We’re going for Round II

We’ve done it again. Or, to be a bit more accurate, let me change that to “We’ve almost done it again.”

I refer to our second round of hosting young people from far away as our foreign exchange students. The last round, we kept two girls from across the Atlantic, for almost 10 months. They spent the school year enrolled at West Las Vegas High School and stayed an extra month because their schools, in Spain and Belgium, respectively, run weeks later than most American schools.

Readers have probably read about Phaedra Wouters, the one from Antwerp, and Ana Granados, from a suburb of Madrid. They’re close in age to our own granddaughters, Carly and Celina, who live next door to us.

As we played softball with the four girls or picnicked with them high up in Gallinas Canyon, or had them read stories to us, we adults simply “lost” ourselves. That’s our way of saying we almost forgot which of the girls were blood and which were kin, their having blended in so well. I’ll admit going into a funk in early July when we drove them to the Albuquerque Sunport to see them off. I gave each of the teens a big squeeze, as if that gesture would shorten the time till we see them again. . . . If we ever do.

So excuse me if I wax sentimental for a while.

When, as a young editor-publisher of a weekly newspaper in suburban Chicago, it took me a couple of years to realize that an 80-hour work week was not my idea of good times. Without a college degree, I realized that was the only thing that the editor of the Chicago Tribune said kept that giant publication from hiring me — a move that would easily have doubled what I was earning on my own.

And there was Mary Ellen. I’d met her, the only child of two doctors. I thought of Mary Ellen as one of the most empathetic and perceptive people I’d ever met.
Our relationship was platonic, but we still managed many in-person and by-telephone midnight chats.

We left the Midwest around the same time, she to enroll at a fancy California college, me to earn that evasive degree that they said kept the Trib from hiring me.

What impressed me about Mary Ellen was her seeming to know all the latest trends. One of them was the way people hug when greeting or leaving one another. My way had always been to put both arms around the person and place our heads to the left, as we faced each other.

Mary Ellen must have been prescient in that she had the ability to foresee trends.

The frontal hug I was used to delivering might eventually give the wrong impression, Mary Ellen said. Instead, some 30 years before its time, she demonstrated the kind of hug that places each hugger facing the same direction. We link arms and maybe even hold our heads together, side by side. And we never face each other.

I call that dullsville, artificial and stupid.

But how did Mary Ellen come to predict that three decades later “her” way would be the way many school personnel expect students to hug. As I’d drop off Phaedra and Ana at school, a little more than a year ago, I noticed a teacher demonstrating how the “proper” hug was to be performed. And I’ve often wondered why that keep-your-distance method is what’s encouraged nowadays.

I thought of the “dullsville” way of hugging upon first meeting our Foreign Exchange students. I was thrilled that both students greeted Bonnie and me with frontal hugs — the way our parents did to us. I’d like to receive feedback on my pronouncement and dislike of the new way of hugging.

It’s irritating that some self-proclaimed behavioral experts construe decent people as potential sex offenders, and that any form of closeness is not to be tolerated.

And for the record, Ana and Phaedra seemed to enjoy giving us — her parents-away-from-home — tight squeezes. And we sensed a bit of awkwardness and hesitation on the part of the classmates these two girls met. Phaedra needed to explain that her home country is Belgium, not Bernalillo, and that Ana came all the way from Spain, not Española. But they adjusted.

I started this column on the “We’ve done it again!” theme. Here’s why:

We’re in touch with personnel from A.F.S., an organization that arranges placement of high schoolers from different countries, sending many of them to the U.S. The bulk of the young visitors are assigned to the bigger cities, notably Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Last year, in Ana and Phaedra’s case, they were the only ones assigned to Las Vegas. It meant traveling to the bigger cities if we wished to get our guests involved with the larger group. But it was worth it. For the 2017-18 school year, we expect to have two more guests, and the girls the organization might send us are Juliana from Brazil, Sureerut from Thailand, or Ayu, from Indonesia.

Bonnie and I are thrilled that we likely will host kids we can help cherish, educate, feed, travel with and simply enjoy.

We wish there were more people in Las Vegas willing to “adopt” kids like these for a year.
When they arrive in the area, Bonnie and I will first give each a huge hug and then thank them for helping to enrich our lives.

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