One November evening I turned round the corner of Cardiff Road and Commercial Street and bumped into three boys, John Mattioti, Bruno Romola and another boy I’d taught in the Junior Boys School. It was a cold evening, already dark, and a fierce wind had caught my eyes, making them water. It was hard to focus; I was shivering, and feeling tired; tired of teaching, tired of a routine that was slowly squeezing the fun out of life.
I sensed, or maybe imagined, the disappointment on the boys’ faces – only they were no longer boys, but men, bursting with promise – confronted with this jaded ghost of Christmas Past.
But little did I know that words were being spoken, magical words that would change my life and that of others.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in Jackson Heights, New York, Frank Griffiths, a man I didn’t know, was talking to another man I didn’t know - Ron Gonella. Ron was exploring the possibility of teaching in Britain on a Teachers’ Exchange scheme. How seriously I didn’t know then; I’m not too sure now. But the words had been spoken.
The words traveled over the Atlantic to Middleborough and exchanged with a man I did know: Richard Lewis, an old Swansea friend. I had talked once or twice about the possibility of a teacher exchange, but usually over a pint or two. Now Frank told Richard about a guy called Ron, and how he’d been talking about maybe coming over on some kind of exchange
That night I got a telephone call.
The wheels moved quickly. More phone calls followed as we exchanged house – apartment – school details, and got the necessary permission from our respective Head Teachers.
Thank you, God, I breathed. Ron, Annette and their daughter Erica had a magnificent apartment in Jackson Heights, and the school I’d be teaching in would be St. Agnes Academic School for Girls. He was swapping all that for a small three-bed semi and an entirely different kettle of fish – St Joseph’s Comprehensive.
I was called to London for an interview. The Central Bureau of Teacher Exchanges took these things seriously. The interview went smoothly; I mean we’d done the job for them, made our own match, everything. All they had to do was rubber stamp it - and rubber stamp it they did.
I remember traveling back on the London to Cardiff train. It was snowing hard and the train stalled for an hour just outside of Gloucester. Worse the heating stopped too. I stared out a grey window at an even greyer sky, and countryside blanketed in snow.
What I’d just signed up to, the enormity of the adventure ahead, was subsumed by a more immediate desire. What I wanted now, what I dreamed of, was a 16oz steak and a bottle of red wine. That image is still fixed in my mind, a white countryside, the fading plush interior of a Berni inn, a thick sirloin steak, and the most expensive red wine I could afford. I ate in silence, got a taxi and crawled into bed.