We are not Americans. Not everyone lives in an igloo. We do not bathe in maple syrup, but if we could we would. It’s not winter 12 months a year. We have a goose named after us. It’s okay to say "EH"! Not everyone has a pet polar bear. We think the Mounties’ uniform is stylish. The beaver is a cherished animal. The best country in the world since 1867. (Definition found on the T-shirt "Canada – My Definition" from Canadian denim retailer "Bluenotes")
When I started thinking about spending a year abroad, I did not think about Canada at first. I wanted to go to the United States, the place where everyone goes and the place I had already been to several times. The States were familiar. As I went through the offerings of many different organizations I slowly came to realize that going to the States for half a year was not such a good idea. I would not have been able to choose the city and school I wanted to go to. One day I came across an offering for Canada. It said that you would be able to choose the place you are going to. You could choose the state, whether you would like to be in a big city or a small village and other things. That was exactly what I was looking for. I made my decision quickly: I wanted to go to Canada and stay there for five months.
I had already been to the west coast of Canada once, in Vancouver and surroundings. I had heard from many people that most students went to this area, but I did not want to be at a school with about fifty other Germans. One of the organizations, Carl Duisberg, offered me I could go to Saskatchewan, a mid-western prairie province of Canada. The biggest city, Saskatoon, has a population of about 250.000. I liked what I heard and read about it and decided to go there. Most of my friends had never heard about Saskatoon or Saskatchewan at that time and I had to explain where it was many times. I was sure about my decision though and no one could have stopped me from going there. The day I finally got the name and address of my host family was one of the happiest I can remember.
I got the name and address of my host family in December, two months before my departure. My host mother Julie and my host father Jason had two children, Tessa, fourteen, and Tanner, twelve. They told me that Tessa would go to the same school as me and I was relieved to hear that. I was not scared to meet new people and acquire new experiences but the notion of the first day at school was still kind of big and scary. It was good to know someone. My host family and I exchanged a couple of emails and pictures before I arrived in Saskatoon and I could not have been more excited.
When I arrived at Saskatoon "International" Airport – after waiting three hours in Toronto and a flight in one of the smallest planes I had ever seen – I was incredibly happy to meet them. The smile on my face could not have been bigger. They hugged me and I felt very welcome. My host mother even made supper for me late at night and tried to make me feel like part of the family immediately. The time with my host family was great. They took me with them to go shopping and my host mother went to a museum with Tessa and me, the Mendel Art Gallery. I also got to see an RV exhibition with my host parents. Tons of huge campers – that is Canada!
At home we had a chore list with all of our names on it and five different parts of chores. Every day you had to take care of a different part of the house. It worked best to keep the house clean at all times. If we forgot to do our chores, we usually got a second chance or had to do twice as much the next day. That barely happened because the "Chore List" worked very well and we always knew what we had to do and did it immediately. No confusions – and no excuses.
As time passed by I realized that the family life in my host family did not go as well as I thought. My host parents had to work often, my host father worked shifts. My host siblings and I did not get along as well as in the beginning and most of the time we did not have much to talk about. The necessary connection to get along with each other well was missing. My host family noticed that too and one evening we had a long conversation about my time in Canada and my time with the family. This evening we all decided it would be better for me to change host families.
On April 1st I moved out of my first host family’s house in Silverspring and moved in to a new house and a new family in Erindale. Again, I had two host siblings, but now my host sister Ashley was as old as me and my host brother Grayson was thirteen. My host parents Carol and Ray also hosted another girl, Moe, seventeen, from Japan. Ashley went to the public high school next to mine and Moe went to the same high school as me. I got along with all of them way better than with my old host family and we had fun and did exciting things most of the time.
We celebrated four birthdays together. First, it was Moe’s birthday on April 8th, then Ashley’s on April 9th. My host mother’s birthday was on June 16th and then on June 22nd it was the birthday of my host mother’s eldest daughter Missie who did not live at the house anymore. We went out for supper on every birthday and had a lot of big and tasty cakes. With my second host family I also went camping for the first time in my life. We went to Lake Diefenbaker, one of the biggest lakes in Saskatchewan, about an hour south of Saskatoon. My host family had a boat and we went fishing and did a lot of other activities on the water, for example tubing and wakeboarding. I spent three weekends there in May and June, but unfortunately we did not have enough time to go there more often. Ashley had soccer tournaments in May and we both had concerts with our school bands one weekend.
My second host family had a big family sentiment and I felt like I was a part of the family and not only a guest in the house. My host mother always wanted us to be out of our rooms and participate in family life. The daily supper when we all came together was the most important part of the day for all of us. We always prayed before we started eating, but there weren’t any rules like having to wait to get up from the table until everyone finished eating. When you were done eating you just got up, put your dishes away and went away to do other things. Everyone had to help with the chores: Filling and emptying the dishwasher, vacuuming the house, setting the table and cleaning our rooms. My host father’s sister, auntie Hope, came every week to clean the rest of the house and release us from our duties though.
