Northwest NEWS

June 4, 2001

School

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Trading places

by Bronwyn Wilson
   Halfway across the globe in South Africa, Woodinville High School (WHS) teacher Bob Connell lives in a Victorian-style house with a view of the valley and sea. He cares for two winsome black cats and travels in a '78 Volkswagen van to Alexander Road High School where he teaches science. But the van, the cats and the home aren't his.
   Back in Washington state, Peter McEwan has cozy digs in Seattle and cares for a cat named Gabby. In a fuel efficient Honda Accord, McEwan scoots back and forth to Woodinville High where he teaches science. Yet, the classroom as well as the car, cat and home aren't his. What's going on?
   The two teachers are participating in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program. "Basically, you fill in an application and Fulbright tries to find an exchange," said McEwan in a charming British-like accent. The program was proposed by U.S. Senator William Fulbright in 1945 and signed into law in 1946. It promotes better understanding between people of the U.S. and other countries.
   About two and a half years ago, McEwan applied to the program and was accepted. But the exchange fell through when there wasn't anyone to take McEwan's teaching position in the science department at Alexander Road. Sometime later, a U.S. Embassy employee encouraged McEwan to start the process again.
   "She was very keen for the exchange to happen," recalled McEwan. This time, Alexander Road administrators received Connell's application. With Connell's experience, they realized the exchange would work very well. McEwan said that Connell didn't place a second or third choice country on his application, "He chose South Africa or nowhere," he explained. Connell had developed an interest in South Africa and its educational structure after a friend attended an educator's conference in the country. The educational system has a much more disciplined structure than here. Students wear uniforms with ties and address adults as Sir and Ma'am.
   In his country, school activities such as band, debate teams and sports ‹ are heavily encouraged. There are also fewer distractions.
   Said McEwan, "One of the major differences is that only 10 seniors [out of 240 at Alexander Road] would drive a car."
   American kids, he said, are driving cars at 16 and holding down jobs to finance their vehicles. This distraction takes their focus away from school. But McEwan was quick to point out that there's a positive. "On the other side, [American] kids are more independent and outspoken, with a can-do attitude."
   McEwan said that the "can-do" attitude is lacking in his country. "We expect someone else to solve our problems. There's an attitude of impoverishment and I'll just sit here and not do anything." He said this attitude comes from South Africa's history and feeling pressed down so often. "Apartheid officially ended but there's still a lot of racism," he said. Communities in South Africa have grown up living apart ‹ due to apartheid ‹ and people have stayed there. Also, each race had a separate educational system.
   Before the African National Congress took control of the government, the policy was separate development. Now, under the current policy, McEwan said the lot of the poor person hasn't changed. He paints an unsettled picture of a poor economy and ethnic violence. Farmers feel threatened, as blacks want their land back. Hijackings are commonplace.
   Organized crime has moved in with clever schemes to take apartment buildings away from the landlords. Beggars are everywhere. McEwan said that the Connells might get as many as 10 beggars a day at their door.
   Also, traffic intersections have become drive-thru shopping malls. People come up to drivers waiting in their cars at stoplights and want to sell them plastic coat hangers, fruit or blow-up toys. According to McEwan, the average feeling of a white person toward a black person is fear, suspicion or guilt. And though he said the landscape of his country is absolutely stunning, the human drama overshadows the beauty.
   McEwan said that he would take what he's learned in America and use it to help his students back home.
   "It's been an opportunity to learn new teaching strategies. I've got some wonderful ideas for lab experiences." He said he's impressed with the high level of confidence that Americans exhibit. "There's none of that underlying feeling of anxiety," he said of Americans. "Back home, it's sink or swim."
   If a student doesn't get it, he is labeled a failure. McEwan said his idea is to never give up on a kid.
   When asked his impression of Woodinville, McEwan replied, "I'm impressed with how clean the water is, the air is, that people don't smoke, and they exercise."
   And his biggest adjustment? "It was difficult to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road," he said smiling. In the beginning, maneuvering his car on the uncomfortable "right" side gave him a silent heart attack. But he has adapted. And he said that Connell has adapted on the other side of the world. "He's finally seeing the differences in the [educational] system," said McEwan.
   Connell and his wife Sue and son Trebor are continuing to keep in touch via e-mail with McEwan and his wife Elmarié. McEwan said he stands indebted to the Fulbright program and to Randy Huybers, head of the WHS science faculty, "We've shared lots of ideas and philosophy and that's been wonderful."
   McEwan and Connell will swap back cars and careers in December. "My heart is in South Africa, but I felt I needed a break. This has been an opportunity of a lifetime."
   If interested in communicating and exchanging e-mails with the McEwans, Woodinville Weekly readers can contact them at: mcewanel@aol.com.