No, We're Not Worried About The Foreign Exchange Program, And Please Stop Asking
“Aren’t you worried?” people seem to keep asking us when they learn that our 13-year-old will spend two weeks in France this summer. “With all the…” and here they pause, fumbling for the way to say “gun violence” and make inferences about Muslim terrorists in a manner appropriate for Saturday soccer.
And here we pause, searching for the appropriate way to say “Well, duh,” which, it turns out, is pretty much just “Well, duh.” (Happily, that term translates wherever you go.) I like to think we’re worried about our son every day, when he boards the bus, when he baits his own sharp pokey hook, when he comes sprinting down the stairs, when he walks home from his buddy’s down the street, when he skates down the driveway without a helmet because he doesn’t listen, and when he goes to karate class, where as a rule, they kick and punch at other children. The question is doofy. We exist in a state of low-level concern; we all do.
But are we worried about shipping him overseas, because of all the…? Sure, I suppose, in the way that you worry about lightning strikes or accidentally swimming next to a Portuguese man o’ war. (Look, I’m 41, and those things are floating nightmare-blobs of tentacles and pain. Every single summer I think about this.) And he’s going anyway because that question is depressing and limiting and darkly hilarious, like the best way to keep kids afield of extremist gun violence is to keep them here in America, where it’s safe.
We signed the exchange papers for two reasons: 1) the part about summer in France, and 2) our son wanted to. When his wonderful French teacher offered the opportunity, he jumped at it, which basically knocked the baguettes out of me and my wife (it was a little like him announcing he’d just smashed some electrons or had recently returned from his home planet of Flthhhhbpt). The 13-year-old is light-years braver and more adventurous than I was in junior high, or high school, or college, or after college, or really anything until l successfully reached maybe 25 and dangerously sampled my inaugural sushi. This was new, and that newness, that enthusiasm for something he’d never previously tried, made us sign the papers faster than the idea of his visiting an unfamiliar land.
People ask if we’re scared, but we’re mostly jealous. He’ll be staying in a small town cradled in the Alps, a place that pictures make look like basically the quintessential French town, sidewalks cluttered with clanging cafe tables, flags draped over the tight winding streets, the scene ringed by snow-kissed mountains. His school will be a small one in which the kids have studied together since kindergarten. His host family is a delightful large group of mixed-age youngsters who speak about 12 words of English and who, with any luck, will come to regard our son as the sweet, awkward, slightly floppy seventh-grade curiosity that we did our student.
Of course, we’re worried. We’ll be a low-boiling mess all the way to the airport. And of course, he’s not some world-weary seventh-grade adventurer in constant search of exotic danger. I imagine France has Minecraft. But of course he’s going. He’s going in the hopes that these weeks plant the seed of some small but potential anecdote to this ignorance, to this fear, to these absurd screaming-TV terrors these parents have the luxury of enjoying in the midst of soccer practice, with oversized sunglasses and coffees. (“Aren’t they having problems with immigration?” one parent asked me, a woman I didn’t know especially well, but who felt comfortable tying some simmering Trumpian mindset into my son’s school’s exchange problem, which maybe in her mind involves standing in customs with a bunch of moms wearing hijabs? Unclear.)
We wanted for nothing important in our childhood, but the overseas wasn’t something we considered or were offered. (My mom was more of a stay-home kind of type, and of course it was all out of love, like these other parents, but the effect stifled.) We’re hoping this teaches our son that the world is there, accessible, and you can get to it if you’ve been lucky enough to be born into a privileged land and you play your cards right. That ignorance is fear. Maybe one day, we’ll get all crazy and see if his brother wants to go.