Stranger in a Strange Land--American girls at English Schools

I stopped over at Shen's Blog this morning, and I predict that I might be visiting again many times in the next few weeks, to check in on their "Crossing Cultural Borders" series (logo on right). It looks great!

This week's topic is "Stranger in a Strange Land: Americans Traveling to Other Cultures:
Since it’s summer and the perfect time to travel, we’re kicking off our Crossing Cultural Borders series with stories about American children and teens physically crossing the borders into other countries and experiencing other cultures."

When I was a little girl, I found myself starting first grade at the Oporto British School. Standing outside the door of my new classroom, a strange adult pushed me in the direction of a larger child, saying, "You stand with her. She's American too." And bang, it hit me that I was "the other" and at an even more basic level that "others" existed (well, not quite in those words). I had never before thought of myself as "American" in opposition to anything else.

In English school stories, Americans at English schools have generally been caricatures. Zerelda Brass, for instance, shows up in Third Year at Mallory Towers (Enid Blyton, 1948, but still in print), wearing (brace yourself) Lipstick! She is flamboyant, annoys the English girls with her accent (which is totally unfair), and generally has trouble with the role of rule-abiding English school girl. For more on Zerelda, look here . Enid Blyton sure has no qualms about pigeonholing girls from different countries--Americans, although bumbtuous, are at least good-hearted, whereas the unfortunate French are doomed--no sense of honour. I started reading Enid Blyton while I was at the Oporto British School, and found Zerelda so fantastical as to be meaningless. But by that time I had picked up, without conscious effort, a more or less posh British accent myself, while still inwardly sneering at the pronunciations of certain words such as squirrel (which of course has only one syllable).

An outstanding book about an American girl at an English boarding school is Back Home, by Michelle Magorian (1984). Virgina was evacuated to America at the beginning of WW II; now the war is over, she returns to her family in England. 12 year old Rusty, as Virginia was called by her American family, isn't "English" anymore, and Magorian does a superb job showing all the jarring, dislocating little things that make two cultures different from each other, even when the language spoken looks the same on paper. For instance, the simple act of saying "hi," without waiting to be spoken too, raises the hackles of the English girls. Rusty's experience at boarding school is horrific. Used to the freedom of her life in America (which seems like a cliche, but reading American vs English girls stories indicates pretty clearly that there is a lot of truth in it), Rusty cannot cope with the regimented, rule-bound institution in which she is trapped.

More recently, Libby Koponen wrote Blow Out the Moon (2004), based on her own experiences of moving to England at a young age, and going off to boarding school at age 8. She too expresses very well how totally foreign a child can feel that first day of school. At the day school she went to initially, the fact of her American-ness never went away; hence her enrollment at what turned out to be an idyllic sounding boarding school. Libby Koponen has a great web site, with lots of pictures!

I've always felt that England should feel less foreign than it does--after all, we read a lot of the same children's books...But because of the shared culture and language, the little things that are different are more startling than the large differences encountered in places where differences are more expected.

If anyone has other examples of American girls at English schools, please share them!

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I was an avid reader as a child, and I never stumbled upon the Enid Blyton books until I was almost in college. I was introduced to them by a friend who grew up in India, and they are such fun!

    Thanks for visiting Shen's Blog and for your great suggestions!


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