Education Matters: The foreign exchange student

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Somewhere in the crazy ideas that pop through my head, I thought it would be great fun to take on a new work responsibility ... during the spring that my oldest graduated from high school, and my youngest graduated from elementary school.

It was because the job itself is something I so fervently believe in: foreign exchange. But after asking more than 300 people directly, putting up flyers, running ads, sending out emails and Facebook messages, I was still short of enough host families.

My second son came to my office. "Mom," he said, "why don't we just host one here?" And just like that, we, too, would have a "Spanish son for the summer."

Just two weeks later, I was at Logan Airport, greeting the group and saying hello to the young man who would soon become a part of our family, for better or for worse. I didn't know that we were really all that prepared, and I worried a bit that I had forced my family into something that they were not all that excited about. It was me that took on the new job, not them who had come to me and asked to host someone else.

But immediately, this second son of ours surprised me. He is the one who resolutely refuses to travel. He took Spanish — but didn't like it and doesn't really intend to study more. He has a standing invitation to go on an international trip with me, but he doesn't want to go.

But yet, he was the one who went out of his way to invite Jon to go with him, right from the start, with no reminding needed. "Mom, we're leaving to go fishing," I would hear. Or, "Mom, we're off to go to out for ice cream." He is also the most social, or at least his large group of friends has always been. There is rarely a night when he is home here alone, or else he is at someone else's house in a group. All of them just had Jon come with them, as a matter of course.

The third day into the program, the Wednesday after Jon arrived on Sunday night, my son and a friend had decided to go mountain biking. "Couldn't you go around here, through the woods from the school to the park?" I asked. No, he was sure, he said; they wanted to go up to Mount Snow, and do "real mountain biking."

I asked Jon if he wanted to go. He was hesitant, but he didn't want to miss out. I checked the insurance policy, and there was nothing stated about not going mountain biking, so I booked the tickets and paid for the helmet and trail pass.

About four hours later, my cell phone went off, with the display showing it was coming in from the second son. But, as soon as I answered, the voice identified himself as a ski patrolman up at Mount Snow. "Which one and how bad?" was my immediate response.

Even with a broken clavicle, Jon still managed to participate fully. The group outing to Six Flags was not his favorite, as he rode only two rides the whole day. The bowling excursion was also a bit humiliating for him, although his American cousin of only five years found it delightful that she was not the only one using the ramp to push the ball down. The trip to Newport, R.I., would have likely been a bit more fun, for him, if he had been able to go to the beach.

But he could still roast s'mores, hold a fishing pole, watch lacrosse games, go shopping at the mall, sunbathe and walk out into the water at Spofford Lake, enjoy the cities of Boston and New York, help with the bunnies and the chickens, and play a mean game of "Ticket to Ride" (otherwise known in our house as "the train game"). He could entertain the young cousin, play in the kitchen with his sister, joke easily with the entire family, and snuggle with the dogs as they took over his bed at night.

When it came time for the farewell party, only Jon, my daughter and I were at home; the other three had traveled to a lacrosse event in Delaware. When Jon and my daughter pleaded for us to host the party at home, I gave in. Who was I to deny our son the joy of having his friends over to his home? I answered him just like always, "If we host, you need to help prepare." He (and my daughter) quickly agreed.

As coordinator, I had to take the group to New York City — a place I'd rather avoid, if I am honest. But my oldest son and my daughter wanted to come with, which the program allowed. The oldest has an almost unerring sense of direction, and at nearly six feet two inches, he provides the added bonus of being able to be seen in crowds (of which there are far, far too many in NYC). During those last few days, I watched as my daughter became friends with a group of four girls, and as my son dared to practice his Spanish with them, too.

The good-byes were not easy when they came — not for anyone. Hosts and students alike shared heartfelt hugs and tears.

It's a bit of a mystery: how can someone become such a part of our lives when he has only been here for three and a half weeks?

I have hosted people before, and I have worked with groups for years. I am always a bit sad when it is over. But there was something different about being a host mom.

Even as it feels like there is a bit of a hole in our lives right now, I remind myself of the saying from Dr. Suess: "Don't cry because it is over. Smile because it happened."

Jill Stahl Tyler was mom-for-the-summer to one Spanish son, one incoming college freshman, one junior and one incoming middle schooler. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment and the Brattleboro Town School Board. Contact her at jill@globalcow.com.

The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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