Monday, March 19, 2007

How a Field Trip Changed My Life

(NOTE: This was supposed to be published back on March 19th. Apparently I can't tell the difference between "Save as Draft" and "Publish". Or maybe Blogger was just being wonky. Either way, here it is.)

It all started quite innocently. German was the last class of the day in the 10th grade and I was planning to drop it after I finished that year. Only three years of a foreign language were needed for an honors diploma and I was sick of memorizing conjugations and trying to remember which prepositions are Akkusativ, which are Dativ, and which are indecisive and follow what seemed, at the time, to be nothing more than a random system of assigning a case to any particular instance. I liked the teacher, though, and several of my friends were in the class with me.

One afternoon in late January, Mr. K asked me to stay after class. I hadn't been doing my homework on what you might by any stretch of the imagination call "a regular basis", so I figured I was about to get a bit of a chewing out. Imagine my surprise when he asked me whether I had considered joining our school exchange trip to Germany. Truthfully, I hadn't. A trip to Europe would be far out of the range of what my family could afford, and I was certain that they would never be willing to host a German student for the "exchange" part of the trip. I told Mr. K exactly that, and he waved his hand impatiently, brushing these concerns away like nothing more than a buzzing, irritating fly. "Yes, but do you want to go?", he asked. Well... yeah. I mean, who wouldn't want to? "OK. We'll talk later." And he was off, leaving the room unlocked and me standing in the aisle, wondering what just happened.

Shortly thereafter, my presence was requested for another little after school meeting, but this time he shut the classroom door. "Do you still want to go to Germany with us?" Heck, yes. I mean, I may never get the opportunity to go again, how could I pass that up? (And the sad, telling thing is that I really thought that was true. It makes me so sad for my fifteen year old self, that I thought my horizons were so limited.) And kindly, good hearted Mr. K had a way to make it happen.

Obstacle number 1: All students who participate in the program are required to host the student they intend to stay with in Germany. It's an exchange program in the truest sense of the words. And I simply could not see a way for that to happen for us. Not only was there no place to put an exchange student-- my own room was a walled off part of the finished basement-- but the fact was that my family was in the middle of a very stressful and chaotic couple of years and life at home was in a fragile, tenuous place that simply would not stand up to the stresses of hosting a student. In fact, at that moment in time, my parents were talking about divorce, and I knew that I could not possibly ask to bring some unsuspecting foreigner into that mess.

American foreign policy to the rescue!

One of the students who had participated in the previous year's exchange had signed up for a second trip. As luck would have it, the program was structured such that the German kids came for September and the American kids made a return visit around March-ish. That meant that the previous year, the German kids came for their Fall visit, but when the time came to get things ready for the Spring visit, the First Gulf War was in full swing. After some back and forth, the decision was made to cancel the trip, just in case. Those disappointed students were being included in the return visit that Spring of 1992. That meant that Rachel, who had now hosted twice, had her pick of two families that she could stay with, and Mr. K thought that it would be a grand idea if I took her place with the other family. They apparently did not want to be deprived of the chance to host a student and had asked Mr. K's counterpart at the Gymnasium to see if they could get another student. In retrospect, I see just how amazing that fact is. At the time, I'm not sure that I realized how special, how unusual that attitude is.

Obstacle #2: Money. This was really the roadblock. It seems like everyone likes to tell "top me" stories about how they were so poor growing up, and I certainly don't want to imply that we were truly impoverished. I never went without a meal and I had a roof over my head and clothes on my back. But we were absolutely what is meant by "the working poor", especially after my father lost the job he'd held since graduating from high school when the company folded and then spent over two years looking for work, accepting a series of low paid, dead end jobs to keep the food on the table and the roof over our heads. We were lucky, though, because we had a good social safety net of friends and family who pulled together and kept us afloat.* Still, a three week trip to Germany wouldn't be cheap. Airfare, spending money, incidental expenses, passport fees, bus fares, host family gift... it adds up fast. But Mr. K had a solution for that, too. If my parents would pay my incidental expenses, spending money and get me a passport, Mr. K had found a grant that would cover the rest.

I took a packet of information home to my parents and we talked it over. I had saved some money toward a car by babysitting nearly every weekend night and delivering newspapers. Together with the grant money, it made everything suddenly seem possible. A few weeks later, I got a blurry photocopy of a profile with a grainy picture attached: Bettina. A few days after that, I was on a plane on my way to Germany, nervous and excited and not entirely certain if Bettina and her family knew that I was coming**, and then I was standing at baggage claim, surrounded by people speaking a language I couldn't understand, breathing foreign air, a little dazzled by it all, when a tall blonde walked up and said "Are you Katze?".

That was fifteen years ago today. I simply cannot imagine how different my life would have been had I not gone on this trip. It changed my entire life. In fact, I don't think it's at all an exaggeration for me to say that the woman I am today is a direct result of Mr. K's invitation to join a three week program semi-jokingly referred to as "the Ultimate Field Trip" in my high school.

* A few years ago, my mother was buying what seemed like an outrageous amount of toys for two of my younger cousins, and I asked her about it. That's when I learned that when we were children and my parents were struggling, her younger sister bought us all of those presents that were labeled "From Santa" under our Christmas tree, just to make certain that no matter what, the kids would have a good Christmas. All those years later, my aunt was having financial difficulties and my mother was the one who bought and wrapped a pile of presents "From Santa" so that two little girls would have a good Christmas, no matter what. Other people at church "just happened" to have extra lasagna in the freezer, or a pretty dress that their own daughter outgrew, or some Zoo passes that they just weren't going to get around to using... and so on. Those things are what made the difference for my family, keeping us sane and healthy and enabling my parents to pull themselves slowly out of "working poor" and into "working class".

** Was I crazy? If I wasn't, my parents certainly were! What if I'd had to sleep in the Munich airport for three weeks?



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