Just yesterday … several decades ago


On Sunday, trying to overcome protracted procrastination to write this week’s article, I checked Facebook one more time – and suddenly changed topics! Former student/travel partner Lori Zimmerman Black had posted a group photo of a much younger version of myself posing with a whole gaggle of former students/travel partners to celebrate our homecoming from Germany exactly 38 years ago.

I successfully ignored the figure of 38 years until Jody Randall mentioned her life-altering trip 41 years ago. Lisa Siegenthaler Turner chimed in about her trip, the first GHS exchange visit, 48 years ago. And Susan Butts Traylor landed the knock-out blow as she described that very first student trip – a sightseeing tour of Europe – 50 years ago.

Although the quarter century I spent internationally with teenagers somehow seems to have happened not so long ago, how can it be that we are now measuring that time in multiples of decades? Actually, however, the genesis of it all occurred a whopping 57 years ago!

During my senior year, bond levy failures resulted in the cancellation of most GHS extracurricular activities, including the Student Council sponsorship of a foreign exchange student’s visit. I was equally upset that the guidance counselor advised against my enrollment in first-year French as a senior, despite vague dreams about the Junior-Year-Abroad program popular on college campuses back then. When I learned the following September my lack of high school French disqualified me from Otterbein’s overseas program, I even momentarily switched my major to Home Economics. I was pouting when I signed up for German.

My disappointment finally dissolved 53 years ago as I began my senior year in Germany with my Otterbein professor and a small group of fellow students. I have always felt I learned more during that quarter than I did in my first three college years combined.

Dreams and plans for my eventual return to Europe, with students in tow, began to form. Susan’s travel trip, Lisa’s first exchange visit, and all the other 20-some trips, including those of Jody and Lori, became integral parts of my teaching career. Sure, those European sojourns were stressful and time-consuming. But our experiences literally meant the world to us.

Decades later, everyone involved in our exchange program – students, teachers, chaperones, hosts, families, communities on both sides of the Atlantic – are left to retrospectively consider our experiences.

The first consideration from my teacher viewpoint must be education. Our three weeks in Germany was a participatory bonanza: learning history at Dachau, geography en route to Paris or through Communist East Germany, international political realities at the Berlin Wall. Ditto for our German visitors sightseeing in history-filled Washington, traveling to Niagara Falls, observing an American presidential campaign. Unlike most Americans, my kids every year experienced being surrounded 24/7 by a language other than their own but had plenty of practice with their GHS classroom lessons on “real” Europeans. When the Germans visited us, they survived with the English they learned in school – since St. Paris, or Ohio for that matter – is not particularly populated with folks fluent in German.

Just as important as the trip for the 15-20 traveling students was the three-week return visit of the German kids. Yes, I took kids out into the world; but I also wanted to bring the world back to Graham. Lots of organization and cooperation at school allowed all my students to become acquainted with our guests – and quite a few other GHS kids also met the international visitors. Athletic contests, Homecoming activities, toilet papering, and other cultural experiences provided nonacademic adventures for the Americans who demonstrated them and the Germans who observed – and participated.

The most important aspect of the exchange program, however, was the home stay, when kids of both nationalities lived in typical homes with typical families leading typical lives. That’s when the American kids rode city buses to school, while the Germans marveled at the yellow buses stopping at each house for school transport. That’s when the German kids learned about calamity days for fog or snow, while the American kids experienced early dismissal on heat days – when temperatures reached 82 degrees by 10 a.m. Parents on both sides introduced their young guests to banks, grocery stores, and shopping destinations while keeping their laundry clean and their hungers satisfied.

I hope the 500 kids I took with me and the 500 we welcomed to Graham learned two impactful lessons all those decades ago – or have since realized them. Each GHS exchange partner was arguably the most important representative of our community and country his/her German family would ever have; likewise for the German kids. Even today, whenever America is mentioned, innumerable families in Springe call to mind that GHS kid from years ago. Who are the first people popping into my mind when I think of Germany? Ingrid and her family, of course!

The second essential lesson for every decade is that we are all people, regardless of language, customs, politics. The students involved in our program began their trips noticing the differences between our countries and returned home also recognizing the commonalities, both of which highlighted the all-important truth that we are all more alike than different.

So, Lori and all my other fellow travelers: Thanks for the reminders of the times we crisscrossed the ocean for our adventures together. It is lovely to know our memories of long ago have survived so many decades.

Boomer Blog

Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.

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