BRANDON-For teachers, staff and students enrolled at the Neshobe Elementary School this year, the world has come to their doorstep.
The Brandon school community has enjoyed befriending a visiting Australian student, his teacher parents, and a special guest Chinese teacher. And for this rural school, these foreign faces have been a sturdy bridge of friendship across many thousands of miles.
Australian married couple Leon Syme and Margaret Mulvey, of Humpty Doo, N.T., along with their children Neva and Charlie Syme, have been in residence here since last fall. The husband and wife teaching team qualified for a two-year-long sabbatical from their Australian jobs; they chose to travel the world with their children. They included three months in Vermont to learn more about life here as well as observe local teaching methods.
Both Syme children are enrolled in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. Neva is an 8th grader at Otter Valley High School and Charlie is a third grader at Neshobe School.
"We get asked how we got from hot, humid Australia to Vermont a lot," Leon said. "Well, we've been teaching in the Northern Territory for eight years. Part of the incentive to teach in this remote region is that you earn points for the amount of time you teach for the territory schools. Margaret and I earned two years leave, so here we are!"
The Aussie couple found a comfortable house to rent in Goshen near Blueberry Hill and have enjoyed cross-country skiing and playing in the snow for the first time in their lives.
"We knew Vermont was going to be cold, but we had no preconceptions about the place," Leon added. "We've never seen snow before so here we are - experiencing the worse Vermont winter in 30 years. But we adjusted quickly. We like it. Still I can't comprehend how to describe this experience to my Aboriginal students when we return home."
In northern Australia, students certainly don't get "snow days" off from school, but they do get "cyclone days."
"Well, half of the year we get blue sky and sunshine," Leon noted, "the other half we get humid, wet monsoon weather."
So how did this Down Under family keep warm during the Vermont winter of 2010-11?
"It's an easy place to keep warm," Leon said. "We didn't bring a lot of warm clothes but we hit the thrift shops and got some quality wool gear."
To learn more about American teaching styles, Margaret volunteered as an aide in a classroom at Neshobe.
"I assisted Mrs. Faber with individual students," she said. "I took on board quite a few ideas. It was fantastic. Neshobe is a very organized school. The staff and front office are wonderful."
Both parents have been familiar faces at both Neshobe and Otter Valley with after-school programs. The couple spent many weeks taking photographs and video footage to assemble a video about the schools; they plan to show to to their students and administrators back in Australia next year.
Just last week, Leon and Margaret presented Neshobe students with a fun show-and-tell program about life in Australia. Of keen interest to the younger students assembled was Leon's stories about working on a crocodile farm.
"We have lots of dangerous crocs in Australia," Margaret said. "The students were fascinated with Leon's real-life story about a crocodile that made of with a little girl. Ihad one little boy ask me later if it was ok to swim here in Vermont. Itold him Vermont didn't have crocodiles."
The Mulvey-Syme family are ready to move on from with their sabbatical. They are leaving Vermont to travel to Denver, Chicago, and Toronto before heading off to France and then home. But in their wake are many friends and lots of exchanged e-mail addresses.
Down the hall from Australian student Charlie Syme's class is teacher Mrs. Huiling Xu classroom.
This 36-year-old Chinese educator has been a guest teacher at Neshobe School since the start of the 2010-11 school year.
"I am teaching Neshobe students all about the Chinese language, writing, and culture," the Shanghai resident said.
With an exotic smile and excellent spoken English, it's easy to see why students have become enamored of Mrs. Xu. She is bright and energetic. And her obvious love of her native culture is infectious even as she enjoys and respects learning more about America, too.
In the main hallway at Neshobe, Mrs. Xu stopped next to a large map of the world. She placed a finger to the map, pinpointg the great city and port of Shanghai, the most populous city in China at the mouth of the mighty Yangtze River.
"It is a very small world," Mrs. Xu said. "And that's why it is delightful to be here and get to know the teachers, staff and students of Neshobe School. Everyone is very nice."
Mrs. Xu's husband, Limning Kang, and their third-grade daughter, named Kang Kang, are back home in Shanghai. The young teacher won't return home until later this year. And if she misses her distant family-as she must-she doesn't let on.
No matter, it's clear that when Mrs. Xu leaves Neshobe School later this year, she'll be sorely missed by the entire community.
It's a small world after all.
Teachers Leon Syme and Margaret Mulvey of Darwin, Australia, are visiting the Brandon area. Their children are attending the Neshobe Elementary School and Otter Valley High School. At home the husband and wife team teach in in an Aboriginal school in the humid Northern Territory.
Photo by Lou Varricchio