School’s out for the…spring!

I don’t talk about this much, but the truth is, I’m a teacher.

It’s an affliction. I never asked to be a teacher. It just came upon me one day and I couldn’t seem to shake it off.

I learned how to teach in Canada, which didn’t necessarily prepare me for the wild and wonderful world of Australian schools. Below I have compiled some of the major differences between schools here and schools back home for your reading pleasure.

First of all, there are a lot of private schools.

That’s probably a crass generalization, but I have found in rural areas that the private schools, also known as independent schools, also known as non-government schools tend to outnumber the public schools, particularly in High School. They also almost always have religious denominations. In the small town where I live, there are Lutheran, Catholic, and Anglican schools. My town has 13 non-government schools (only 3 high schools) and 10 private schools (two of which do K-12).

Church affiliated private schools are not unheard of in Canada, but don’t seem nearly as common.

I work at a church affiliated school, which is a bit strange as a non-religious person, and especially given that in Canadian public schools it was generally taboo to pray in school or openly associate yourself with one particular religious denomination.

Students all wear uniforms.

Even the public schools! Some are more formal than others. The primary uniforms are adorable, with their little hats:

Some cuties from a primary school in Victoria.

Some cuties from an all girls primary school in Victoria.

And some of the big kid uniforms can look pretty sophisticated:

Students for Climate Action at Killara High School. L-R: Zoe Sitas 17, Evie Leslie 17, Kieran Pain 16 and Lily Giles 16.

Students from a high school in Sydney.

If you want to see a hilarious post on the ups and downs of school uniforms, check out this post from an actual, bonafide private school student.

The school year starts in January.

And it just keeps getting weirder after that. Imagine me, my first year out teaching, trying to wrap my brain around this.

I suppose starting in January makes some sort of sense, but they don’t start at the beginning of January. They start at the end of January, around the 25th (which is Australia Day, by the way!). They basically go for ten weeks at a time for four terms, divided by two-week breaks, and a longer five week break at Christmastime. As someone who has been used to a fat eight week long holiday, this seems a bit more gruelling to me, although the evenly spaced breaks between terms are rather nice.

There also seem to be less public holidays here. This has especially hurt me this year, because my Mondays SUCK.

The schools are laid out like campuses with lots of open air.

I can’t really speak about primary schools as I haven’t been in them, but I was amazed at how OPEN my high school was when I first arrived. The weather is just better here, so the need for schools to look like prisons is extremely reduced.

For comparison, this brick behemoth is where I graduated high school:


Whereas here is an example of a Sydney area high school campus, which is fairly similar to my school’s:

Pfft, I'm only a little jealous.

Pfft, I’m only a little jealous.

We have a year-group meeting each Wednesday at my school, and the students actually just all sit outside under a bit of shelter, all year round. Obviously everyone would be dead of hypothermia and no one would hear any announcements due to the howling wind were we to try that during a Canadian winter.

Students have their lunch and recess outside, sitting on the ground or on benches scattered about the place. The classrooms all face outward, so they leave their bags lined up outside the room. It’s much healthier – at least you get to see the sky numerous times throughout the day!

The kids are all obsessed with handball.

This might only be a thing at my school, as I’ve been informed that the “cool” Sydney kids would not be caught dead playing handball. But every student at my school is completely obsessed with it. I’d never even understood the rules until I moved here. They all carry around a little handball in their pocket, and play it every chance they get – before school, after school, at recess, lunch, in between classes, in class (I have developed a small collection of confiscated handballs already).

A fairly typical day at an Aussie school.

A fairly typical day at an Aussie school.

The only differences from my school and the above image are that my school’s students are much taller and greasier, and we don’t have those fancy handball courts; the students just use the cement tiles of the paved areas around the school as “squares.”

Middle School isn’t a thing.

Admittedly I have come across the odd school with K-12 classes that uses a “Middle School” model, but as a general rule, Middle Schools or Junior High Schools don’t exist. Students are in primary school from grade K-6 and High School from 6-12. Once in high school, they do get generally divided up into “juniors” (grade 7-10) and “seniors” (grade 11-12), but terms like “freshman” and “sophomore” never get used.

