Embrace The Difference: American Stereotypes

I have been asked by a few people to maybe spend a little time looking at the differences between life over here and life back in the UK. These differences are many and varied, so I thought in today’s GenForward Living Legacy genealogy blog I’d start with some of the basic fundamentals.

Let me just make it clear though before I start, the things I touch on here are differences I have observed. I’m not saying one way is right, the other wrong. As I have written in previous articles, I have no issue at all with people not being the same, it’s what makes the world go round. Given the tug of war between an American life and schooling, and me at home throwing in my two pence worth, I’m not sure how my boy’s going to turn out. Maybe best of both worlds:

So, let’s start with some pre-conceptions of which I am sure some of you will already be aware. If you ask the average European for a couple of quick stereotypes of an American, you are likely to get one of two answers. It will either be that Americans are a bit unaware of the existence of, and even more so the history of, the world outside America. The second would probably be that as a group, Americans are a bit, well, loud, by rest of the world’s standards.

Now the first of these points I can readily see and understand how it comes about. Apparently the statistics are that around 80% of Americans don’t have passports. Now, in countries in Europe, this would be an unheard of figure. There is a key difference though. America is bigger than the countries in Europe. Hell, if you roll in the last additions of Alaska and Hawaii, America is about 2.5 times the size of the whole of Europe! (Admittedly Alaska has more impact on this number than Hawaii!)

You kind of have everything here. Sunny beaches, rolling hills, mighty forests, majestic mountains, desolate tundra, and even some deserts to the mix. Roll into that lot that you also have Las Vegas, the only place anyone ever really needs to go for a holiday, and what reason does a person have to need to leave? It really doesn’t matter what it is you want to do, you can find it within your own borders. To properly experience your own country would take a lifetime in and of itself.

Given all of this, it’s perfectly easy to understand how life outside your borders takes on a bit less significance. Not to say that there’s not plenty going on out there, in terms of history we really do have you guys licked. Five or six hundred years is just a drop in the ocean when you start looking at the outside world. But, you don’t miss what you don’t know about.

The thing that I see playing into this inward looking perspective, is the education that my son seems to be getting. When I was a small boy, back in the UK, our lessons were filled with Romans, Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, you name it we learned about it. So far, up to what is now approaching the end of 5th grade, the only history my son seems to have touched on is a bit of Texas stuff, which is fair enough as that’s where we live, and some general American Revolution bits.

Now obviously in Europe, we had a lot more history to talk about, from primitive man mining flint and building Stonehenge, through Roman invasions, centuries of wars and infighting, plagues, famines, Napoleon, and that’s before you chuck in a couple of World Wars where we actually managed to get everyone in on the act.

You also have the fact that England was once a superpower (before we had to promise to give most of it back to get the countries to help us with the Germans). The main difference between being a superpower when we were, and being one now, is that we didn’t really have so many rules. We didn’t need to be seen to be doing the right thing by the outside world, so we just kind of rolled into countries behind a bunch of Scotch, Welsh and Irish guardsmen, murdered or drugged half the population, and took over (you guys did success using this technique when “finding” the North American Continent but the ideas all came from us Brits). The Romans had nothing on us. As far as Empire building, the British one was the king of the hill, 1/3 of the globe was pink.

This also meant that we had a lot more influences on our culture, and a great many more threads interwoven into our history. So much more of what was going on in the world was relevant as it was part of the British Empire. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning a lot of what we Brits got up to in those years (the Opium Wars were a real classic). If anyone should have the world’s worst reputation it should be us. Thankfully, history teaching around the world tends to miss a lot of this stuff, and people have short memories so I think we’re in the clear!

So, point number one, Americans don’t know much about outside America, I can understand. Point two did baffle me a little more though. I could never quite work out why an entire nation of people would feel the need to operate at such a high volume. Originally I put the answer down to something we touched on earlier. If only 20% of Americans have passports, then we only get to meet a certain slice of the populous and were maybe getting a false perspective. Maybe just the ones who got out were loud.

Then I came over here and discovered that nope, wherever I went, people had no issue with operating at high volume, in a way that would just be considered “brash” or “unseemly” in polite society in the UK (not that there’s much of that left these days, before we start kidding ourselves it’s all high tea and garden parties). My eyes were opened as to the “why?” just recently. It’s actually educated into all of you (or I believe “all y’all” if I am declining my y’alls correctly for the Texas market) at an early age.

