When A Stranger Becomes A Son



BY LENORE SKENAZY | What is it like to have two teenage boys you never met before move in and stay for the whole school year?

Funny you should ask, as the two boys we’ve had living with us for the past 10 months are leaving today. I am hoping the goodbye will not be as hard as I worry it will be.

The young men were our exchange students, one from Germany, one from China. Or, as I liked to say: If your country has been at war with America — or may be some day — our home is your home!

Why? Well, two years ago, when our older son was heading off to college, I jokingly-not-jokingly told my husband that we should replace him with another kid about his age.

Then I started Googling around and found out that the American Field Service, the same exchange student program that was around when I was growing up, is still going strong. In fact, AFS has been around for more than 70 years, sending kids to and from more than 40 countries. Back in my day, four international kids attended my high school and it was like they were from Planet Maturity. Simply by braving life in a foreign country, they were so much more sophisticated — read: cool — than the rest of us.

So I called the AFS New York office, and immediately an outreach coordinator was telling me how much I’d love being a host. It is a volunteer position. All we really needed to qualify was an empty bed and a desk. Bingo!

Since it was already late in the application process, we had just two kids for us to choose from: A “German boy who loves movies” or an “Italian boy who loves basketball.”

“Get the Italian,” said my husband.

Thus did Giovanni come to live with us for a year.

He moved right into our older son’s now-empty bedroom and went right off to public high school with our younger son. They were both juniors. They were both everything: They both played basketball, watched basketball, talked basketball… But they also explored the city — my son said he’d never seen half as many neighborhoods as he did once Gio arrived — and cracked up at in-jokes and remained SnapChat friends when Gio went home last June.

But once your AFS kid leaves, you’re back at the square one, if you don’t like being lonely. (Did I mention I work from home? Just me and my computer.) So this year we decided to plunge in again and chose Eric from China and Matteo from Germany. Why two?

Why not?

The exchange kids shared a room and dinners were lively. Did you know that in China 13 is bad luck, but so is 14 — so some Chinese buildings have three 12th floors? Or how about this German fact: Instead of “Happy Birthday” when the cake comes out, they blast some obscure ’80s American pop song. Our German kid was shocked to find this was not also the practice in America when we celebrated my husband’s birthday. Meantime, the boys made him a cake and wrote “Happy Birthday” in Chinese characters along with, “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag.” That’s a lot to write in blue icing.

But of course, there were some downsides, starting with the fact that neither of the boys loved my cooking, except for barbecue chicken.

So I made a lot of chicken. I also bought truckloads of Chips Ahoy! There was also extra laundry, of course. And at school, one of them slacked off and we had to deal with the teachers and the principal and a bit of hooky.

But the upside?

Hearing German and Chinese music around the apartment. Talking to them about everything from Donald Trump to Chairman Mao. Listening to the changes in their vocabulary, from “We are seldom winning the game” to “Our team sucks.” Feeling a swell of pride as they got to know the city, deal with the subway, discover “South Park,” and grow — literally. Yes they are going home skinny, but taller.

Just a few days ago I got up very early and was sitting in our living room at 5 a.m. when the front door opened and our German student walked in. He had been unable to sleep as thoughts swirled about going home and how changed he felt. So he had taken a long walk through our neighborhood, which is now his neighborhood.

By tomorrow, he will be back home with his real parents. But for a year, he was our boy — they both were — in homesickness and health, school work and skateboarding, and the daily doings that turn a stranger into a son.

I hope I can hold it together when we say goodbye.

Lenore Skenazy is author and founder of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” and a contributor at Reason.com. For more information on American Field Service Intercultural Programs, visit afsusa.org.