You may have also noticed that I have slipped up a few times and used “Year 7” instead of “Grade 7”. It’s a habit I’ve had to get into. If I slip up and say “Grade 7”, people look at me as if I’m spouting a foreign language. They kids have no idea what it means, and the adults tell me I shouldn’t use it in reports.

Getting into Uni seems really complicated.

Disclaimer: I still haven’t figured this stuff out and all of my knowledge is currently based on half-heard conversations between Year 12 students and teachers. Basically, students have to choose which subjects they will do in Years 11 and 12 as “HSC (High School Certificate)” subjects. These subjects require students to meet certain criteria; particularly, they must either sit a final test or create a project that is marked at a state level. These grades are then transferred into an “ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank)”, which ranks students nationally and which universities use to determine who can gain admission to their programs.

My brain just nearly exploded and I had to use Google at least three times to type that. Seriously, Australia?! Why so complicted??

As if that weren’t enough, there are different requirements for early entry into University which sometimes means variation in the mark or rank required (I still don’t quite get how this one works). Because of all this rigmarole, graduating students actually finish school one term early, graduating at the end of third term (which is this week, in fact!) They don’t do a “prom” in the same way we do, but they do have a formal graduation ceremony where everyone dresses up in their finest, followed by a party somewhere (but not at school).

You wouldn't know it wasn't prom.

You wouldn’t know it wasn’t prom.

Australian kids get a lot more choice.

I might be biased here, but when I went through school at least I did not have nearly half the choices these students do. They get to start choosing electives from Year 9 onwards, and they get a bunch of different options to choose from, such as textiles, software development, languages (generally whatever is on offer at the school which can range from Indonesian to French), photography, music and more. They also get to choose from these diverse options for their HSCs.

Overall, I quite like the school system here. I’m not a fan of how complicated things get in Year 11 and 12, and the pressure that puts on students, but in the end the choice and variety of both academic and extra-curricular options far exceeds anything I encountered during my school days.

And to be perfectly honest, I quite like the uniforms. There’s never any question about what anyone should be wearing, the students look neat and professional, and many take pride in what they wear (at least, as long as they aren’t from one of those schools with completely hideous uniforms).

The only real downside is the prospect of getting attacked on campus by evil Plovers during their breeding season.

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Bienvenue, le printemps!

puddleshadow

Welcome to spring in Australia.

Just like that, a year has passed since I arrived here. I’m still here. I’m doing alright.

Hard to believe that over three hundred and sixty-five days ago, I was staring at my life jammed into several bits of luggage.

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The blue flower tote didn’t make it. It busted a wheel and had to be put down.

It scares me a little. Each day, week and month that goes by takes me a little farther away from Mum, and from the person that I was. There are times when grief, sadness or anxiety threaten to overwhelm me. That’s when I start grabbing onto the little things. Anything to help ground me.

It’s so much easier to do in spring.

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Stop and smell the blossoms.

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Hello, cocky!

The air is warmer and smells fragrant. The flowers themselves are brilliant, and everything is lush, verdant and fresh.

The downside is, of course, the hay fever. But it’s a small price to pay.

I’m here, and I’m mostly OK.

Taking a Chance

Sometimes, I have realized, finding happiness means letting the wounds out.

I am taking a risk here, putting this out to the world. It frightens me. It’s dark, when I want to spread light. It’s hard to talk about, only slightly easier to write about. It’s keeping me from writing about anything else, at the moment. So here it is, a bit of darkness to let it out, and maybe to help bring better understanding.

Be warned that the content below, a combination of prose and poetry, deals with some heavy issues – it deals with depression and suicide. Please don’t read if you are triggered or upset by those subjects. There aren’t any graphic details or anything like that – just emotions.

I read about a man watching his father dying on Humans of New York. It made me think about how losing a loved one to a “natural” cause was different from losing them to an “unnatural” one. Death is death, and it’s always horrible. It brought about these thoughts:

But you see
people understand when someone is physically sick and dying.
When someone you looked up to, who was always strong, who was a rock, is suddenly frail and pale, sickly, hooked up to machines, nothing but flesh and bones

Everyone knows it’s OK to feel overwhelmed. It’s OK for you to say “Alright I’m freaked out here, I need a minute.” You can leave the room, leave the hospital, take an hour or a day, you can admit “It looks fatal” and people nod sagely and comfort you.

