This paper emerges from a year-long study of one high school's implementation of a new, whole school approach to year 9. Year 9 has been widely recognised as a problematic year of schooling, where absenteeism and disengagement is high. However, attempts to 'do year 9 differently' by creating an imagined 'oasis' of care, concern and personal development in a new year 9 program create tensions with the embedded culture and social structure of a school oriented to competitive and academic success; and these tensions are evident not just in terms of explicit bids for resources or timetabling relative to the rest of the school, but in the values and practices of teachers and students involved in the program. This paper follows teachers and students as they imagine and experience the new program over its first year of operation. Issues canvassed include: the significance of place, space, time and other symbols as signifiers; the ways in which work, caring, surveillance and 'having closer and more individualized personal relationships' were experienced by teachers and students in the new curriculum; the ways in which the values of the overall school culture were continued in a program aiming to be different; and the emotional and practical cost (and benefits) to the teachers in attempting to work differently.