There are two different school divisions in Saskatoon: The Catholic School Division and the Public School Division. Most of the exchange organizations only work with the Catholic School Division. I went to St. Joseph High School, one of six catholic schools. St. Joseph – home of the "Guardians" – has about 1.000 students from Grade 9 to Grade 12. I was in Grade 10, but also had two Grade 11 classes. Everyone has five classes every day and they only change at the beginning of the new semester. It is possible to have a spare period when you are in Grade 11 and 12 and I knew many students who had spare periods. It is always possible to take classes from other Grades and Canadian students have to choose particular classes to get credits, otherwise they cannot graduate. Fortunately, I could choose whatever classes I wanted, because I stayed there for only five months. English was the only class I had to take; the others were my own choice.
Psychology: Psychology was one of my two Grade 11 classes. It was the most interesting of all my classes and the hardest one for me in the beginning. I had trouble understanding everything, because my teacher used many technical terms, but he also explained many of the terms and I slowly got better at understanding what he meant. I always wanted to take a challenging class like this and I was really excited I could take it. It was a great new experience.
Math: One of the ESL (English as a second Language) teachers recommended I should take math as a Grade 11 class, because I wanted to do trigonometry like my classmates did in Germany that semester. I was the only Grade 10 student in it. I was a little scared at first and it was hard to make friends, but in the end I got to know a few people and had a really good time in my math class. Best of all I could learn similar things like in the German Grade 10 curriculum.
English: My English class was harder than I thought. I wanted to take a Grade 11 English class at first, but then I was happy I took the Grade 10 one. We read a book and a drama and several short stories. The teaching method was very different from what I am used to in Germany. We never got homework but time in class to work on our assignments. We did not have to interpret anything on ourselves. We had questions leading our thoughts instead and the teacher gave us many hints and explanations. Writing essays was hard though and we had to study a lot for our exams. Still, I enjoyed my English class and it was one of the classes where I made most of my friends.
Band / Gym: I took Band class because I wanted to continue playing the saxophone. It was the best option for me and I could earn credits and get marks for it. You do not have band every day. I alternately had Band and Gym – Band on the odd days, Gym on the even days. Gym included sports like yoga, zumba, step aerobics and ultimate frisbee. I made many friends in this class and I always had a good time. At the end of the semester we played a great concert in the school theater.
Photography: Like Psychology, I always wanted to take a class like this and it was my first choice. It was very interesting and we learned a lot about different photo techniques, photo shooting and editing. I learned many practical things I can apply in my life and the class was a great experience.
A big difference between school in Canada and school in Germany is that we did not get any oral marks in Canada. We wrote a few exams in every subject and had a lot of assignments and homework that got marked, but the teachers did not really care about our contribution to the class. Another difference was that we had final exams at the end of the semester and not only the marks of all the exams and assignments counted but also the marks of the final. The finals were very hard, because they were about everything we learned throughout the semester and it was a lot to study. I did not have finals in some classes though. In Band we did not have a final, because our concert made up most of our mark. In Gym we had to do a fitness journal that equalled a final project such as we did in Photography instead of a final.
A "specialty" of St. Joseph High School was TGG – Teacher Guardian Group. The unique concept is meant to build closer relationships between the students and teachers. You have a teacher that gets to knows you apart from your role as a student in a particular course. The teacher acts like a mentor for the students and guides them throughout the four years of high school. A TGG usually comprises about 25 to 30 students and you are in TGG with the same teacher and the same classmates for all the years. It does not change like the other subjects. You participate in school activities with your TGG and collect points on "spirit days" to win a prize at the end of the semester. My TGG was runner-up the semester I was there. I hope they can get into first place next semester. The room of the TGG – the homeroom – is the room of the teacher and stays the same all the time, too. Your locker is usually located close to your homeroom and is assigned to you by your TGG teacher. You have TGG for fifteen minutes every day between period two and three. Wednesday is the only day when TGG is fifty-five minutes long and all the other periods are shorter. On Wednesdays we always had special activities for example Pep Rally, Box Lunch Auction, Basketball Tournaments, Co-Prez Election, Mass, or Awards Day.
The day always started with the morning devotion. Mr. Cody, one of the Christian Ethics teachers, congratulated everyone who celebrated his/her birthday on that day; students who had their birthdays on weekends got their congratulations earlier. Then he told a religious story and prayed. Sometimes the prayers included people for example the father of one of the teachers who died or the secretary’s husband who suffered from cancer. The prayer always ended with "St. Joseph, pray for us". My school was very religious and emphasized Christian ideals and education.
We had many "spirit days". A spirit day at St. Joseph High School is a day when everyone can dress-up in a specific way. For example we had pyjama day – everyone loved that of course and I do not think I saw someone not wearing a pyjama that day –, jersey day, and pirate day. We also had a whole jersey week. Many students had many different jerseys to wear every day and it was fun to see how some were discussing which sports team is the best. In TGG we always had to count how many people of the class dressed up and earned points for it.
St. Joseph High School had a great school spirit. All the activities bound the students together and students from all different grades were friends, because they worked together in extracurricular activities and classes. We even had two special events in the evening, the One Act Plays – three different plays played by truly amazing actors from our school – and the Variety Night – the night everyone could show his/her talents in front of the whole school. We had many sport teams and you could get involved in many different extracurricular activities. We also had a student representative council with students from all four grades and two presidents – "Co-Prez" –, a boy and a girl from Grade 12.
I have only been a "St. Joseph Guardian" for one semester, but I still feel like I am part of the school. Like the motto of St. Joseph says: Once A Guardian, Always A Guardian.
I had a great time in Canada and would recommend to everyone to experience a different family life and school system like that.