It’s awful, it’s painful, they understand.
“We’ll get through it together.”

Oh, but when the mind and soul are sick
how the story changes

Physically, she was fine, but her eyes were vacant, her shoulders slumped, her mouth quivered. She was a husk of what she once was. She wasn’t much different from the person hooked up to the machines
except that nobody saw it. Nobody understood that her life was slowly draining from her. Nobody took her seriously when she said she couldn’t breath

because they could see her lungs moving up and down.

If she’d wasted away at a machine
Maybe we’d be allowed to say “It was fatal.”
That, no one understands.

“How can depression kill you?” Someone says to me at the dinner table
and my head fills with fuzz and steam and blood and images of what she used to be, and how she ended up

no one knows,
no one understands

but there it is

Maybe someone would have saved her, if they could have seen it, physically manifested.

Maybe they would have hooked her up to a machine and pumped life into her.

Instead they turned her away
turned her away
and gave her words
said all she needed was “hope.” Hope was what she needed to live. Hope would help her recover.

She didn’t need hope.

She needed a goddam ventilator.

We Nomads

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Saint John, NB, Canada

“We doctors know a hopeless case if, listen; there’s a hell of a good universe next door: let’s go.” – e. e. cummings

I come from a small town. I grew up surrounded by trees, fresh air, deep snow and dirt roads, just like the Feist song.

It’s a beautiful little town. But I craved adventure. I craved a life of freedom and new experiences.

So I determined to travel. I didn’t want to just travel, either. I wanted to live somewhere new, long enough to really get a feel for a different culture. I figured that, since my single-parent family didn’t have a whole lot of money to spare, the best way to do that would be to work while travelling. I discovered that, through teaching, I could not only work while living abroad, but they’d even pay my airfare. Despite any nervousness I might have had, it was almost a no-brainer. I chose Japan, and off I went.

I hugged my little family goodbye, and tried not to cry as I watched them on the other side of the soundproof glass, tears streaming down their faces.

I was a bit sad, but the truth was, my eyes were on the horizon. I was ready to find out what the world had to offer.

Life has been a roller-coaster since then. I went back home, got married, and lost my mum – the person who had been the centre of my world for so long. The person who had taught me so much wisdom, and had instilled in me a fierce independence that, in the end, pulled me away from her.

Now, I find myself living in Australia, with the husband I met in Japan. That child I was, dreaming beneath the red canopy of autumn, could never have imagined where I would end up. I am certain there is more travel ahead for me. But I’ve learned a few things from the three countries I’ve lived in.

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Yakushima Island, Japan

Firstly, everyone should spend some time in living in a foreign country. It is amazing. You’ll see incredible sites. You’ll see the sun rise over breathtaking mountain vistas, watch fish swim at the bottom of crystal clear rivers, or splash your feet in water so full of bioluminescence that just walking makes it light up like a disco. You’ll watch dolphins weaving in and out of turquoise waves and touch your fingers to the shivery leaves of plants you’d never imagined.

Not only that, but you’ll learn so much about yourself. You’ll come to see many, many aspects of your life that you previously took for granted. You’ll gain a new appreciation for your own language. You’ll start to pick out your own strengths and weaknesses when you hold yourself up against a different set of standards. You’ll meet people who will push you, challenge you, and touch your heart.

But beware. Once you step over the threshold of home, it may be difficult to look back. Adventure is addictive. You start to crave it – the newness; the thrill of the unexpected and the joy of exploration.

There is a price.

Should you choose to live abroad, you will become a nomad. The more wonderful people and places you meet, the more wonderful people and places you’ll eventually miss. In the back of your mind, you’ll always be yearning for somewhere, someone, or some creature comfort you took for granted at the time. Unexpected everyday occurences will bring flashbacks of other times and places that are now far from you.

