I had the opportunity to participate in an exchange with French students in February of 1988. At the time, I just remember it being a horrible experience – everything was just awful to me. Quite frankly, I wasted the trip and, most importantly, the opportunity.
Looking back on it now, I have no idea why Mrs. Leshock even allowed me to go on that trip – to say that she was taking a chance on me would be an understatement. I was a jerk and didn’t speak French very well; not the kind of kid you want to oversee in a foreign land. Yet she did let me go – and while it took me many, many years afterwards to realize it, this trip really laid the foundation for my future.
Flash forward to 2005: I was now a teacher at my alma mater, working alongside Mrs. Leshock, a woman I had always liked, but now had grown to truly respect and admire. I once again had the opportunity to visit France, this time as a chaperone with Mrs. Leshock for an exchange. The tables were turning, to say the least. And man, my eyes were opened in so many ways. I now saw just how much it took to put on a trip like this, from a teacher’s point of view. I also truly saw the beauty of Paris and France in general.
Memories of my earlier trip kept coming back to me – and I realized that I didn’t have a successful trip when I was in High School because I didn’t make the most of it. It wasn’t because the opportunities weren’t there – it wasn’t because I wasn’t treated well – it wasn’t because it wasn’t beautiful. It was simply because of my own attitude.
We had a really strong group in 2005 and I’ve kept in touch with many of the students who participated in that trip – it’s an experience that really bonds you, and that’s truly a great thing. Quietly I hoped for yet another opportunity to do this yet again.
Mrs. Leshock has since retired, but our “new” teacher (she’s been at GS for six or seven years now), Mrs. Grace, has continued our school’s exchange with Lycee Jean Monnet, and I once again had the opportunity to help to chaperone a trip this summer. Understand that in this time, the way that world languages are being taught has seen a radical shift. Gone are the days of rote memorization of vocabulary and the conjugation of verbs – the way that I was taught. Instead, students are immersed in the language from the moment they walk in the door – and I had the chance to witness the application of this style of teaching first hand.
Now, the absolute last thing that I want to do is make it out like Mrs. Leshock wasn’t a good teacher – this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s been 25 years since I’ve had French, yet I can still recognize much of what people are saying and can read it pretty well – and that’s a tribute to her, without a doubt. But I have a tremendous difficulty in speaking French.
From the moment our plane landed two weeks ago, I personally had the opportunity to witness just how incredibly talented our French students are in speaking the language. Quite honestly, I was shocked at just how well they were able to communicate with their hosts. I vividly remember being scared beyond all belief as I sat at the dinner table with my host family for the first time, searching for anything I could possibly say in French that made sense – the words just wouldn’t come to me. And here were these current students just hitting the ground running, speaking entirely in French and just blowing me away. To say that I was impressed would be a tremendous understatement. I’ll put our French students who are studying under Mrs. Stephanie Grace up against any from across this land – and I have no qualms in saying that.
So now I’ve had the chance to chaperone with two different women, both of whom were so incredibly impressive in this process. Being in charge of the safety of 17 students in a foreign land is a tremendous responsibility – and both took this very seriously. Planning a trip to a land that has so much to see is daunting, to say the least, and both pulled this off with seeming ease (I say seeming because I know first hand the stresses that come with this, but also saw both make it appear so easy).
It might seem crazy, but one of the ways that you judge a trip to be successful is by the tears that are shed by the students and their hosts as they say goodbye. The tears show us pretty clearly that bonds were formed and lasting friendships forged. And we saw plenty. Yet I’m also sure that some don’t think they had that tremendous experience that others had – and I completely understand that – I just hope, for their sake, that it doesn’t take them as long to come to the realization that they just experienced a tremendous, life-altering opportunity as it did me.
Finally, beyond once again thanking both Mrs. Leshock and Mrs. Grace, know that this experience would never be possible without willing parents and families who so warmly open their doors to students from both sides of the Atlantic. And it also wouldn’t be possible without the commitment from the teachers at Lycee Jean Monnet who have so willingly done the same on their side!
Okay, I lied – finally, I will leave you with a link to my photography site, which has more photos which highlight this incredible trip. Simply click here to check them out.