HOT TOPIC TUESDAY: Changing Schools

I think part of the reason I'm a young adult novelist is down to a particularly dramatic- and traumatic - change of school environment that I experienced when I was twelve years old.

When I was seven, my family moved to England, in the middle of the school year (always fun). I finished that year out at the American School in London, which if any of you have lived in London, wasn't in the new (well, now it's not so new) building in ST. John's Wood. It was in the old buildings in Regent's Park.

But then my parents decided we should go for the full English experience, so I was admitted to the City of London School for Girls - what the Brits in their charming makes not one iota of sense way call a public school but is actually a private school.

It was the kind of school where you wore a uniform. A uniform that had to be purchase at HARRODS. A uniform that was so regimented, it even had regulation UNDERWEAR.

(Me, on my first day of school, Sept 1970)

It was hard at first. The uniform thing didn't bother me so much, but the fact that I went from being surrounded by other Americans to being the only American did. During my first year, the song AMERICAN PIE by Don Maclean came out. It's a great song, but can I tell you how many times girls with English accents tortured me with that song by singing it every time they saw me?

I grew to love that school though. I was young enough that I adapted by "going native." Lost the American accent pretty quickly and soon, if you saw me on the Tube, you wouldn't be able to tell me from any of the other little English schoolgirls - well, except maybe I had better teeth because my parents took me to a dentist that practiced American dentistry because UK dentistry in those days was notoriously bad.

(Before I got the bad news)

In 1975, I was 12 and practicing for my Bat Mitzvah. I'd been accepted to a special youth program at one of prestigious London music colleges for my cello playing. And parents told us we were moving back to the States.

And thus my YA novelist career was born. I was supposed to go into seventh grade at Cloonan Middle School in Stamford CT, but my British private (sorry public) school education meant that I was a year ahead of my peers in most subjects. The school argued with my mom about moving me ahead until they tested me and then they just shut up and put me in 8th grade.

After being in sheltered, all-girls school with regulation underwear, life in a very mixed catchment area middle school in 1975 America was MAJOR culture shock. First there was the bus. People were smoking cigarettes and pot in the back of the bus. I hadn't even HEARD of pot until I got on that bus. (Yeah, I know, sheltered. Seriously sheltered.) Gangs of girls hung out in the bathrooms smoking cigarettes. I was so scared of them, I would literally hold it in all day.

Then there were the other things, like clothes. I'd been wearing school uniform five days a week, so I didn't have that many clothes. Suddenly, clothes really mattered. People gave you a hard time about your clothes.

And then there was my accent. I'd come back from my years in England, sounding like a proper English schoolgirl. Kids would come up to me and bark, "TALK!" as if I were a performing animal. "Say Peaches and cream with strawberries!" was a popular request.

Needless to say, my desire to fit in was WAY stronger than my desire to keep my English accent, so I lost it. FAST.

But trauma from that radical change of schools - that horrific one year of middle school and the four years of high school that followed - form the basis, the inspiration, and the heart of my career as a young adult novelist.

(Okay, maybe I don't look so traumatized here, but trust me, I was!)

How about you? Did you ever change schools? Was it for the better or for the worse?


Lydia Sharp said...

I changed schools once in second grade, but it was the same city just a different area. That was hard.

But not as hard as when we moved to a new county in the middle of my sophomore year of high school. I went from a HUGE city school to a teensy-tiny out-in-the-country-somewhere school. From a graduating class of 700+ to a graduating class of 127. I was extremely shy and never did make any real friends, even by the time we graduated two years later.

It has become fodder for my current WIP, though. And it's actually been not-so-terrible to revisit the experience. As long as I keep reminding myself that it happened 17 years ago so it can't hurt me anymore. ;)

JLWatkins said...

I had a similar experience - English born, moved schools twice whilst still living in England, emigrated to New Zealand, attended three schools there (I was in high school by this stage) and then finally emigrated to Australia at the age of 15. I lost an English and Kiwi accent along the way and now have a strange well-spoken Aussie accent with the occasional Kiwi vowel thrown in for good measure :))

And yes, I channel all of those fish out of water experiences into contemporary YA ;)

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

OMG that's horrible! I was in the same school system my entire life, so I never went through anything like that. But wow!

Pam Harris said...

I had to change schools a TON of times since my dad was in the military. In one elementary school, I was one of probably 3 black students. And though I have friends of all backgrounds, needless to say, that was probably the worst experience of my life. It was the first time I was ever called the N-word. :( However, I do feel the constant moving helped me learn about all different types of people and that's why friends are so diverse. :)

Amy Ellerman said...

As someone who moved six times between kindergarten and the end of high school, I understand! Although I never lived overseas as a kid, we did make one midwest to south move that caused some culture shock.

