Happy 18th birthday to my number one German son. I miss you kid!.
David came to stay with us August of 2018, for his 10 month exchange year. During the 2018-2019 school year, we were NOT going to host an exchange student. Our lives were scheduled for too many changes. One daughter was getting married, another was graduating college and most likely needing to move to her first apartment to start a new job. Our youngest son would graduate 8th grade (a big deal at his Catholic elementary school). Another daughter would need to engage in college visits. We had too many good things on our schedule and didn’t think we could embrace one more. It was then, as they say, “God laughed”.
During the 2018-2019 placement season, I connected with two potential Host Dads wanting to share their very cool mini-farm and lives with an exchange student. Because their family was “non-traditional”, Academic Year in America was required by Department of State regulations to present the family to the student for approval. One student after another turned down these amazing Dads, and in frustration, I began searching for a student for them.
One of the Dads was an administrator in higher ed and the other was a medical professional. David stated in his application that his career goals included medical school on his way to become an orthopedic surgeon, something he discovered after an internship at a veterinarian’s office in Germany. He loved sports, especially American football, and one of the Dads had been on his high school’s football team. Without telling the potential host family, I asked AYA to present this opportunity to David. He enthusiastically said, “Yes”!
I was so excited to tell the host family I had found the perfect student for them. When I shared David’s profile and encouraged them to consider hosting one more time, they messaged me back to say they had decided to wait a year or so before hosting. I felt terrible. What had I done? David knew about this family and I knew he was anxiously waiting for the final word that his placement was approved. What had started as good intentions on my part, was possibly ending in heartbreak for this kind-hearted kid. I called my Placement Specialist to tell him the bad news.
“So… what do you want to do ?”, he asked. “Do you have another family”?
It took me about 2 seconds to know the answer. How could we not invite this amazing, open-minded, future surgeon into our family?
“Yes, as a matter of fact…”
And so….. the year we weren’t supposed to host began. Life Lesson: Always embrace every good thing life brings you. The year we weren’t supposed to host became one of the best exchange experiences anyone could hope for!
We became friends with David’s Mom and Dad before, during and after his stay with us. David fit right into our family like he had always been there. He rolled with every change, embraced every crazy schedule, celebration, and the fact that his Host Mom traveled more that year than ever before in her life.
David embraced his exchange year with the boundless enthusiasm and sense of adventure expected of a 16 year old boy. Despite a tragic knee injury right before his exchange year that temporarily ended his football career, he decided he would take social risks while here and knew no stranger. He made friends with EVERYONE at school and in the community. He shared his passion for Dunkin’ Donuts, German pancakes, and Dr. Pepper. He helped me find my addiction to Iced Coffee. He left a trail of memories and had one of the largest, well attended “Going Away” parties my house has ever hosted. (I am still meeting kids in the area who say, “Oh! I was at your house for David’s party!”) His legacy remains a high standard for future exchange students attending WHS.
David’s parents came to visit at the end of his exchange year. They were amazed at his social life and the length of his hair! He spoke to them in English claiming he had forgotten German. He encouraged them to spend time with my husband and I so he could hang out with friends during the waning days of his exchange year. He had missed them for sure, but during his American adventure, he had found a new identity for himself that he wasn’t quite ready to let go. Collectively as parents, we seized a day from his busy social schedule to drive to Niagara Falls to visit one of North America’s natural wonders and wave to Canada.
David’s parents’ vacation passed too quickly. They purposely scheduled their flight to Germany a few days before David’s to allow him time to say his “goodbyes” on his own. We promised them our house was always open to future visits and waved as they drove off.
Most end of year trips to the airport are pretty rough, but David promised us as we said goodbye that he was definitely coming back to visit during his Fall break. To be honest, I didn’t really think he would be able to make it back so soon, but I took his optimistic lead, wiped my tears, and took one last photo with optimism.
Summer passed quickly. We welcomed a new exchange student, Leenah to our home in August. My daughter’s Senior year began, and when we flipped the calendar to October. On Homecoming weekend, the first weekend of October, guess who walked through our front door?!
I must admit despite hosting a total of 10 exchange students, we have never had the opportunity to welcome any of them back “home” before that weekend. David had one of his friends pick him up at the airport and when he came through our door, it was like no time had passed since we last saw him. We spent the entire weekend celebrating high school football games, dances, Leenah’s 16th birthday, and family. My older daughter came home from Dallas to visit and we gathered the other adult children, their significant others, and my mother for a festive fall day of corn mazes, hayrides and reunion. We decided to end our mini family reunion day with dinner at a Mexican restaurant. We explained the tradition of wearing a sombrero and being sung to on your birthday to Leenah and to save her some embarrassment, told David we needed to celebrate his birthday too, since we missed it in June.
In November, AYA had their national meeting in Barcelona, Spain. I was able to take my daughter Sierra with me as a guest. When Patricia, David’s Mom, discovered we were going to be on the continent of Europe, she told me that her husband and her would schedule a weekend getaway and meet us there! We were so excited to see them, and spend some time exploring Barcelona together.
We agreed to meet at the Arc de Triomf at the Passeig de Lluís Companys. We hugged and started to make a plan for the day of exploring Barcelona when Patricia said we first had to find the surprise they brought with them.
Not only was David with them, but also his little brother Aaron who we had heard so much about, but never met. His Aunt and Uncle had also tagged along and even though they said they were embarrassed they didn’t know English, I assured them I was just as embarrassed I didn’t know German!
Despite our language barriers, we spent a perfect day walking aimlessly like tourists, trying to speak German, English and Spanish, getting lost, laughing, and eating amazing food. We learned we were extremely grateful to have Sierra with us, an avid Spanish speaker. As we struggled to order lunch, she saved us all from an embarrassing ordering experience in a local café. (The power of bilingualism!)
As we parted ways before dark to avoid bumping into Catalonian protestors, I hugged David and said, “See you next month”?
Sadly, it has been more than a few months since our Barcelona reunion. A global pandemic showed up and eliminated any plans we had to travel this summer as well. For now, our family is spread around the world, but stays connected with messages and photos. But, like most exchange families, we are reminded that our relationship doesn’t end at the close of an exchange year, it is only beginning.
Birthdays away from family however, always make me wish we were geographically closer.
So for now…. from the USA to Germany, we send David, our “number 1 German son”, the happiest of birthday wishes. Our heart overflows.
Learn more about finding your own “Number 1 Son” or daughter through exchange by visiting Academic Year in America at: www.academicyear.org