You will make people cry. Just as so many people touched you and made your life richer, you did the same for them. They will miss you, too. They will write you letters wishing they had the pleasure of your company, and you’ll dream together of meeting again. Your wonderful memories will be tinged with guilt.

You will make sacrifices. When one door closes, another opens. When you move to another country, you close a lot of doors behind you, even as you expand into new territory.

You will feel simultaneously a part of many places, and no place. They say home is where the heart is – yours will be torn into many fragments and scattered across the globe.

We glamorize adventure. We plaster it all over our walls and our screens. We fill our lives with tales of exotic expeditions. We may consider some “less cultured” than others, if they have seen less of the world. But those who have chosen to stay in one place get to put down roots that run deep. They become part of their landscape in a way that we nomads perhaps never will.

Living abroad is a bittersweet adventure. All of this is part and parcel of the tapestry of human experience. It is joy, it is guilt, it is heartbreak and wonder, it is sorrow and it is beauty distilled, all woven into the threads of your life. I chose to travel because of this. I wanted to push the boundaries of what I knew. I wanted to dive deep into that tapestry and discover its subtle hues and shadows.

So spread your wings, my fellow world adventurers! Land like dandelion seeds wherever the wind takes you and take root, if you can. Just remember, before you go, to take a good long look around you and consider what you will leave behind.

Are you willing to pay the price?

Parlez-vous Australian?

Kangaroo fillet

 

There are so many joys of living in another country, and also so many struggles.

Here in Australia, life is relatively easy for me because the culture is so similar and the language is the same as my own (mostly). Sometimes, when I am running around town or going to the grocery store, I almost forget I’m in a foreign country at all. I even forget that the steering wheel of the car is on the wrong side; everything else is so much the same. The people mostly look the same, the shops and parking lots, roads and restaurants are all very similar. Admittedly, I see far more people walking in and out of shops without any shoes on, and yesterday I saw a small boy going into the pet shop with his parents with nothing on but underwear (although I think that was unusual, even for here). Aside from the lack of clothing, it’s pretty darn similar most of the time.

Sometimes, I even forget that people have an accent different from mine, I have gotten so used to it. Consequently I am sometimes surprised when I speak, and see that little crease in the brow of the person to whom I am talking, the slight shadow of puzzlement in their eyes. Some part of my brain assumes that, since they sound perfectly normal to me, I will sound the same to them. They are more polite here than they were in New Brunswick (Lachlan got asked constantly where he was from or, worse, people would assume he was British). They rarely ask me where I am from, or question the accent, but I know that they know that I’m not from around here.

It’s a dichotomous feeling; simultaneously feeling at home, at ease, and yet still feeling the outsider whenever I encounter someone new.

It isn’t something that particularly bothers me, but it is a novel and somewhat strange experience. There are days when I relish in the difference; it makes me feel exotic, the centre of attention, something slightly unusual. There are other days when I wish nothing more than that I could just sound the same as everyone else and blend in without a trace.

There are small concessions. I now more often put things in the “boot” than I do in the “trunk.” I “reckon” rather than think. I sleep under a doona, not a comforter. I ask people how they are going, rather than how they are.

I still have a hard time using tomato sauce instead of ketchup, having tea instead of supper, and cheering or “taa”-ing, rather than thanking.

I met a lady from California the other day who said she’d been living in Australia for more than 20 years, but who had, as far as I could tell, hardly a trace of the Australian accent. I have met others who have begun to sound more and more Ozzie with the passage of time.

I can’t say what my fate will be yet, but I do know that yesterday I heard someone refer to “Kentucky Fried Chicken” as “Kentucky Chook”, and it warmed my heart.

Driven

roundabout

Photo credit: Lenny’s Driving School

We have now have a car. A white, ex-government Toyota we bought from the auction house. We got a good deal.

It’s an unremarkable car. You might even say bland. But it’s new, and it’s fuel-efficient and it’s reliable. Does this mean I’m really an adult now?

Now, to learn driving on the left again.

It wouldn’t be so bad but for the proliferation of roundabouts in this country. And with double lanes! I wonder if Australians just like turning in circles. But I managed to get us home with only a couple of mishaps and nothing resulting in dings or accidents. Success!

