I spent a few hours yesterday welcoming the first day of spring break with Charlotte Hartman (pictured with me above) and her Hanover exchange friend Abby, who is studying at a public school in Wichita, Kansas for the year. Charlotte, who too is from Hanover Germany, spent last year studying at Houston Christian. She was clearly one of my top students, earning not only a number of my awards, but countless awards from other departments. The three of us dined at Katz’s for lunch over French toast for Charlotte, a meatball sandwich for Abby, and a Philly steak sandwich for me. I watched our conversation migrate from topic to topic. I found it interesting that some Germans view America’s fixture on religious ideology in a pejorative way. Although we are no theocracy, I do know that many Europeans see America as being fundamentally puritanical. Paradoxically, this view has shaped America as a nation state involved in complicit acts. This image is shaped more by our current foreign policy than our domestic attitudes. A few years ago I recall The Economist ridiculing Americans for re-electing “W” on the notion of religious values, especially with the mess in Iraq; it is true that the gay card was heavily played by Republicans in the ’04 campaign to create fear in the minds of religious conservatives.
As always with my many conversations with Charlotte, I learned a great deal about the conflation of German ideological norms and structural behavior through the lens of an astute teenage student. The unfortunate reality for many American students is that they will not have the opportunity to study with students of an international flavor; I realize there are countless exchange student programs in existence – – but many of these programs are reserved for affluent suburban public schools and well endowed private schools. I hope to encourage the headmaster at Houston Christian to work with faculty members and families on building an exchange program; however, I suspect this will be a very difficult challenge. For obvious reasons, residential schools have been able to take advantage of this the most.
When I was a high school student attending a private school in Montgomery, Alabama, I enjoyed the opportunity of having classmates from Germany and Switzerland; we became close friends spending much of our time at pizza parlors and in the home of my best friend Lori Kwater. It was this friendship that allowed us to talk about race in America and Europe; we addressed the complexities of interracial relationships in the post Jim Crow South as well as in post Nazis Germany. My conversation with Charlotte and Abby reminded me of my past and how important it is for American students to forge international friendships.