I was brought up in the 70’s when children were supposed to be seen and not heard, and phrases like “You’ll get what you’re given and be grateful”, “Had enough yet or do you want some more?” (always during a beating), and “Go and play with the traffic”, were all part of everyday life.

Last week, I got conned by my son into going to a monthly morning assembly/prize giving thing. He’d won some “award” for getting 60% on some random math deal they had been doing in the school. He swore blind that this was a real award and not just another of those, “Yes we’re all winners really here’s your prize for coming stone last!” awards, that seem so popular on this side of the Atlantic.

Now that whole subject is another bug bear for me, what’s wrong with not everybody winning? Having benchmarks to compare with and strive to achieve is part of life. If there’s never a feeling of loss then how can a victory mean anything? And don’t tell me kids can’t handle it because if they can’t then that’s just bad parenting. But before I get completely carried away, I’ll haul myself back on subject. /rant off

So, there I am with my wife, who’s had to work late the previous night so that she could get some time off work for the “ceremony” the following morning. It was quarter to 8 and we were bumbling around school corridors wearing a lovely “Visitor” sticker, tripping over the indigenous obstacles, which are busy displaying pure randomness of direction, speed, and any concept of a logical chain of action, thus making them hard to avoid. Throw into the mix a 3 car parks full of proud parents ready burst if you happen to accidently step on their precious little obstacle, and let’s just say it’s not my ideal way to start the day (not that I am sure I could really share what is, so we will move on).

By following what appeared to be a marginally prevailing tide, we eventually made it to the event venue. As it didn’t have basketball hoops up I’m guessing this was probably the cafeteria. I can’t be certain, because obviously none of it bore any resemblance to what went on in my day, when the gym/canteen/assembly hall/random other use were all the same place. There was already a sea of small heads in front of us, many wearing baseball caps indoors (we don’t do hats indoors in Europe). I think between them, they were actually displaying every possible variant of position it’s possible to get a body into when standing, sitting, lying down, or attempting to de-hat your neighbor.

A few rows of seating had been laid out at the back of the room; however all of these had already been sat in, by parents clearly much keener and less jaded than us. They probably camped out overnight like for Black Friday sales. As we couldn’t afford to deal with the scalpers, we shuffled into a spot by the wall to wait for the assembly to start, and the heat in the room to increase exponentially due to the immense number of bodies now enclosed within it.

And so it began. I have been to these things before so I kind of knew what was coming, but it had been a while, and I’m sure this took things a bit further. We started off with the American National Anthem, sung by a room full of children ranging from 5 to 11, accompanied by very enthusiastic school staff, and a few random parents who felt the need to do more than the ‘standing up with hand/hat on heart’ bit.

To be fair, there’s really nothing I see too much wrong with this. We never did this kind of thing at school, settling instead for a hymn of some sort. I believe that was mainly because A) The British National Anthem is dull as hell, B) We’re British so nobody would do more than mumble anyway, and C) Britain sucked so what the hell is there to be proud of and sing about?

Americans on the other hand actually have a great country, and I guess that gives a fair enough reason to be proud about it. I’m not sure all the Liberty And Freedom For All bit still truly exists, but any nation that says it’s ok to use your brain and do a right turn on a red light, when there’s nothing coming, is a place I will always have a soft spot for (and it’s a true example of letting common sense prevail, so maybe all hope is not yet lost!).

American anthem done, on to the Pledge of Allegiance. Personally I think allegiance to your fellow man would be the best, but I guess a flag is fine if we’re all pulling in the same direction. Then, once we’re all allied with the American flag, we next ally with the Texas one too, just for good measure. I think, in case of a conflict of interests, you’re supposed to be more alligenced to the American flag than the Texas one, but it’s not specified so I can’t be sure. Plus this is Texas so I could be off beam with my assumption, as I think America needs Texas more than Texas needs America.

Now that these daily formalities are out of the way, we move onto today’s main event. First off we have multiple award winners, from every grade, for something like School Spirit. There were rare occasions where we got hold of some spirit at school, but it always ended up as an argument when one kid invariably chugged the whole bottle before promptly throwing up, so it was nothing like this.

