Pride, Regret, and Rust-buckets

by Meredith Stephens

Sitting in the high school staff room in Adelaide one lunchtime in 1987 I started leafing through a teachers’ magazine. An ad for teaching positions in London caught my attention. I applied and was accepted, and as soon as the term was over I left my position and excitedly headed for London.

My first appointment was with the Inner London Education Authority. The classes were challenging and I felt disoriented in the unfamiliar education system. One day, a newly-made friend drew my attention to an ad for a French-teaching position at a small private school. When I attended the interview the first thing I noticed was the dilapidated buildings, suggesting that the school received no government funding. I accepted the position and commenced work immediately.

I was to teach French up to O Level (Year 11) and the only teaching materials were the textbook and past exam papers from the 1950s. Most of the classroom time was spent delivering dictations in preparation for the O Level exam. I wasn’t really qualified to teach French but dictations were within my grasp; all I had to do was be very particular about my pronunciation. I had trained as a teacher of Japanese in Australia but Japanese wasn’t taught in high schools in London. Language teachers in the UK usually taught both French and German. I had studied French at the Alliance Francaise and completed a course at the Sorbonne in Paris while working as an au pair. Despite this inadequate background my students somehow managed to pass their O Level exam.

After nearly a year, having realised that I was hardly getting by on my pittance of a salary, I resumed working for the Inner London Education Authority. The salary was a little better there, but I was paid less than my British counterparts because my Australian teaching diploma was not recognised. Teachers had to have completed O Level Maths at high school. I didn’t mind terribly because I was there for the experience and was not particularly ambitious.

The children were warm and even effusive. Once I was even greeted with a hug when I arrived at the classroom door. “So glad we have you and not him today Miss!” is a greeting I will never forget. However the children were more unruly than in Australia, contrary to my expectations.

Despite these challenging teaching conditions I felt very at home in London. I had permission to work there because Australians up to age 27 could obtain employment for up to two years as working holiday makers. Australians could only obtain full-time employment there if they had a British grandparent. My forebears had migrated five generations ago. At the time, the UK was a member of the EU, and EU nationals were favoured for employment over Australians.

I lived in the south-west of London in Wandsworth and used to travel through Waterloo Station on my way to work at schools in the East End. Every morning and evening while commuting I would pass a huge billboard advertising a major credit card company with the name M.Stephens emblazoned on it. I was peeved that my work opportunities were so limited despite having a name that was so representative of the ordinary UK citizen that it featured on a billboard.

On the days when I couldn’t be bothered taking both overground and underground trains and standing on cold platforms, I permitted myself to drive. I had purchased a yellow Fiat – more rust-colored than yellow – from an acquaintance who needed the money. In the cold London mornings the car sometimes refused to start so a friend taught me how to do a hill start. The house where I was staying was on a hill. I would put the car into neutral and let it roll down the hill. As it gained momentum I would put it into second gear, and the motor would start.

In the final school term before the two years of my working holiday elapsed the ILEA assigned me to a school near Bethnal Green to teach French. The children were lively and had limited concentration, other than two girls who sat at the front and asked me questions about French. A few weeks before leaving I explained to the children that I would be leaving them to return to my country. On the last day of teaching I was assigned a German class because the German teacher was absent (French teachers in the UK were expected to be able to teach German too). I knew no German other than greetings and the numbers from one to ten. I was not sure how to deliver the class so I copied some German vocabulary onto the board and their English translations from the textbook. Given my inadequate teaching methodology the class became increasingly restless. The two girls from my French class were sitting in front of the teacher’s desk. They showed the same attention, interest and respect as they had in the French class. I continued to feel frustrated given my resentment at having to teach a language I didn’t understand, and being assigned an unruly class. Rather than reprimand the class I took the easy route of displacing my anger and chastising the two diligent girls sitting in front of the teacher’s desk. At the end of the lesson they approached me.

“We are sorry that you are going back to Australia. We really appreciated your classes. We hope you have a safe trip home,” they said to me, while offering a carefully wrapped box tied with a shiny ribbon.

I certainly had not expected to receive a present from students on my last day of teaching. I thanked them and accepted it.

I packed my bags and prepared to fly back to Australia.Instead of flying back the usual route through Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, I had decided to fly back across America. I had written to my old university friend Alex who was working as a software engineer in San Jose, to accept his long-standing invitation to visit him. The plane was due to fly out from Gatwick Airport in London. I was about to board the plane when there was an announcement that the flight would be delayed 24 hours. The passengers  were put up in an airport hotel and I stayed in a spacious and luxurious room. It was so beautiful that I was glad for the delay. We were allowed to make one international phone call at the airline’s expense. I phoned Alex in San Jose to explain my new arrival time.

The next day the plane was ready to depart. My first stop was in Houston, Texas. I hadn’t planned my trip, and found myself in a hotel room on a highway distant from any shopping centres. I was jet lagged and didn’t want to eat out alone, so I decided to stay in that night. I opened the present from the girls in London.Inside the large exquisitely wrapped box was a giant Easter egg, with ‘Bon Voyage’ written across it with an icing pen. My students had bought me a farewell gift, and because I was their French teacher, they had had the farewell greeting written in French. I cracked a piece of it, meaning to stop there, and consumed the rest more quickly than I had intended over the next day in Houston.

Finally I flew into San Francisco and my old friend Alex was waiting for me at the luggage carousel, standing taller than when I had last seen him. He was just starting his career in Silicon Valley, but found the time to drive me around  in his rusty beat-up Subaru to show me the grounds of Stanford University, the town of Monterey, and Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco. On the day I left, he had a corporate meeting in San Francisco and offered to drop me off at the airport bus stop in the city. We left the undulating hills in his suburb in San Jose when suddenly his motor stopped on the top of the hill. I would be late for my flight and he would be late for his meeting. It suddenly occurred to me that I could start his car with a hill start as I had done in London. I had my international driver’s licence but had never driven on the right hand side of the road.

“Let me try and start it for you,” I offered.

Alex accepted my suggestion. He moved across to the passenger seat and I walked around to the driver’s side. I put the car in neutral and let it glide down the hill. Then I put it in gear and the motor obliged. Once the motor was in action I stopped the car without turning off the motor, and moved back to the passenger seat. Alex resumed driving because I didn’t want to keep driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. We managed to drive without motor failure until Alex reached the bus stop.Then I alighted and bade him farewell. He continued on to his meeting and I made it to the airport on time.

I reflected on the trip home from the UK and realised that I had had one regret and one sense of pride. I was disappointed with myself for having snapped at my innocent students on the day that they had taken the trouble to give me the parting gift of the Easter egg. I was proud that I had managed to start a car for my engineer friend – the language teacher with neither O Level Maths nor technical know-how.