On the positive side, I can be thrown into any situation and survive. (I actually start to crave change after too long.) The biggest negative: I don't have any lifelong friends--it was too hard to keep in touch pre-email.

Sarah Darer Littman said...

Amy - you'd be surprised how easy it is to get back in touch in the Facebook age. I remember even pre-Internet, I'd fallen out of touch with one of my UK friends. Then I was doing an honors course at Oxford one summer when I was at college and I wrote to her. She came up to visit me and I was SOOOOO nervous before her visit - we'd been BF's and was it going to be weird and awkward? But it was amazing - after about five minutes we were talking as easily an naturally as if we'd been hanging out for the almost decade we hadn't seen each other.

Lois D. Brown said...

I spent some of 1st grade and most of second in France at a public school. Trust me, this school was definitely a public school. Came back to the states not able to speak English and looking like a European Rag-a-muffin. I was teased a lot in 3rd grade. However, looking back, I wouldn't change my experience abroad for anything.

Sarah Laurence said...

I’ve been waiting to hear your English schools story. It must have been hard doing two major transitions, especially without an English parent to ease the transition or commiserate. It’s good that you used the experience positively to become a novelist.

My English husband and I have a similar photo of our then 6-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son in uniforms for an English private school (only the oldest, elite ones are called public.) Our children attended for 6 months while my husband was running a study abroad program for American college students.

My daughter struggled both academically and socially and before she picked up a plumy English accent. Her older brother didn’t pick up the accent and had no problems at school. My son didn’t want to go back to public school so switched to a private school and all went well. My daughter transitioned back easily to her public elementary school in the USA.

We returned to England for a year when the kids were 10 and 13. My daughter went to state school in Oxford she remembered her English accent and assimilated well. There was no room for her brother in the local state school so he was a day boy at an elite public school. My son had the opposite experience as yours. He was meant to be going into 7th grade but his high entrance test scores meant he had to jump ahead into 8th grade (the school insisted). He loved the academics, but he had a harder time as the only American in his school and the youngest boy in his form. Perhaps the social problems you experienced upon your return to the USA came in part from skipping a year?

After a year abroad, my son returned to his private school but was bored academically until he started high school the following year. He still misses the academic rigor of an English school. His sister joined him at his private school without any problems. She switched back to an American accent there but sometimes does an English accent for the fun of it.

I’m working on a novel about an American teen in England. I spent my junior year at King’s London, but during college. I went to the same school in NYC from age 3 to 18 so my kids are helping me write about transitions and studying abroad.

Stasia said...

Changed schools several times, sometimes to be near a good ballet studio. Worst part was always my birthday, which falls near beginning of school year--it's weird when you're new and nobody knows. Looking back, I'm grateful for each experience but it wasn't always easy at the time.

Micol Ostow said...

I was in the same school from K-12, and though I liked it, there was definitely a "bubble" vibe going on. I made a point of doing extracurricular activities outside of school so I could meet people from different backgrounds. I can't imagine what it would be like to have to change schools - especially a switch as dramatic as US-UK!

Ginny said...

Interesting post...

Changing school... yeah. Once. From Korea to Germany. Imagine the culture shock I must have experienced! It was so... DIFFERENT.

I was born and grew up in Korea until I was 11 years old. I was in the 5th grade then and we moved to Germany. I didn't speak a word of German back then but somehow I nevigated through the German school system and learned the language pretty quickly. And I was fascinated by the novelty of it all - it was really amazing.
In fact, I adapted to here so well I don't really feel Korean anymore. Also, American YA literature has a great impact on my life and personality so most of the time, I feel one third Korean, one third German and one third American even though I've never been there. Does that sound weird? I mean, I'm 100% Korean by heritage but I don't feel like Korean. Not 100% anyway.
I'm not always sure if it's a good thing or not. Mostly I just think "That's just how I am, like it or not."

Sarah Darer Littman said...

Ginny, I totally understand how you feel. When I was moving back to the US after living in the UK for 10 years, everyone said, "Oh, it must be great to be home again." But other than the fact that I was thrilled to be living closer to my family,it didn't feel quite like home. I still feel like my "home" is somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic - when I'm here there are things I desperately miss about the UK and Europe and when I'm there I desperately miss things about the States. And because I moved back and forth there are these huge chunks of cultural references that only people on a certain side of the "Pond" would know, and sometimes I'll use them on the wrong side and get the "Huh?" look.

Anonymous said...

How does one have "regulation" underwear? What's the difference?

Sarah Darer Littman said...

They were part of the uniform. We had to buy them at Harrods, along with the rest of the uniform. Maroon, high waisted granny pants, made of non-natural materials. I think the reason we had them is because we had to change into really short maroon skirts for games and that way they could be sure we were "decent" underneath.

Adeeva Afsheen said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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