With the American Field Service exchange program, you can stay with an American family for one year and attend senior year of high school if you have passed your school finals in India. Still wet behind the ears, I arrived in the US in summer, and was all set to start school in the fall at Watchung Hill’s Regional High School in Warren Township, New Jersey.
School opened when summer ended and all the kids in our lane walked down to the end of the road with lunch packets to wait for the yellow school bus. By my standards, the high school, which covered just four years —freshman, sophomore, junior and senior —was enormous. There were 4,000 students in a bewildering array of classrooms, hallways and auditoriums that made up the building.
At first I saw just the superficial differences. Coming from a cloistered school, the first thing I was happy about was that there were both boys and girls in this school. Some of them even held hands! No uniforms here…everyone dressed in smart casuals. Unlike India, students didn’t remain in their classrooms and wait for the next teacher to come once one class was over. They jumped out of their seats when the bell went at the end of a class and flew down the hallways to the next class. There was a vast range of subjects to pick and choose from.
There were the usual academic ones along with “shop class” or a course of instruction in a trade where you could learn carpentry and welding and get equal credits as a student taking a history class, drama, typing, speed-reading, library science or home economics. Each student had a different schedule. The opportunities were mind boggling. At the end of the year, you could go to the next class if you had enough credits, which you got simply by attending the classes or you could work very hard and get good grades, which were an absolute must if you wanted to go to college. It was and still is entirely up to the student.
One of my first classes was a Modern European History class, taught by Mr Jacques. “Call me Joe,” he said, and I almost fell off my chair. On the first day, he wrote, “The Reformation” on the blackboard. After that he wrote, “1) Catholic Bishop 2) Lutheran Minister 3) German Royalty.” He said, “Suppose you had to read accounts of the Reformation by each of these, which one would you find most believable?” He was teaching us to evaluate source material. This was just amazing to me.
In our school at home, we were trained to treat our history books, as sacred texts filled with pure facts. We had to read and understand them and simply answer questions based on these prescribed texts. The idea of questioning their veracity simply did not arise. It was a really different way of approaching a subject. We had to start questioning and thinking. No more being spoon-fed by the teachers and no more taking “facts” for granted. History became interesting from that moment onwards.
English was easy. If we did Shakespeare, we had condensed, prose versions. Having done “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night” in the flesh, so to speak, this was a breeze. Our other texts were books like, “Lord of The Flies” by Golding, and “Animal Farm” by Orwell. Contemporary and simple, they were far less demanding than the classics we had studied in school. Indian students have the advantage of having done intense studying of classic texts even at school level.
Much as we might dislike the rigorous written examinations we have to take to earn our degrees, there is something to be said for this system. Our writing skills are well honed. It’s either: write the exam properly or fail the subject. American students have no such training. Even the brightest students had abysmal writing skills. If they had to write an essay they would be close to tears. I had to constantly help my friends put their compositions together. If I had set up a table, like an old fashioned scribe in the market place, I would have been in business!
My other interesting class was Honors American History. We were a group of 12 students. Our first topic was The American War of Independence. In the first few classes, the teacher gave us some introductory lectures on the subject. After this, we were given a pile of books to read through the term. We had many wonderful group discussions on the war. At the end of the term, each student had to write a paper and decide whether the War of Independence was fought for economic reasons or political reasons. As long as we had thought out the answer and could substantiate our conclusions with facts from the books we had read, we could have our own point of view. I could not believe that we could have this kind of freedom of thought in the classroom, and thrived in this atmosphere. It is easy for an Indian student to excel if he opens his mind a little because he comes from a system where he is disciplined to study and to write.
Of course, school wasn’t all about studies. There were sports, debating clubs, fund raisers and school dances. Not to mention, flirting and dating on the side! Of the sports, football took precedence over all others. Football was an extravaganza that lasted a whole season. It was an orchestrated event made up of marching bands, twirlers, cheerleaders and players. We all went to the games. On the field, it was the honour of the school and the whole community that was on the line. This aroused intense emotions. It did not matter to me that I didn’t understand the finer points of the game.
The most sought after guys in the school were on the football team. Never mind that they looked like bulldogs in battledress when they faced each other at the halfway mark. I did wonder why it was called football when half the time the players picked up the ball, tucked it under their armpits and ran for their lives. Why, when the fellow who had the ball and was running free down one side of the field, did the others form furious groups and run towards each other only to collide in a crunch of broken bones in the middle of the field? But I wasn’t really looking for answers. At the end of the day I always had a wonderful time. All this bloodletting, I was convinced, had a higher purpose. After all, it was done for ‘school spirit’ and the greater good of the whole community.
American educational institutions are vibrant. The possibilities for learning are without limits. They have something for everyone and those who are serious about their studies can get from this system much more than they have to put into it. In education, America is truly, “the land of the free"!
Neena De is an ex-AFS student from the 1967/1968 batch. She lives in Assam, India. She does some writing and works with underprivileged women in the handicrafts sector.