Touchdown

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I made it!

Finally, after thinking about it for so long, planning and stressing, sad farewells, and mounds of paperwork, here we are in the land of Oz.

It was a grueling plane ride. If you are from the East coast of North America, you’re going to have a hard time getting to Australia. We also went with cheapness over comfort, and so had a very lengthy layover in Los Angeles. Overall, it took us about three days of traveling to arrive, and about $500 in excess baggage charges. If at all possible, when traveling on airplanes in the economy cabin, be a short person.

I must admit I was a bit disappointed in the customs at Sydney airport. Following dire warnings from various sources about the strictness of Australian customs, I had prepared all of my accompanying paperwork so carefully for my prescription medication and for mum’s tiny little urn, and I had gone over in my mind answers to every possible questions I thought they might ask. I was ready.

It went something like this.

Customs officer: “Is this your first entry into Australia?”
Me: “Well, I did visit a few years ago…”
Customs officer: “No I mean on this Visa.”
Me: “Yes.”
Officer: *stamps the passport* “Have a nice day.”

I moved on to security. I had indicated on the entry form that I had been on a farm within 30 days (I’d been horseback riding), so I expected some questioning on it. It was like this:

Security officer: “Anything to declare?”
Me: “Just that I’m carrying a small urn with my mother’s ashes.”
Officer: *stamps the form* “Ok, go on through.”

I confusedly started to stop with my overloaded luggage cart at the search counter and he waved and said, “Ma’am…..just go all the way through.”

So that was it. I was in Australia. No fanfare or welcome or rigamarole.

It felt a bit as if I’d sneaked in.

It is beautiful here. I had forgotten since the last visit, three years ago. I left the beginnings of Autumn for the beginnings of spring. Everything is in bloom and freshly green. Whatever trepidation I had about leaving during all those hard farewells has at least been alleviated knowing that I get to live in a whole new world. I am also well aware that this is the “honeymoon” phase of culture shock, but I might as well enjoy it while it lasts and everything is still strange and new. Getting to skip winter altogether this year is an added bonus!

On my very first walk outside, I saw kangaroos. And parrots. And palm trees.

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Eventually it might just sink in that this is my new home.

 

Let ‘er go

Warning – this shit’s about to get cheesy.

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I want this blog to be about being positive and grabbing life by the balls.

I also want to clarify something right off the bat. As much as I will focus on all sorts of sappy things like being positive, I strongly believe that it’s just as important to be sad as hell sometimes.

There is a big difference between being postive and being cheerful all the time. As an introvert (and let’s be honest, as a human), I fully understand that it can be exhausting trying to be happy and smiley all the time, especially around other people.

And shit happens. Sometimes, absolutely terrible stuff happens. We can’t always be loving and strong and full of energy. Sometimes, we just gotta let ourselves cry, rage, curl up in a blanket and sleep all day, or whatever we need to do.

Sometimes, it’s not even because anything bad has happened. Sometimes, we just need to fold into ourselves and block out the rest of the world for a while. Maybe we have a bit of pent up crankiness or rantiness to get out of our systems.

I used to think there was a certain beauty in sadness. I feel a little differenty now that I’m not a slightly melodramatic, poetry-writing teenager, but that idea has helped me accept my own feelings. It means that even now, I can embrace pain and difficult feelings. I can just ride them out. It sucks a whole lot sometimes. It seems like the worst thing in the world. Yet pushing it away doesn’t work, and doesn’t help. It’s necessary sometimes to feel sadness and pain as fully as we do happiness and joy, and to share those feelings even as we do with other emotions.

Of course, we have to be careful that we don’t hurt or push away those we love the most while we are in those darker places. Knowing that they will still be there when I come around, I’ve had to work hard to learn not to lash out when I’m feeling awful. It’s still a work in progress. There’s a surprisingly fine line between sharing feelings and taking those feelings out on someone – but it is doable. I try to say things like “I’m just having a bit of a ‘sad day’ today and I need some space.” If someone ever says this to you, as long as it’s not a regular thing, please don’t pester them about it. There’s nothing more irritating than having someone go “Yeah but what’s wrroooonnggggg??” over and over again.

