Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Boys and girls


On Nov. 11, I attended a school ceremony in Dulwich, a suburb south of the Thames, not far from London. It commemorated Remembrance Day, like the U.S. Veterans Day, honoring the memories of the fallen military. As I sat among entranced parents and watched the choir of schoolboys sing hymns, their mouths forming perfect O's and eyes carefully looking at the choir director, I thought about the differences and similarities of our respective cultures.

After the hour, we were invited to the school hall for tea and biscuits. Certainly, the sight of a 10-year-old reading a scientific journal after the end of the service was not one I expected. In his proper uniform, he seemed the very model of a serious British schoolboy, until I noticed that his shoelaces were untied, his tie askew, and that he obviously didn't give a fig. And when the choirboys joined the adults for tea and biscuits, they bounded over to the plates with chocolate, voicing their pleasure that some of their favorites were still left. Though the accents were British, the behavior was universal.

Later that afternoon, after the two boys we had come to watch ate a lunch during which they were teased about greasy ties, they retired to their rooms for computer games and then outside to play in the crisp air on their roller blades. It felt like any quiet family Sunday afternoon anywhere in the world.

Last week I traveled via a small bus from my tiny village to Peterborough to catch a train to London, and it was filled with teenaged schoolboys and girls on their way to their highly respected independent school. I was struck by how much these kids resembled teenagers anywhere. Although in proper uniforms, the girls had zippy touches such as fancy stockings or ribbons in their hair. They were mocking the accent of one of their teachers, whose repetition of the words "boys and girls" sounded like "bo-uys and gur-ruls." Apparently she has a Midland accent but "tries to be posh" to no avail.

It took me back to the times when, as an English teacher, I knew some of my students were probably grimacing or whispering behind my back, even though I hoped they all adored me. I learned to ignore mutterings and usually felt that I had a good rapport with my classes. I was thus pleased to hear one of the English students say, "Oh, come on. She's OK, anyway." Later, I could hear them gossiping about one of their schoolmates who liked to party too much. I could have been on a bus with students from the Wood River Valley going to Jerome.

I have continued to have trouble with the King's English and struggle every day with some expression new to me, perhaps the pronunciation of "Lester" for "Leicester;" idioms and slang such as "pong" for a bad smell, "faff" for time wasting, or "bolt-hole" for a place of escape; or a different stress on syllables; MaurEEN in America becomes MAUReen in the home of Shakespeare.

But the other evening, fully aware of the need to visit the "loo" (I've learned something, at least), and holding a pair of shoes I carried to an elegant dinner in London so they wouldn't get wet in the rain, I encountered a typical problem. I planned to check the plain shoes I was wearing and so asked for the "cloakroom." I was sent downstairs, but only saw a door sign with the feminine figure noting the women's lavatory. I returned upstairs, again being told that the cloakroom was downstairs. I walked downstairs again to the loo, where a kind Englishwoman told me that the word "cloakroom" is often used to designate the loo. The actual place where I checked my coat, umbrella and shoes was back upstairs and did, by the way, have a sign that said "cloakroom." My companions just assumed I knew and wondered why I had taken so long.

Well, I am trying to blend in a bit more without adopting a phony accent, but do not always succeed. On the return bus trip to from Peterborough, the same students were going home at the end of the day. I listened again, talking quietly to my friend. The students must have heard me speak, because when I got off, they burst into song. "Bye, bye, American pie," they sang. I was found out again, but with a sense of humor that allows us to truly communicate!

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