A year with no car, and other British pleasures

December 21, 1997|By Phil Greenfield

AS THE INEVITABLE 1997 yuletide crescendo builds, it seems appropriate to reflect on my adventures of the past year. Readers may recall that in August I returned from a year-long teaching exchange in England.

For the 1996-97 school year, I hung out my shingle at St. Ivo School in St. Ives, East Anglia, 13 miles northwest of Cambridge and some 70 miles straight up from London. We lived just across the River Ouse in the quintessentially British village of Hemingford Grey where thatched roofs, 900-year-old Norman churches and all the warm beer you'd ever want to drink were just a short walk away.

Teaching in the United Kingdom was a surrealistic experience. I taught eight courses simultaneously, which means I whimpered a lot.

To sir with love

Young people called me "Sir" every day for a year. Sidney Poitier, star of the movie "To Sir With Love," had nothing on me. I loved it, and half expected Lulu to break out in the theme each and every time I heard it.

Last December, we marched 200 of Year 8 (their term for seventh graders) down to All Saints Church for a Christmas service. What are the odds of that happening here in the land of the free and the home of the ACLU?

One day last fall, I went on a 21-hour school trip to the World War I battlefields of France. As I scrambled out of a German trench onto No Man's Land near the Somme River on that cold, rainy November afternoon, you could have whacked me on the nose with a brick and I wouldn't have felt it. This was what I've taught, in reality.

It also was thrilling that no one in Britain used the phrase "criterion-referenced test" once all year.

Memories of our life in Hemingford leave me nostalgic beyond words. We did the year without a car. Buses, trains, bikes, the occasional taxi and our legs were all we needed. The other night, my son and I visited the Broadneck branch of the Anne Arundel County Public Library which is, maybe, 400 yards from our

house. We drove. For this, I should be whipped, pilloried and forced to read nothing but Nancy Grasmick's "Core Learning Goals" for many penance-filled weeks.

The best Saturdays of all were spent tramping the streets of Cambridge, where God would attend university provided He had the grades. If you like bookstores, have I got a place for you.

For the world's best Yorkshire pudding, try The Shoulder of Mutton pub in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire. It's light, fluffy and big enough to wash your feet in.

I did the Louvre, Uffizzi and London's National Gallery this year, but the Tate Gallery (also in London), bulging at the seams with Turners, Constables, and Pre-Raphaelites galore, yielded more goosebumps per canvas than any other museum I saw.

For literary goosebumps, try a walk along the Yorkshire moors behind the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth. Heathcliff lives and the heights still wuther.

Outside their natural habitat, boys choirs are for the birds. But at St. Paul's on Passion Sunday, I heard angels singing the music of Orlando di Lasso.

If you visit England and crave something absurd, have a look at the House of Commons in action. House members tut-tut British teachers mercilessly for failing to uphold proper decorum in the classroom, then enter their own chamber to shout, snigger, ridicule, interrupt, bait and bully anyone and everyone at will.

Alice Morgan Brown, the principal who suspended all those students at Northern High School, would suspend the lot of these British lawmakers on sight.

Best sport ever invented

Soccer, I conclude, is the best spectator sport ever invented, provided American teams aren't playing. You don't have committee meetings after every play as in football, and the entire match takes less time than the average fourth inning at Camden Yards. The Brits love the game more than life itself, though their high school kids spend far too much time at their studies to be considered true jocks by American standards.

So, yes, I'm feeling a sense of something lost this season. But I must admit there are many things about life in these parts that make it not such a bad place to come back to. I've walked into some of the nicest, smartest classes I've had in years at Annapolis High.

Our arts scene continues to go great guns, highlighted by the Annapolis Symphony's search for a new conductor, which makes kibitzing in these pages even more fun than usual.

Beer will always be cold now, while books and CDs are affordable again, since I'm not paying a 17.5 percent value-added tax every time someone says "Cheerio."

But what I'm enjoying most about my weekend morning bagels by the City Dock and my jaunts through the U.S. Naval Academy and the Annapolis Historic District is the knowledge that when our dear new friends from England come to visit us here, as they surely must, Annapolis with all its attractive charm, will be such a uniquely hospitable place to walk about, gaze and relive the experiences of a lifetime.

That's the nice thing about exchanges. They don't have to end, really, unless you want them to.

The writer is a high school teacher in Annapolis and an arts critic for The Sun in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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