A Year in the U.S.A.

By Cynthia Costain.

After the end of the Second World War, the aim of every service man and woman was to go back home and start again where they had left off. But in England for many the aim was reversed. After six years locked into essential jobs with food rationing, clothes rationing, air raids, blackouts, no public transport after 10 o’clock at night, fire watching overnight at one’s workplace once a week, life had been something to be endured. Now, the urge was to GO!

I first heard about Teachers Exchange Programs the winter of 1945, and wrote to the New Zealand and Australian Education offices for information. However after some time they wrote and told me that they would not be able to begin their exchanges until 1947. Then I heard that the English Speaking Union was sponsoring an exchange of teachers with the U.S.A. and after applying and being interviewed in London I was one of the approximately 80 teachers chosen. I was very excited and pleased when I heard that I would be going to Colorado but this did not materialize as the American teacher must have got cold feet. I eventually heard that I would be going to Toledo, Ohio and leaving England towards the end of August 1946. My education authority in Cambridge was agreeable to having an American Home Ec teacher in my place.

The ship sailed from Liverpool and carried a large contingent of returning Canadian troops, British war brides married to Canadians many with children and finally a small group of “ordinary “passengers. We were strictly segregated and it was not until we landed that I met and could talk to some of the married women and children and the troops seem to vanish once they marched on board. Our group of Exchange Teachers made up the majority of “normal” passengers and were a mixed group- mostly women and the ages spread from late 20s to late middle-age. Our accommodation was adequate with double shared cabins and we heard nothing of the difficulties of the mothers with children and the crowds of servicemen and women. Fortunately it was a calm crossing and we had a small deck and sitting/dining room to ourselves so we were able to begin to get to know our colleagues. For many it was their first trip on a big liner, a first break from home and the first taste of some long-forgotten luxuries. WHITE BREAD! For so many years we had been used to the “national” bread – neither wholewheat, brown or white but the uniformly greyish-beige. Quite a few of the letters mailed from the ship before we left had bits of white rolls tucked into the envelopes to remind the friends of this forgotten pleasure.

We tended to gather into age groups and discussed where we were going to be in the U.S. and what we taught. I was a Home Economics teacher known in Britain as Domestic Science and at that time found no one else going to Ohio. The varied meals were a surprise and delight to us after the shortages and monotony of meals during rationing and what with discussing food and the geography of America (of which most of us were very ignorant) the time passed quickly. Previously unknown to us we were landing in Halifax, continuing by train to Montreal, and then changing trains to continue to New York. Those long train journeys must have given us some idea of the immense distances we would cover during our next 12 months, but I remember very little of it except talking to some of the married girls who were heading out to unknown lives on prairie farms and strange towns. I admired their courage and could see that a sturdy Scottish girl from a farming background was determined to succeed whereas I felt desperately sorry for a small dark-haired girl who was obviously already suffering from homesickness…. In Montreal we changed trains and left the British Empire behind us!

Arriving at Grand Central Station we were met by the U.S. Education representative of the Exchange, Dr. Smith, a rather worried-looking gentleman. We were taken to International House on Riverside Dr., Columbia University where we were to stay and have a few days indoctrination before leaving for different parts of the country- 76 teachers in 28 different states. We were split into Primary and Secondary Teacher Groups and attended lectures and discussions interspersed with a little sightseeing – and as much shopping as we could squeeze in! Columbia University Faculty gave us a banquet where we were welcomed by various educational dignitaries. My stay at International House was somewhat complicated by a Persian student also staying there, who, on discovering that we were English, announced that he wanted to marry an English girl just as his brother had done. On looking us over he must’ve decided that I FIT THE BILL and proceeded to corner me and pour out the beauties of his homeland, the romance, the sweet singing of the nightingales etc. if only I would marry him and fly back to that glorious land. My friends were much amused but I spent my remaining time very carefully keeping out of his way!

I am glad to report that our rather worried and harassed Dr. Paul Smith gradually relaxed and enjoyed us all, although he insisted that they were only 75 1/2 of us – I was the 1/2!

I had exchanged letters with Mr. Nauts, the principal of DeVilbiss high school in Toledo and when I was given my travel times and tickets I sent him a telegram. Unfortunately the train was an overnight ride arriving at 7:20 a.m. and no one had told me that there were two railway stations in Toledo- each with an early train from New York. After a rather stressful night I was all prepared to alight when we arrived on time in Toledo. After English stations I was a bit surprised to be decanted among the railway tracks but other people also got out and I stood among my cases and watched all the other passengers being greeted and departing. Finally there was one big man with brown hair and glasses standing alone, so I went up and said “Excuse me, are you Mr. Nauts?” He looked at me in astonishment and said “Miss Ewing?” I understood his surprise when a number of years later I met Miss Marie Stoll, the Home Economics teacher from the High School who had gone to England as my exchange; she was the epitome of the American Club Woman as portrayed in the New Yorker cartoons! At that time the teachers in Toledo High Schools were all older- perhaps they had taught Grade School first and then worked for their degrees in Summer School etc. and Miss Stoll was within 2 years of her retirement, as well as being a very large white-haired overpowering lady! No wonder that I was such a shock to him! He had been about to depart to the other station, poor man.