All of the award winners were called onto stage to be issued with their printed out certificate. There were a fair few of them so it took a while. Then the chaos started. Seemingly unprompted, the gathered mass of kids started a countdown from 30. Apparently it was displaying maximum school spirit, if this countdown was carried out like some kind of primal scream.

Next, half the parents sitting at the back leapt up and tried to cram themselves into the single aisle at the centre of the room, mobile phones on standby, to try to get a memento of this magical moment. Unfortunately for the polite majority of the parents trying to take turns and make sure everyone had a shot of the group, two or three of the less considerate mothers had scuttled down to stand right in front of the winners, so that they could take a close up of their precious one. By the time the polite parents realised that the only picture available contained several ample backsides and bodies, none of which belonged to the chosen target of their photo, the mob was screaming “2…1” and that was it.

We muddled through several other awards for various bizarre categories like teacher appreciation, student appreciation, canteen staff appreciation, and school gerbil appreciation. Every award resulted in more and more children hitting the stage another psychotic countdown, ever increasing parental frustration at the photo opportunity, and the a gentle roar of noise as the next announcer on the P.A. system, which would not have been out of place at Cowboy’s stadium but was struggling with the volume levels in this room, got up to tell us the next award category.

Eventually we get to the bit that was the cause of my wife and me getting roped into this debacle, the “Math Olympiad”. Again this was a grade by grade thing. The award had nothing to do with their prevailing grade, but was solely based on one test, comprising 5 questions. I guess it was supposed to represent the Pentathlon or something. Anyway, reaching the giddy score of just over half right, the competing “mathletes” earned a bronze medal (bit of paper, if it was a real medal maybe they’d cut down on the prizes a bit so they actually meant something). For 4/5 the medal moved up to silver, and for anyone who could answer 5 math questions in a row correctly (gasp!), the gold!

Now I must confess I hadn’t seen the questions but they must have been devious in the extreme because only about a quarter of the kids in kindergarten to 4th grade won them which left most without a prize! Again, grade by grade awards, cheering, counting down, struggle for photos. Then we get to 5th grade which was the one we had been waiting for.

Now I already felt that I had been fed some iffy information. My son had insisted that this was a big deal, as less than 10% of the kids got the award, contrary to what I had already witnessed. In fairness to him, a little fact was then announced which meant he may not have been in the know, and also shed a lot of light on what happened next.

Apparently, last term when they did this “Olympiad”, only 2 children from the 5th grade qualified. Then this year’s list went up. I had to slip on my glasses, as there had been a need to reduce the text size on the display slide. The results had “improved” slightly from 2 winners, to about half the grade.

Now, we were told by the proud principal that this progress was a tribute to the math teaching standards in the school. Having seen first hand the math teaching standards in the school, and what happens when students fail, I felt otherwise inclined. On one occasion where an entire class got bad grades on a test, they were all awarded 50 marks each for “effort”, to bring their scores up to what the school wanted. Common sense told me that the improvement probably had a lot more to do with dumbing down the test than a 3000 percent improvement in the children’s ability within a couple of months. Or maybe I’m just too old and cynical, who can say.

So, began the reading of the winner’s names. It was like the casualty list after a particularly bloody battle. On and on it went. Slowly the floor emptied and the stage filled, and began to creak. The countdown was much quieter this time, and there was actually room for the phone wielding parents, because there was now so much space on the floor of the hall, given that so many were massed on the stage.

Just before the stage finally buckled under the weight of the winners, the apparently obligatory 30 second countdown was over, and the kiddlers headed back to their spaces. Then we moved on to what I can only assume was to be the “big finish”, the “(insert school name here) is the best” tribal chanting. Except chanting wasn’t really the best description.

Grade by grade the kids were encouraged to scream, as loud as they possibly could, that they were the best. The winners, being the loudest of course, getting what appeared to be very long toilet roll middle covered with blue tissue. As they moved from grade to grade the volume level didn’t drop much below 130 decibels for any group, but the pitch of the noise increased as the grades went down. By the time the kindergarten kids were screaming like banshees, egged on by the teaching staff, the pitch had reached a level where I thought it prudent to move away from the windows for fear of flying glass.

