Sunday, February 12, 2006
Young Love: Together In France
Graduating from Middle School last year, Ilona and Keenan, with one of his sisters Ameena.
The first thing you learn in life is you're a fool. The last thing you learn is you're the same fool. Sometimes I think I understand everything. Then I regain consciousness.
I embrace emerging experience. I participate in discovery. I am a butterfly. I am not a butterfly collector.
One day a student asked Taiga, "What is the most difficult part of painting?"
Taiga answered: "The part of the paper where nothing is painted is the most difficult."
Yesterday I was sitting around the faculty lounge of one of the Ohio University colleges with a friend. He's a professor and director of graduate programs there. We were drinking some coffee, eating chocolate, and watching the Winter Olympics. Mostly we were talking though. Maybe that combination got us into the topic of early love affairs, but that's what happened. We were comparing our high school experiences. They were rather different, as he was born in Bangladesh.
This morning I'm trying to think back to my very first days of spending time with girls. One time, possibly during the summer vacation between 4th and 5th grade, I went over to see what my little blue-eyed, blonde-haired girlfriend (that my mother approved of a lot) was doing...and as usual her kinda large, faithful, possessive friend Jeannie was there. They were playing house. Being the open-minded, already-liberated guy you know, even in the late '40s, I offered to play. Well...I asked if I could play. Carol and Jeannie whispered together a while, and then said yes. They said I should get up on the porch railing and stand there. I could be Air.
One autumn day in 7th grade social studies class, Miss Weatherly seized a note Carol was passing to Jeannie...and made her stand up in front of the class and read it. She turned the color of a strawberry and with trembling voice did so. It said that her mother didn't want her to be my girlfriend anymore and that she was making her break up with me. Mom feared it would get too serious and we were too young. Then she sat down, put her head in her arms on her desk, and wept ferociously. I was shattered---and part of me still is. Carol married a guy from West Point...and I don't know what happened to Miss Weatherly.
My daughter was in 7th grade 2 years ago, and I was assisting a multihandicapped class in the same school. For the next 2 years I would see Ilona everyday during her lunch period, because I had cafeteria duty...which means you kinda stand around invisible (like Air) and make sure there are no fights. Early in her 8th grade year, I noticed she was starting to sit at a table with all guys. No other girl was doing that, but gradually a few of her friends were curious enough to join her. These particular guys were pretty smart and clever, and so I wasn't concerned. I was rather intrigued. The day it was announced Kerry had lost the election, she found out about it there from Silvie. She stood up, mouth open, turned to suddenly-not-invisible-anymore Dad, came across the whole cafeteria, and wrapped herself around me in tears. We sat down together and collected ourselves. It's one of the proudest moments I have as a parent.
When she went back to that table, I noticed one guy emerged who seemed to comfort her. From that time to this, Keenan has been her friend. Relatively quickly I guess they found affection, and the next February they had declared themselves "going together." In fact Valentine's Day is their "first anniversary," she says. I guess going together is what we called "going steady." Now, in such a situation you don't necessarily "go" anywhere. It's sort of a safe haven for exploration of tender sensitivities, feelings, and loyalties, just outside a turbulent ocean of upheaval. Around Ilona's birthday last year, they had planned a date at last---but what a date! He'd asked her to go see Paul McCartney...and paid for the tickets himself. I won't tell you what they cost.
It was at that point we parents introduced ourselves. The friend I was talking to yesterday is Keenan's dad. They actually had begun planning the date 6 months earlier, and Dana and I met the father last spring at a track meet our kids were running in. He had walked right up to us and Dana said immediately, "You must be Keenan's dad." He was a jubilant bundle of generous energy, and we hit it off at once. From then until now we've discovered our differences in style, interests, and approaches to things, but the whole bunch of us have stuck with it. It's something else I'm proud of because, in my experience, parents of your children's friends don't usually want you this far inside each other's homes. But a reason for our particular intimacy has recently emerged.
Last Thanksgiving, Keenan's dad was dropping him off at our house for an evening and lingered with us in the kitchen. He had a proposal. His work at the University takes him to the college's facilities, which these days reside around the globe. (We won't discuss the politicoeconomics of that situation just now.) He was going to have to be in Pau, France, for 75 days and he was taking the family with him. They wanted to invite Ilona to go along. Dana and I couldn't even get our heads around that, much less give a decision. For the next month we just staggered around dazed, but near Christmas he said we probably ought to come up with an answer because passport and plane ticket need to be addressed.
In the couple months since, I think we've pulled ourselves together and gotten something of a plan together. Obviously the main difficulties are Dana and I never have been to Europe, Ilona's had merely a year and a half of French, and she's only 14. If she were 17 I don't think we'd be quite so worried. Two and a half months is a long time. And does anybody know another family this well? They've rented a house, where Ilona will have her own room, and are arranging with the school in Pau for the young people to attend. We've met with the administration of Athens High to agree on a plan whereby their records can only benefit from the experience. Of course I still can't imagine what it would have been like for me to be immersed in another country and language so far from home. But increasingly we are trusting this incredible opportunity and contributing to its happening. They go next month.
Well...April in Paris. Or at least in the French countryside, with the Pyrenees as a backdrop. A dangerous time in the world? Bird flu, the world of Islam in an uproar, United States people not necessarily the good guys anymore. Yes, we're going to worry everyday, and we'll Instant Message and webcam and telephone all the time. But just maybe this relationship and these young people and a time in beloved France will help us all just a little bit. Perhaps in this very young love is the seed of a tiny part of a new era on this earth for which we all pray.