An acknowledgement and description of the difference between UK and US education systems.
I was born and raised in Camberley, England, a small, shockingly boring town just south of London. My parents were born in the same hospital I was and lived in different versions of the same house on different versions of the same street the majority of their lives: back garden the size of a postage stamp, two entirely outdated bathrooms with antique clawfoot tubs and petals painted on the walls, kitchen filled with antiquated kettles and balance scales. It was normal to me – excruciatingly normal. Each year in school we would have one or two new students join our class, and everyone would bombard them with questions and proposals to be their best friend. They would be the talk of the playground for a month or so, until they too became normal. I remember envying the new students and thinking, “I will never be the new girl.”
Little did I know that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It was an unexceptionally dreary winter night in December of 2014; I was sixteen years old. My parents sat me down on our plush leather couch and told me they had something important to tell me. I took a deep breath, rolled my eyes reluctantly and picked up the TV remote to start watching X Factor.
“Chloe, we’ve been thinking about this for a while but wanted to make sure that it was 100% plausible before we told you,” my dad commenced. “We’re moving to Chicago next summer, and you’ll finish high school there.”
What the hell. Suddenly the distant warbling coming from the TV dissipated into irrelevance. I gawked at my parents in disbelief. This wasn’t a matter of changing schools; this was a matter of changing country, friends, house, lifestyle. Life as I knew it was going to flip upside-down, inside-out, and I had no choice. The little girl inside me squealed, But you’re going to be the new girl! The idea of being the new girl became a lot less appealing, and utterly daunting.
The next six months flew by. Before I knew it, I was perched at a tiny desk in a tiny chair in a classroom full of teenagers in baseball caps and khakis. Where were the plaid kilts and midnight blue blazers? And why were the desks so damn small? In AP U.S. History class, our first assignment was to label all thirteen colonies on a map. I sank in my chair, my face a heated blush, as I didn’t have a clue what one of the colonies was, let alone thirteen. We didn’t cover this in history class in England, I assured myself. Throughout that entire year it dawned on me that the history I was taught in England catered to an Anglocentric perspective. I knew that Europeans migrated to America hundreds of years ago, but the struggle and conflict that preceded had never even crossed my mind. I was like a sailboat on the open sea, listening only to the breeze and the caws of the seagulls, gazing at the horizon, the future. I was entirely oblivious to the abundance of homes, lives, and stories that resided in the vast ocean beneath me. I was entirely oblivious to the great expanses of history.
My classmates, however, were not. Moving to the U.S. has taught me that kids here (or the majority of them) are notably more well-rounded than those in England. They are interested in the world beyond America. Being the new girl, I was interrogated extensively by the other students. They wanted to know what kinds of music I listened to, what sports I played, what foods I ate. They wanted to know what I thought of the Queen of England and the Nazis and the Cold War. They asked what the British thought of Trump and the Fourth of July and the NFL. They were interested and knew what they were talking about.
One of the major differences that struck me between adolescents in England and those in the U.S is that here in America, the importance of being a well-rounded person is projected at a young age. Kids are constantly encouraged to build their résumé and play sports and get involved in as many clubs as possible. They are prompted to obtain leadership positions and work hard in school and do hours upon hours of community service (of course, this strongly correlates with affluence and social class, not solely location). This astonished me. In England, the overarching vitality was based on getting good grades and passing your exams with the highest merit, solely so you could proceed to a higher level of education. You narrow down your areas of study to just four subjects at age sixteen, and then drop another at seventeen. By the time you get to university, you have to choose one – yes, just one – subject that you are then going to study for the next three years whilst obtaining your degree. In the U.S., students also choose a major and get their degree in a concise area of study; however, they still have to take a multitude of classes in math and English and languages and science, particularly in their first couple of years of college. In England, that is not the case. You can say goodbye to math at age sixteen if you like.
My sister, for example, never moved to Chicago with us, and attended college at the Royal Holloway University in England. I remember her debating whether she even wanted to go to university, aged seventeen, head in her hands at the dinner table.
“What good is it going to do me?” she moaned to our parents. “I don’t know where I want to go, and I haven’t the faintest clue what I would want to study. I’m having to choose one subject to study for three years, which will then dictate the job I get and whether I’m going to make any money, and if I don’t make any money then my career will be trash, and I’ll be left unemployed, homeless, and scavenging off your money.” My sister always has been a drama queen.
My journey, on the other hand, has been significantly smoother. I had the same issue of not knowing what I wanted to major in. With the relentless support of my parents, I decided to take a gap year after high school. In that time off, I gained a whole year of experience, working full time in the member services department of a gym. I also took two months to travel through southeast Asia: Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia. I gained insight that I never would have dreamed possible and fell more in love with the world. My eyes were opened to life beneath the surface of the water: the vibrantly colored creatures and variety of communication reflecting culture and language, the hierarchy of the food chain mirroring social status and wealth, the shallows and depths of relationships and connections. I listened to the numerous perspectives from around the globe and appreciated the reality of the cultures so far away from my own. My time away from school was anything but a time away from learning. Upon joining college, I decided to major in political science, not knowing whether I was going to stick with it or not, but it sounded interesting. Halfway through my first semester, I added the concurrent degree of business management, to give myself more flexibility and options when the time comes for me to graduate.
Believe it or not, when moving to the U.S. I had the overwhelming feeling I had to play catchup. My friends had endless résumés filled with their – quite frankly, staggering – achievements and merits they had acquired throughout their childhood. Mine was notably empty in comparison. A perfectionist, I jumped on the bandwagon instantly, and joined clubs and societies and service groups. Not that my lack of involvement was particularly my fault, but I’d like to think that I have redeemed myself and built something that stands apart from what others have built; I have built something to be proud of: a resume that portrays a diverse, ambitious young girl.
If I had never been blessed with the opportunity to move to the U.S., and if I hadn’t worked to ensure that I am a well-rounded person, I would be the opposite. I would be living in England, studying one subject that may or may not be the one for me, having had little to no involvement in extracurriculars, and not knowing where my life is heading. I am not belittling England, but rather highlighting some of its flaws, in particular its need for more encouragement of young people and their character building. Now, I still don’t fully know where my life is heading, but I have a much better idea, and can safely say that the resume and character I have built will support me in my endeavors. I am no longer on the sailboat, but have dived headfirst into the ocean, encountering the beauty that is the past, present, and future.