From the very beginning I was treated with the utmost kindness and hospitality by all the American teachers and in fact by everyone I met. My first morning was spent at the Nauts home where I had breakfast and then I was taken to see the School which looked to me to be the size of Buckingham Palace and nearly as ornate. I had been teaching at a Girls School in Cambridge with a few hundred pupils and maybe two dozen teachers. The school had 2400 students and about 80 teachers or more. When I saw the immense parking lot for the STUDENTS’ CARS I realized I was in a very different world.

A room had been booked for me at the YWCA downtown and I was happy to settle in, unpack a bit, have a bath and a nap, before being taken out to dinner by the Nauts and the Superintendent of Education and his wife. He was a very large heavy man and I got another surprised look- Miss Marie Stoll’s image still haunted me! Not long afterwards I met the Assistant Supervisor who reported the Superintendent’s opinion of me. “There is a girl whose country needn’t be ashamed to send her anywhere.”

This brought home to me what we had been told at our final briefing in London- that besides teaching we were acting as “ambassadors” for Britain and we must be prepared to give talks and interviews, meet people and generally represent Britain to the best of our ability. I did not realize what a complete novelty I would be in a mid-West city. Most of the people I met had never met an English person before and their roots were more German, Polish and Scandinavian than British. This was just one year after the end of the War and although I met a few men who had been in the army in England and a few people who knew of a British war bride, I was usually the first real live specimen. Also the press had painted such graphic pictures of war-torn Britain, and poor people bombed out and homeless that it was very hard for them to realize that although this had happened there were very many people who went on leading very ordinary lives with  mundane jobs who lived through it all despite all the difficulties.

This was how the American people looked at me. How did I find them? I did not realize how drab and colourless my country had become until I was taken to Church one Sunday after I arrived in Toledo! Quoting from a letter which has survived all these years “The Episcopal Church was just like ours in England, the big difference was the congregation! They all look so gay and glamorous, with flower hats and feather hats and plumes and veils and jewels and furs and colours that I was quite astounded after the sober styles and colours I was used to at home.” The colourful clothes people wore were a joy and all the women looked so well-dressed and well groomed that I thought they were all beautiful and glamorous! The faculty at the High School came to work all dressed up and made up with jewellery and in comparison today’s career women look a very dull lot. Some of the women were married but many were single and very well paid. The cars were another thing- big beautiful Buicks and Chryslers, gleaming and gas guzzling while in Britain private cars were practically unknown because one could only get a gas ration if it was a real necessity. Thinking of the movies of the 40s it was really a time of excess- America was celebrating having “won the war” and the more the better. But what fun it was for me! The food was a dream- I learned what “a roast” was and “a tea” and “a chicken dinner with milk gravy on Sunday” and cinnamon toast, and tried many other delicacies. When people learned that I really missed my tea at 4 o’clock I was invited to many teas, so elegantly served with a “pourer”and tiny cut out sandwiches and cookies and mints etc. so unlike the usual homey English tea, but most enjoyable all the same.

Another difference was MONEY. We English teachers were paid by our English salaries, and the American teachers their usual salaries in dollars. This meant that they were wealthy in Britain and we were poor in the U.S. When we had been accepted we were told this and that we would find it very hard to live on what we earned and that we would need some extra back-up money, which I fortunately had. There were restrictions on bringing money out of England but we were able to bring out additional funds if needed. When I began giving talks to Women’s Clubs and various groups I made a little bit extra which was very welcome. I was usually fed, deliciously, given a corsage and handed a small envelope at the end- the country groups were the most generous and the Ladies Teas tended to give me a small gift – a hankie or a small piece of costume jewelry.

This is where Cyn’s essay ends, at the end of a closely typed Page 3.  I can’t help feeling that Page 4 is missing, Cyn was such a good writer, I’m sure she would have some sort of a conclusion- and a few more details about her experiences.  But there are lots of details in her letters to Carol, so I shall start on them in my next post.  Meanwhile, here is what she wrote, published in The English – Speaking Union pamphlet, second teacher exerpt:



From a teacher of Cambridge, teaching in DeVilbiss High School in Toledo, Ohio: “ I am getting slightly adapted to American High School life now, after a rather foggy period of bewilderment, but everyone is being very kind to me. My greatest astonishment is at the size of everything – the school is enormous – the number of pupils is huge – the classes are big- and my home room group of boys and girls consists of some of the largest specimens of American youth that I have ever seen- I am quite the smallest in the class! But it’s fun!”

And this last is the sentence that turns up often in her letters- But it’s fun!

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