In 1990, my father won a teacher exchange program position in Toronto, Canada. This not only involved swapping jobs but also houses for a year. The opportunity for me to travel 8,600 miles away to escape misery-inducing bullying from other school girls had me anticipating the fresh start even more.
A year away from New Zealand meant enrolling in Canadian schools. Because the exchange program was based on the calendar year, I joined the Canadian school system for the second half of Grade 8 and then went on to do the first half of Grade 9.
My four-year-old brother began gaining a Canadian accent within a week of starting kindergarten. We giggled when he said “cross over” in his newfound accent at the traffic lights.
Switching from a small suburban school in New Zealand to an inner city Canadian school was a huge education in and of itself. All the abrupt changes shouted loudly at me: No uniform, chewing gum, baseball caps, jewelry, lockers (non-existent in New Zealand), tattoos, and a huge guy who came late to class because he’d been charged with assault the night before. Everyone looked much more grown-up than me and I often felt intimidated by their sophistication and worldliness. She was into REM, I was into N.K.O.T.B.
The kids despised taking the compulsory French classes, which is where most of the drama occurred. I had to do a test on the first day where I somehow guessed and got four out of ten correct, more than some of the kids in that class. It remains my worst test result on record. I can still picture that poor tiny French teacher who had sanitary pads regularly stuck to her back with obscene messages written on them in red Sharpie pen. One day the boys threw all her French music records out the window like frisbees down two floors then smashing onto the concrete below. Another boy the size of a grown man backed her right into the corner and threatened her under muttered breath. I was too afraid to hang out the windows and see the carnage below. Years later, when I watched the television show Boston Public, I was often reminded of scenes from my time in that school.
The worst was yet to come with this petite softly-spoken French teacher. A class trip took us to a downtown Toronto theatre to watch a play in French. We all piled out of the bus, through the box office area and into the back row of the ground floor of the building. It was a matinee performance and the theatre was reasonably empty. The kids were goofing off and not particularly interested in being at a play but happy to be out of school. We were hushed as the curtain drew up and the play began. She didn’t need to ask us to be quiet again: The opening scene showed a threesome in bed, fully naked, having sex. (To this day, I don’t know if they were actually having sex or faking it. It was French arty stuff. Who knows.) One of the men got out of the bed and walked across the stage angrily. Full frontal nudity, bits wobbling, sheets flying off. Oh and he shouted something in French. I had never been so shocked in my life. Little twelve-year-old me who had only seen PG-rated movies, whose mother did not approve of me reading Sweet Valley Twins books and who was secretly crushing on New Kids on the Block but too afraid to tell her parents she would like to buy their album because there were cuss words in it. Yes. It was a moment in which I grew up and felt dirty about it.
That teacher stood up like a shot, marched us quick-smart out of that theatre outside and went to go find a telephone to call for the bus to return to collect us all ahead of time. (No cell phones back then, either for the teacher or for us to document the moment.) Once the practicalities were sorted, she told us in a wavering voice (probably masking her horror) we were never to say another word about the ‘incident’ and swore us to not tell our parents. On the bus home, no-one said much. All those kids who were so wild and seemed so knowledgeable about everything were reduced to staring at their feet wondering what had just gone on and how something like this could have happened.
I kept that shameful-feeling secret niggling away in the back of my mind, mortified at the thought of telling my parents and that our teacher threatened us not to tell otherwise she would lose her job. About fifteen years later, when we were reminiscing about our travels, some of that secret (‘a nude play’) came out when I was hanging out with my family. Everyone — including me — laughed when I told them, and in some ways, it is funny from an adult’s perspective. It is still a memory which makes me feel uneasy about the power of an adult making a child swear secrecy over their mistake, let alone the sexual context which was never explained or dealt with. And I didn’t even understand what they were arguing about on stage thanks to my lack of French!
When you are twelve and going through puberty, it leaves an impression.
Not all travel stories are what you planned.