I don’t know what made me do it. I do know that Mike gave me the idea. He was an affable Canadian who arrived at my school for a year’s exchange. I guessed he was even older than me and I was the wrong side of 50. He and his wife were delighted with their exchange house overlooking the beach. Mike was less delighted with his new class, some of whom showed little interest in Canada or the outside world and treated him with a scorn reserved for all casuals, itinerant teachers or staff who had not been in the school as long as they had.
However, for me, the stars were aligning. My husband had retired from his job as a school principal, my daughter was working in London and my son was approaching his final year of university. It had always been my dream to live and work in another country long term so that I could get a feel for the culture, watch the change in the seasons and best of all, have a base to explore an entirely new continent. A year in England with a school and accommodation already taken care of would be a dream come true. If Mike could do it, why couldn’t I?
I have the ability to push to the back of my mind worst case scenarios and so blithely went ahead with my application in November 2002. With my principal’s mixed blessing I sent my form to the local district superintendent. The interview was by phone early in the Christmas holidays. I answered the call in my dressing gown and heated curlers, trying to sound dignified and intelligent as we discussed my proposed research project. The interview appeared to be a formality and so the waiting game began. I looked forward to the new school year with more than usual enthusiasm because I hoped a letter would be waiting, revealing my new home and workplace for the following year.
Days turned into weeks, then months. One afternoon I returned from a science excursion with my Year 5. It was getting late in the afternoon but for some reason I checked the staffroom and saw a fat white envelope in my pigeon hole. John, the principal, had written a congratulatory note on the outside. With mounting excitement I tore it open to reveal photos of a traditional white English house flanked by established English trees. It was tastefully furnished with period pieces and looked like something from an English House and Garden magazine. Reading on I discovered it was in Kent with a nearby primary school in Greenwich. It was so different to my house and my newly built (1995) school in NSW.
I rang my husband before rushing home to examine the documents more closely. It looked as though the adventure was about to begin! After promptly returning my acceptance I waited for a response.
Nothing happened. Until one day a phone call to my principal brought the devastating news. The exchange was off. Not my fault – internal staffing problems in the school.
“The next offer might be better,” people said, trying to comfort me. “Maybe it was meant to be!”
Several emails to State Office later it was suggested I consider Canada or the US as the UK was hard to get. I wondered why as our exchange rate and sunny climate would surely be an incentive for any English teacher. I really wanted England as my daughter was in London and my ancestors had all come from Britain by ship a hundred and fifty years before. It was time to return to the “Old Country”.
Another offer did come. The house was a small semi-detached in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. The school was on the edge of a ‘50s industrial estate in a nearby city. It seemed that schools were rated in England by their position on a League Table after the children sat for their SATS tests. The inauspicious results from the school placed it 125 out of a possible 128 in the county. School numbers were decreasing at an alarming rate according to demographic information available on the net. To my mind the whole situation seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy as enrolments and test results declined simultaneously.
Although somewhat concerned about the school and disappointed that London was no longer 20 minutes by train, but more like two hours, I returned my acceptance.
Time passed and unbelievably I again received the message, “We regret to inform you that the proposed exchange between Linda Curry and X will not be going ahead.”
I couldn’t believe my eyes. My husband suggested I take leave or resign and work in England for English money but I wasn’t quite brave enough to do that. My heart was set on an exchange. At 52 I wasn’t getting any younger and I wanted the security of a house and job before I left Australian shores as well as a job to return to the following year.
An emotional outpouring to the Australian exchange organisers received a sympathetic ear. They assured me there was nothing wrong with my application. In fact the first exchange was cancelled because two of the staff had become pregnant and the principal did not want any more staff changes. Those SAT tests and League Tables had them worried. In the second case the mother of the exchange teacher became seriously ill and so she had to cancel her plans.
We were having coffee in our caravan, having escaped to the Gold Coast for a winter break in the June/July holidays. My mobile rang. “Would you be prepared to teach younger children and do you think your principal would be happy to accept an ‘infants only’ teacher’?” After saying I couldn’t speak for my Principal but as far as I was concerned it wasn’t a problem I had the foresight to ask, “Where?”
“Staffordshire, I think,” was the reply. Somehow, I knew this was it.