The thing to remember is that those feelings are only temporary. As long as we know that we are allowing ourselves a moment, and don’t get stuck that way, we are alright. If ever you feel like you can’t pull yourself out of sadness, it could be depression. And that’s not something that general positivity can cure. It might be a sign that you need professional help – at the very least you need to change something if that happens. Allowing ourselves to admit when we can’t do it on our own is an important part of achieving ‘overall’ hapiness.

I will tell you one of my darkest secrets. I once read “The Power“, sequel to “The Secret” when I was really depressed. It was cheesy as shit, and I don’t really want to promote these books because I don’t agree with everything they say, but I can’t lie; that frigging book did help me. Its silly suggestions like writing “thank you” on bills seemed like over-the-top nonsense, someone on par with throwing pickes at the wall, but I did it anyway because I was desperate. And it worked. I believe it worked because it was training my brain to be positive whether I liked it or not.

In my defense, I didn’t read the whole thing.

Trying new things is part of finding the way back, pushing our limits, stretching our brains. It’s about finding a way to be keep going no matter what, knowing that the sun will shine after the rain, whether we are ready for it or not.

Familiar faces, worn out places

I wanted to document my walk to work. I love walking to work in the morning. I hope that wherever I wind up in the future, I will continue to have this option. If not, I might have to do something very old-lady-like, such as get up extra early and go for a stroll before work. That may be an overly lofty goal for my bed-loving self, but those morning walks sure are scrumptious.

And the walk is an interesting one. Although Saint John is a small city, it is still more city than this little girl has ever known. It also has a lot of history. Most of the buildings date back to the 1870s; unfortunately, so does most of the infrastructure. What you end up with is a strange mix of beautiful old architecture and a lot of run down dwellings, abandoned buildings and saggy structures. Even the decrepitude has a certain beauty to it.

Little Birdie  DandelionsTreeTrash  BUDS

Signs of spring.

I felt it would be disingenuous to exclude the garbage. It’s alllll part of the ‘charm’! The little bird caught my attention with his calls…I think he might be a House Sparrow!

Gothic Arches  imperial

Trinity Church  King Square  

Some structures along the way; the Gothic Arches (currently abandoned),
the Imperial Theatre (recently restored), Trinity Church (ringing its bells) and
the Bandstand in King’s Square (also recently restored).

Cast Iron 1

Market Gate

There is some pretty cool cast iron around the city.

CityMarket

Balemans

And finally, the City Market. I’ll miss this place the most of all in Saint John, I think.

Many a coffee, muffin and fresh fruit or vegetable has been purchased here.

I had intended to document the entire walk right up to the Museum entrance, but I ran into some old friends on my way through the market and got completely distracted. All three were people I knew in University, whom I hadn’t seen since we graduated (two from my undergrad and one from my B. Ed. program). None of these people live in the city, or even particularly nearby, so it was pleasantly surprising to bump into them.

There is something special about an unexpected reunion. You hear your name, turn around, and see a long-lost face you otherwise thought you may never have seen again. You feel that little bubble of excitement, like freshly poured champagne, and for a little while you are completely fine with tossing away whatever seemingly important obligations you had moments ago. You get to reconnect, just for a few moments; catch up on everything you each missed in the years between your last meeting. Then, you are both on your way again, with no notion of if or when you will meet again. A series of moments is all we ever really have with anyone in the end, isn’t it?

Since I’m a huge cheeseball, I often play myself a soundtrack in the back of my mind when I start waxing philosophical. Here’s today’s:

 

One thing at a time

A good friend and coworker of mine has a phrase. She always says it when things get busy.

“One thing at a time.”

This advice has been important for me lately. Looking around my apartment, it’s easy to feel completely overwhelmed. What am I going to do with all this stuff? There is a whole apartment filled with it. And there is an entire room still filled with boxes of mum’s things to be gone through, which is slow and excruciating work.

And yet, all you can do, is just work through it all one thing at a time.

One box at a time.

One day at a time.

One goodbye at a time.

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