It’s a long way from Washington’s 7th Ward to Aberdeenshire, Scotland, but Niki Holmes, by way of Annandale, Va., is working abroad this year thanks to the Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange Program.
The Fulbright is funded by an annual appropriation made by Congress to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Participating governments, host institutions, corporations and foundations also provide direct and indirect support.
Holmes, 44, a 1986 graduate of Washington High School, lives in Washington, D.C., and, during most semesters, can be found teaching English in the International Baccalaureate program at Annandale High School, where 2,500 students attend.
Her Fulbright teaching assignment is at Cults Academy with an enrollment of about 1,500 students. She called the academy “kind of like our high school,” and explained that “Cults” is the name of the town.
“I deal more with S-1s through S-4s,” she said, referring to Cults’ “phases of learning” that include three grades in the junior phase and one grade in the senior phase, which means students who are 11, 12, 13 and 14 years old.
What Americans refer to as “homeroom,” the Scots call “form tutorial,” and with this group, which ranges in age from 11 to 18 years old, Holmes is the tutor.
Why the mix of ages? “It helps the young ones feel they have allies in the building,” Holmes explained.
She called this group “my little beacons of hope, my little ambassadors. They help me to navigate.”
If Americans and the British are two people separated by a common language, Scottish, with its formidable burr, is even more so.
“They laugh at me quite a lot,” Holmes said. “Especially my pronunciation of academic words. It’s usually an accent on a different syllable.”
So Holmes’ tutorial students often serve as her translators, smoothing the linguistic rough edges on words like “circumference.” She referred to the local dialect as “a feast for the ears.”
That particular “feast” extends, of course, to food.
Cults Academy has a cafeteria, known as a canteen, and there Holmes has encountered “mince and skirlie” on the menu, which she described as meat and gravy with vegetables, plus dense oatmeal mashed potatoes, “a really warm kind of comfort food.”
While American schools tend to cycle class after class through lunch breaks in quick succession, Cults Academy students and staff have an hour-long lunch break. That, plus Holmes’ morning break time, known as “the interval,” add up to a six-period school-day schedule that she called “very civilized.”
Another area where American and Scottish students are potentially poles apart is classroom attire.
While the possibility of a strict dress code was the talk of Washington High School in the past few months, uniforms are the rule at Cults Academy.
Black or dark gray trousers for boys and girls, or, for girls, a skirt of the same color with tights, plus a white shirt and a colorful school necktie make the student body appear uniformly well-groomed. Pupils, in the school prospectus, are advised to “avoid fashion extremes. . . . Don’t wear denim or leather, wear clothing that could cause offence (or) wear fashion tops not meant for a tie. Do project a positive image of yourself and the school in the school grounds and the local community.”
Its website features a page on “blazer braiding” for the oldest students, with directions and diagrams on attaching the trim to the standard jacket. “You have been given enough braid in your house colour for both sleeves,” the site instructs. “Make sure you have measured exactly how much braid each sleeve will require before you cut it. Place the bottom edge of your braid three centimeters from the edge of the cuff of your blazer, and sew on.”
As readers of the Harry Potter series would recall, the students are organized into five “houses,” Cairn, Devenick, Friarsfield, Murtle and Ronan, named for local landmarks and, in the case of Ronan, a Scottish saint.
During her time at Wash High, Holmes was known for her prowess in three sports, volleyball, basketball and track. She scored 1,000 points in basketball and was the state shotput champion in track and field.
“I’m coaching a boys basketball team,” she said. “We meet once a week for an hour and 10 minutes. It is like organized chaos.”
She attended the University of Pittsburgh for two years on a volleyball scholarship, transfering to Penn State and obtaining a master’s degree at George Mason University in curriculum and instruction. She is a nationally board-certified teacher, one of three at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, where she’s been a faculty member for 15 years.
The Fulbright teachers program is a true exchange, with Holmes and Cults Academy teacher Marguerite Edwards trading places for the school year.
“She and I have swapped lives, essentially,” Holmes said.
So while Edwards is fighting gridlock on the infamous D.C. Beltway, Holmes is driving on the left side of the road until she becomes stuck behind a combine or a tractor, or perhaps Highland cattle, a single female of which in Scotland is pronounced “coo,” or ubiquitous Scottish sheep.
While Holmes misses her husband, Andrew Hollinger, who is director of communications at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, technology allows them to keep in touch.
Scotland is not known for its climate, and situated in a northern latitude, it also tends to be rather dark this time of year.
But Holmes waxed poetic about its unique beauty, much as one would expect from an English teacher.
“In every day there is some stunning spectacular sun play, almost a silver-white light over the brown fields and a gorgeous golden color,” she said last month in a phone interview.
“It’s breathtakingly stunning.”