Then, just as you thought that the kids couldn’t get any more wound up, we had the final, “And now all together”. They managed to hold this screaming session long enough that my ears stared to bleed. There were kids sweating, having fainting attacks through lack of oxygen, or jumping up and down and spinning like dervishes whilst waving their hats about. And it was over.

Now I’m not an expert educator or a professor of child psychology, but common sense tells me that putting a child through that kind of experience and then trotting them into a classroom and expecting them to settle and learn, is akin to drinking 30 cups of coffee and then attempting needlepoint. It’s going to be a bloody mess.

It baffled my mind how anyone would wind a child up into a frenzy like that and then expect them to learn. Why act all surprised when they are a bit hyper? Ritalin time! It’s like uppers and downers. It can’t be good for the kid’s mental health. I was later informed by my son that this assembly was pretty standard for the monthly event, and that I was right, they didn’t really have the rest of the day as a school day, more just messing about. Chalk up another lost week and more of education time across the year.

I compared what I had just seen to assembly back in the UK in the 1970’s. Assembly was a daily event there and consisted of sitting cross legged on the parquet flooring, while the headmaster droned on about something he felt relevant. Then we’d do the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a hymn, accompanied by the music teacher on the upright piano. The whole affair was terminally dull, and noise and talking was not only not encouraged, it was not permitted.

I think if I remember correctly the assembly thing went all the way through the entire school system like that. All of it so dull that from those thousands of assemblies, I have very few real memories. I can still remember the Lord’s Prayer, and first few verses of the hymn, “Morning Has Broken”. However no matter how hard I think, I only really have two actual memories of specific events in assembly.

First, our school caretaker (who we called “Beaker”, after the character on the Muppets for reasons that were obvious if you were a kid), who had been working in the loft area above the assembly, clearly lost his footing. Mid headmaster sermon, the middle rows of children were showered with assorted plaster from above and a pair of legs appeared, up to about the waist, accompanied by the noise of a clearly panicked Beaker squeaking for help.

The other memory, was actually something of our own doing. We had decided it would be a bit of a giggle to grab a whole load of sports “bibs” (I’m sure you probably have a similar thing over here, for kids to put on to denote teams?), and to jam the piano full of them prior to assembly.

Now I must confess, I was a bit of a giggler as a child. Needless to say, me and my pals who were in on the prank, sat through the entire assembly trying to contain complete hysterics, so as not to get in trouble for making a noise. I don’t know if you have ever tried but it’s REALLY hard to be crying with laughter whilst remaining completely silent.

Anyway, we made it to the Lord’s Prayer, at which point everyone stood up, apart from our group who were still curled over double, but at least we had some noise now to give us some cover. Then we came to the worst bit. The headmaster did his usual thing and announced “We will now sing…” whatever the day’s hymn was going to be. The anticipation was unbearable. None of us could cope. Two of the guys collapsed as silently as they could.

Then the moment we had all been waiting for happened. The Music teacher did his usual “hands prepared in dramatic fashion above the keyboard” bit, and slammed them down for his grand opening of the hymn.

“Thunk”

That was it. None of us even heard the second “thunk” as he tried again, with a confused look on his face. None of us saw him getting up, opening the piano and pulling out a chain of brightly coloured sports vests, like a magician producing handkerchiefs. We had lost it. There was no hiding the guilty parties.

Most of the assembled children were silent and just looking slightly confused, whereas the guilty parties had exploded. None of us could even make a vague attempt at remaining upright any more. All bodily control had given up. It’s the one and only time in my life I actually crapped myself laughing. We were hauled off by the scruffs of our necks to the headmaster’s office (via the toilet, as I wasn’t the only one of the gang who had had an accident). We were instant legends, but in a world of trouble.

So alter a long journey to get here, I finally understood the difference in our National volume. Brought up in a different world, with different rules, so a different end result. We’re all snooty and repressed, and you guys don’t care about anything, and let the world know what you’re feeling at full volume. There’s no right and wrong, we’re all just a product of how we’re brought up, so blame the parents!

As I mentioned earlier, my son gets the full on American education experience. I have however spent a lot of time educating him about the outside world and its history. Thankfully it’s something he finds quite interesting, and has read the series of books I bought him till they are pretty much falling apart. Only time will tell if any of it will survive his schooling! 

Tom@genforward.org

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