“Why do you want to go on exchange?” I ask my kid.
“Well, I like to travel, and I’m into learning new things.”
Good answer. Just the night before, Jack had told us he would be interested in going on exchange his junior year in high school. Now, I’m putting him through a mock interview.
We’re in McCall, the opening weekend of the little town’s winter carnival. Mike and I are part of a committee shepherding a gaggle of students in the Rotary exchange program. The group includes ‘inbound’ students from countries across the world, and soon to be ‘outbound’ students from counties across southern Idaho – sort of a foreign exchange cavalcade.
Our first day was spent on the ski hill north of town, where we had the blissful experience of being completely ignored by forty teenagers. This was in addition to our own kids, who wouldn’t let us sit with them on the lift up the hill. Skiing was followed by a trip to a local hot springs where everyone under the age of twenty segregated themselves to the end of the pool opposite their erstwhile chaperones. More bliss.
That evening, the students gathered to share stories and advice. Inbound students – at this point nearly halfway through their exchange from other countries – were sharing advice to ease the way for those whose trips were pending. Next summer, kids from small towns like Preston, Buhl and Blackfoot, and bigger towns like Boise were outbound for Italy, Turkey, Spain and France.
I’m not sure if what the outbounds heard from the inbounds was encouraging, or terrifying:
- “We learned English in school. British English. It’s different than American English. I totally freaked a guy out when I asked if I could use his rubber in class. I meant eraser. It was a rough first day.”
- “People kept telling me my accent made me sound like a terrorist.”
- “I woke up because a chicken was walking on me.” (Welcome to Idaho)
- “Don’t wig out if people don’t know your country. I’m not from Swaziland. It’s Switzerland. You know? Europe, not Africa. Totally different continent.”
There were other US students who had been on exchange the previous year and they pitched in:
- “I told my host brother I was sexually aroused to meet him. I just meant, you know, excited.”
- “People have very specific ideas about Americans. They’ll expect you to be fat and always craving McDonalds and never exercise.”
- “Nobody knows you as the shy girl. You could be something totally different. Branch out and be a new you.”
- “Say yes, please, and thanks. These three words go a long way.”
That night, walking to our cabin from the meeting in the lodge, Jack broke the news about wanting to go on exchange his junior year. I did the math: that would mean he’d need to apply this summer, and interview in the fall.
He’d be part of this group next year.
I had my doubts he’d be ready. Just last year he was completely crashing out of eighth grade and unable to identify why that was or how he could pull himself back from the muck. He started ninth grade in a much smaller school. He was thriving now, but I still remember being crumpled on the bathroom floor, freaked out and sobbing, without the first clue what to do for my kid.
Was it only just last week I posted a blog about being ready for him to be independent? Yeah, I take that back.
The next day, the students walked the streets of McCall, slinging beads as a fundraiser for the local Rotary Club. Jack joined our student from Argentina, and a couple of girls. Then they all boarded a parade float with signs they’d made the night before.
I had a Bloody Mary with a fellow Rotarian, and then stationed myself streetside to catch a picture as the float went by.
There was the float, with our kids and the exchange students. The introverted Colin completely obscured his face behind his sign. Clearly, we wouldn’t have to worry about his wanting to travel overseas by himself for some time. Jack stood further back, his enigmatic “I like turtles” sign raised high above signs proclaiming “McCall to France,” and “Brazil to Boise.”
Now it’s later that afternoon, and I’m conducting our mock interview over lunch.
“… ‘into learning new things,’ huh? That’s good. What about when things don’t go so well? How do you handle stress?”
“I like to hang out with friends,” he says. “Laughing always makes things better.”
“You’re going to be feeling homesick at some point,” I say. “What about the holidays? Won’t you miss your family?”
“Uh, I dunno. Have you met my family?”
… Uh, I dunno where this whole ‘exchange’ thing is going, but if you keep voting for me, I’ll keep writing this stuff down. ‘Cause I’m a giver. See how that works?