.
More hands went up with the year 7s. It started to feel like a press conference. I called on a small girl wearing blue and yellow ribbons that matched Atherton’s school colors. Her name was Molly.
“Do you know Justin Bieber, or have you ever seen him, Miss Glaser?” I could tell by Molly’s wide grin and googley eyes that Justin must be some heart-throb or in some boy band.
“No,” I responded. “I’m not sure who he is.” I waited for the students’ disappointment and the bitter factor to settle in. At the beginning of the year when I admitted I didn’t know Miley Cyrus, 50 Cent or Katy Perry, kids were irritated with me. Then when I told them I didn’t have a gun. They thought I was a fraud as an American and were totally done with me.
“He’s from Canada not America,” Kylie said to Molly.
“But aren’t Canada and America next to each other?” Molly asked.
“Yes, we are neighbors,” I confirmed. “But who is Justin Bieber?”
“Oh, Miss Glaser, he is a pop star and he’s so awesome,” Molly replied.
“What does he sing?”
Molly immediately piped out the chorus of what I found out was one of the Biebs’s first hit songs, “Baby.”
And I’m like
Baby, baby, baby oooh
Like baby, baby, baby nooo
Like baby, baby, baby oooh
I thought you’d always be mine mine
A couple of other girls actually squealed while Molly held a virtual microphone.
Almost every boy groaned, and a few stuck their fingers toward their mouths to simulate a gagging reflex. Meanwhile, their teacher shifted her weight from one foot to the other and I think she may have looked at her watch.
“I can totally relate since I liked Duran Duran when I was your age,” I said realizing that I was just prolonging the pain for the boys.
“I wanted to marry John Taylor,” I added. “So you might have had to call me Mrs. Taylor.”
Blank looks and the Altherton teacher looked like she was ready to roll her eyes to the back of her skull.
Eventually the bell sounded loudly, and the kids all waved good-bye. It was the end to my recruiting stint for Le Fevre.
Later that day, as I walked around the school grounds during yard duty, several of the year 7 girls yelled out “Hi, Mrs. Glaser!” That was pretty impressive since most of my own students still referred to me only as “Miss.” Molly and Kylie came over and said “We so hope we get to have you for our teacher next year!”
While I’d like to think it was because I inspired them academically, I knew it was really that I lived in the country that’s to Justin Bieber’s. And I’ll take that.
Note: Some of the names have been changed in this story.