A teacher exchange to Los Angeles
In 1979 I was fortunate enough to receive a teacher exchange to the USA for a year. It might not have been LA it could have been to anywhere. We could have ended up in Alaska, Idaho of Hawaii. The excitement sent the imaginative juices flowing. The experience was bound to be entirely different depending on where we ended up.
Finally, after many months, the letter arrived; we were heading for Los Angeles.
Los Angeles was slightly different to Walton on Thames where I was brought up. It was also a bit different to East Yorkshire where we were now living. It was also different to London where I’d spend a good few years. Los Angeles was hot, sprawling and full of interesting people. We knew that because we had visited it in 1971 on our American expedition. I liked American culture (culture?) and I had made a good number of friends during my three months. We were eager to get out there for a whole year. It gave us time to settle in and explore.
The excitement was palpable though it was bound to be different given that we now had three children. We were hardly up for hitch-hiking round or long trips on a Greyhound bus.
It was August and we stepped off the air-conditioned plane into a furnace. It felt instantly overwhelming. We had a week to acclimatise and then I was in teaching in an American High school.
The orientation meeting was interesting. The Principal was explaining the new regulations regarding earthquake drill, how to call security, fire arm control and procedures to follow to evacuate your class in the event of gasoline being set alight under both classroom doors (a practice that had occurred in a number of schools and was trending at the time). I sat there thinking about the mundane nature of our staff meetings back in Yorkshire and wondering what I had let myself in for. The Principal noticed and smilingly reassured me that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.
It wasn’t. Though for the first few weeks it was a state of high anxiety. I had my first earthquake which shook the building about a bit. Nobody seemed that bothered. We might be destined for a major flattening followed by being swamped in a tsunami but it wasn’t likely to happen today – why care?
My students were brilliant. They were the friendliest bunch of people; all full of openness and America ‘can do’ spirit. I always said that if I was to go in to any one of my classes and state that there was going to be a convention. Thirty thousand of the world’s top astrophysicists were going to meet and they wanted a High School student to address them that they’d all be falling over themselves to volunteer even though they knew nothing about astrophysics. That was in contrast to England. If I had made the same proposition to a class of school astrophysics students most would decline on the basis that they did not know enough to speak to such an august body. The English student selected would prepare thoroughly and probably deliver a thoughtful input; the American student would ad-lib and bring the house down. It exemplified the different cultures. We could probably both benefit from a bit of the other (who wouldn’t?).
My school was 50% Chicano, 40% white and 10% black. There was an uneasy atmosphere with an overlay of racism. There was a strong gang culture with two major gangs – the Bloods and the Crips. You didn’t wear the wrong colours in the wrong places. I was given a long lecture by one of the older staff about which streets and areas it was safe to drive down and which you did not go near. I soon learnt the hierarchy of the uniform. The kids with white T-shirts and hairnets were the young soldiers.
Back home in our rented house, complete with two large orange trees that gave us fresh orange juice all year round and an avocado pear that produced a few pears, we were introduced to our neighbours. They were very friendly ladies nearing retirement age. One was a teacher in Junior School. We were quite shocked to hear the casual talk about being lucky to be based in an oasis in Downey surrounded by white trash, black trash and Mexican trash. It sounded racist to us and incongruous coming from the mouths of such pleasant ladies.
We’d lived there five months and then it rained. It happened while I was teaching. Suddenly my whole class got up and rushed out. The whole school was outside. It was raining. Coming from England it seemed unremarkable; but this was the first rain they had experienced in a year.
Even stranger – when I returned home I discovered our garden had sprouted snow-capped mountains. Previously if I had looked towards the horizon one was confronted with a brown haze. The rain had rinsed it out of the sky. The air was clear and the mountains appeared out of nowhere, so close that you felt you could reach out and touch them.
Los Angeles had changed. Wandering through Venice Beach it did not have the same feel as back in the sixties. It felt jaded. What had been optimistic had declined into a hedonistic drug culture. The spirit of building something new had descended into purposelessness. I guess that was the way it had always been for most people. Half my students were stoners and half were born again Christians. I soon discovered that the two were not mutually exclusive.
‘Where does it say in the bible that you can’t smoke dope?’ one of my students asked.
America was different.
It was a culture shock.