Youth exchange and a much-needed optimism refresher

Midlife Sentence | Youth Exchange

Early last week, Anna, our Danish daughter, asked how it feels to know, as a nation, that the whole world is paying close attention to your every move.

To be honest, right now it feels rather like getting caught by the neighbors, having passed out on the lawn in a puddle of … well of something not left there by the sprinklers, lets say.

And for the record, no, I haven’t ever been caught passed out on the lawn. I’m just guessing how that might feel, you guys. Jeez.

I was working last week on a post I’ve since scrapped because I’m still trying to figure out how screaming into my pillow could be a productive part of any discussion. I’ll admit it was cathartic to give folks a piece of my mind though, even if that piece never leaves my desktop, or is only witnessed by those who happen to pass as I’m having a very heated discussion in my empty car.

One thing’s for sure: for a humor blogger, I have precious little to say that’s very funny right now. Hence the gap in my regular posts.

There was one thing recently that felt productive, though.

Last weekend, I was on a team of more than three-dozen volunteers who screened applicants for Rotary youth exchange. If all goes well, by this time next year, many of those teenagers will be on foreign soil, completely out of their element, struggling to understand and make themselves understood, and hopefully having the times of their lives. We’ll accept a few others just like them, here.Youth exchange and the gift of optimism - Manic Mumbling

Included in our volunteer group were a number of young adults, recently returned from their own exchanges. We also dragged along the seventeen students who are currently in Idaho from places all over the world.

Those seventeen students have been witness to all kinds of garbage we’ve put ourselves through for the past few months, and still think we’re okay. At the same time, their counterparts, our American kids overseas, are wondering if we are.

They’re getting a lot of questions right now, our young ambassadors, about the state of affairs at our end of the block, where the US used to be the high-end house with all the fancy toys and the BEST parties. Where people remember things being pretty together at one point, but now the paint is chipped and the trees need pruning and the owners regularly argue on the front porch.

And then there’s that guy passed out on the lawn…

Anyway, I don’t know what I expected this last weekend, If it was to be bogged down by any sort of political discussion, the way the rest of the week had gone.

Youth exchange and the gift of optimism - Manic Mumbling
Photo credit: Julia Altman, who blogs about her year in Idaho at

It didn’t. Instead, it was a delightful opportunity to talk to young people about their desire to learn, and grow – mostly by just getting out of their comfort zone – and who have a pretty good sense that, before they can make a difference in the world, they must have a better understanding of it.

It was wonderful, too, to spend time with those seventeen teenagers from every corner of the globe who aren’t concerned so much about our dirty laundry.

I mean, from a global perspective, they’ve witnessed their share of complication. Our Brazilian kids come to us from a country where the successor to the president that was impeached last summer is now embroiled in a bribery scandal. Our Belgian students each represent a different one of three official languages, from a country roughly half the size of Maine. What type of perspective would that give to our seemingly perennial discussion about designating a single language as “official?”

There’s the girl from a country once run by a monstrous fascist. She’s forming fast friendships with envoys from at least six countries hers once occupied. There’s the Chilean kid whose country was a dictatorship when I was his age, and his friend from neighboring Argentina, which has survived half a dozen revolutions in the past century.

I know the US is supposed to be a champion of democracy and a world power, and that there are a lot of folks counting on our remaining those things so other, less savory characters don’t rise to take our place. What we’re hearing right now, from our kids currently on exchange, and our guests here at home, is how much people all over the world are freaking way out.

But we’ll keep sending new emissaries abroad, and bringing their counterparts here. And this weekend, as we interviewed those candidates and their parents, never once did I hear anything about anxiety over what the world could look like in a year, even though there is the possibility it could look very different.

What I heard is how these kids would define the word “ambassador,” and how they think they would handle the stress of being different, alone in a crowd of strangers, thousands of miles away from their normal sources of support, all day, every day, for what for people of this age is a very long time.

And I thought about what they’d bring home with them, and what they’d leave behind in the places they visited. I was humbled by the vast amount of optimism and courage that represents, and proud to be a part of it.

There is said to be a Cherokee parable about a man telling his grandson about the terrible fight going on inside him between two wolves. One wolf represents anger, hate, greed, resentment, bitterness, and ego. The other wolf is peace, hope, love, joy, empathy, generosity, and compassion.

He chooses which wolf will win, he tells his grandson, by the one he chooses to feed.

(Editors note: Calm down, people. Nobody’s feeding teenagers to wolves).


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  1. Yes, Beth, this has been quite an election. No one saw it coming. Weeks later I\’m still processing what happened. Its going to be a tough four (please not eight) years. I guess what doesn\’t kill you makes you stronger. At least that\’s what I tell myself.

  2. This election was historic for sure…and not in a good way! I personally didn\’t want either candidate to win, but now I\’m hoping for the best! Fingers crossed.
    I love all of the things your family does with foreign exchange. I think it\’s amazing, so inspiring and such a great opportunity for kids!