Our exchange student begins her journey home today after living with us for the past 10 months. It’s hard to believe that this day, that once seemed so far away, is here. It’s been a bittersweet last few days as we’ve all seen it looming larger and larger on the horizon…I cried in the car on Saturday, Emmie cried last week, Cleo cried yesterday…we all cried today. Cleo doesn’t want to leave and we don’t want her to leave, but she must, and so we have to learn how to deal with this new kind of loss, new for all of us. We’re saying good-bye to a daughter, a sister, and a friend. Not gone forever, but gone from our everyday life, gone from our family dynamic, and so very far away.
Earlier today I decided to play the “what if” game with my thoughts. What if she miraculously got to stay another six months, or a year? Would that work? And I realized that she’s almost 18 and needs to go back so she can finish her studies and start making her future plans about college (this school year abroad didn’t count toward her high school diploma). Plus, she needs to share her experiences with her friends and family in person, more than she’s been able to share via phone and computer (although I did tell her to explain, when she shows her friends her DVD of “Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami”, that the Kardashians are not an example of an average American family!). In addition, we’ve all got to move on so that our families can visit together in France some day, and further learn and grow from this amazing experience.
Yes, it has been an amazing, wonderful experience, filled with both positives and negatives, but the good times far outweighed the bad. I think all five of us need to pat ourselves on the back for being able to “fall off the horse and get back on and ride again”, to not let setbacks define us or rule us (gee, does that theme keep reoccurring on this blog or what? I think I ought to have it engraved on my tombstone…) As much as I would have loved for everything to have been perfect, I think we all grew a lot more because it wasn’t, especially Cleo.
Not only are she and Allison friends again, but part of my advice for her earlier this year was to make more friends outside of Allison and the other exchange students at her school, and she did. Friends from the country, friends from the city, friends from other schools…I told her that she needed to dry her tears and make the most of her time left here, and she did…with her friends, she went to sleepovers, movies, shopping malls, Prom, political speeches…spent a week in Washington, D.C., celebrated the Mavs win on Victory Plaza, and even attended a service at a charismatic, conservative Texas “megachurch” (definitely different from anything she’d ever experienced in France, she said). Back home with us, she cherished family time together even more…watching “American Idol”, being with us when we got a new dog, going on road trips, exploring Dallas…even doing chores. And though sometimes we still had communication problems, we all became so at ease with each other that usually we could joke about it. She imitated our accents and we imitated hers, and we both had fun with stereotypes as well—I know we will miss her exaggerated attempts at “Howdy, y’all!” and she will miss hearing me say, whenever we’d leave the house, “Let’s go get in zee cah!”
I highly encourage other families to host a student through AFS. You don’t need to have an extra room (they allow students to share rooms with other family members if necessary) and you don’t even need to have children of your own, or even children near the same age as the student. You just need to have an open mind and an open heart, and the financial resources to feed an extra mouth (current IRS rules allow families to claim a $50 charitable tax deduction per month). You can provide transportation if necessary, but many foreign students are used to using public transportation or walking so that is often not an issue. AFS families come in all shapes and sizes, and if a pairing doesn’t turn out to be a comfortable match, AFS has a network of volunteers ready to help move the student to another family. They also host get-togethers throughout the year where families can share experiences and get advice. I’m hoping that they’ll host something soon, so we can talk with others who are going through this same loss.
Of course, there is irony amidst all of our sadness. Because the things we tried to restrict the most in order to help Cleo learn English while she was here, Skype and Facebook and the phone, are probably going to be the things we turn to the most in order to keep in close touch with her and find comfort, and the things which will most help her remember the English that she did learn.