A Rotary Youth Exchange Blazer Story
The day had arrived. The day I was looking forward to and dreading all at the same time.
I was in charge of one of the big suitcases and the rolling carry-on while she wheeled the other big suitcase and shouldered her overstuffed backpack. We followed the signs to Lufthansa and entered the ticketing/check-in line. After months of learning, checklists, paperwork, to-do’s, and last minute errands, we realized then that she still wasn’t ready.
“Amy!” I fake scolded. “Where are your luggage tags? You were supposed to write them out long before we got here!”
“I know. I forgot. I didn’t have my host family’s address.”
“What do you mean? It’s in your paperwork. Get it out.”
Down came the backpack and out came an envelope full of the documents she’s supposed to travel with: names and address of her first host family, the Rotary club in France that will host her, passport, birth certificate, permission to attend school, her insurance policy, parental permission, travel itinerary, and several other items. We pulled out the one with her host family’s address and I read it to her as she wrote it on the tags. She was nervous and her handwriting was atrocious, almost illegible.
As we fumbled with the tags and reorganizing some of her documents, a young girl got in line behind us.
“You can go ahead,” I said, scooting over the two suitcases I was in charge of.
She smiled and wheeled on past us, all of her luggage neatly stacked on a rolling cart.
“Mom,” Amy whispered, “do you think she’s an exchange student?”
“She might be,” I said. “I just don’t know why she’s all alone. It seems like someone would come to the airport with her.”
Once we felt organized, I told Amy to put her official Rotary blazer on so I could take her picture. All of the kids in our Rotary District – District 5470, the southern two-thirds of the state of Colorado – as well as all students going abroad through any of the United States Rotary clubs are supplied a black blazer. They exchange and collect pins and proudly display them on their blazer as they progress through their year abroad.
Amy gave me a look. I knew what it was about. Yesterday, as we were loading up to leave our home in Grand Junction and drive to Denver–where she’d be flying out of–she said, “Mom, what should I do with this blazer? I hate it; it’s so ugly. I mean, why don’t they just tell us to go buy an attractive, well-fitting black blazer that we actually like instead of SURPRISE! HERE’S THE UGLIEST BLACK BLAZER WE COULD FIND FOR YOU!”
I laughed out loud. Both of our emotions had been running high for the past two weeks as her departure day loomed and both of us had had a few outbursts and good cries over nothing, really. She wasn’t being ungrateful or disrespectful to the Rotarians who had helped her get to this point, just open and honest and funny. We all know that a heavy, black, too-big, too-constructed blazer is not what any teenage girl wants to wear, let alone travel in or meet their new families in. They want to wear comfort clothes and something in which they feel attractive and that represents the way in which teenagers dress in the country they’re from.
When my laughter subsided, Amy gave me a pouty look. “Mom, I’m scared I won’t be funny in France. I mean, how can I be funny when I don’t even know the language?”
“Honey, I think that anything you attempt to say in French will probably be hilarious. You’ll be plenty funny and interesting.”
I got the official departure photo and then helped Amy neatly fold the blazer and tuck it into her carry-on. “You should probably get this out right before boarding the plane and wear it for at least a little while on the plane. It’ll help other exchange students notice you, if there are any others on your flight. And make sure to wear it when you layover in Germany and maybe when you land in France. You’ll be safer in it – airport personnel are probably familiar with these blazers and they’ll know you’re an exchange student and a minor – and people will be less likely to mess with you.”
We then went to the counter, just as the other girl was finishing her check-in. “Hey, are you with Rotary?” she asked, looking hopeful. “I saw your blazer.”
“Yeah!” said Amy. “Are you?”
“Yes. I’m going to Croatia.”
“Where are you from?” I asked, knowing she did not live within District 5470. Croatia is not one of the 20 countries that students in District 5470 can exchange to.
“Boulder,” she answered.
“Are you here alone?” I asked, feeling at once both a little sorry for her and also that perhaps I wasn’t letting my daughter be independent enough.
“Oh, my dad’s here. He’s parking the car or something.”
“Are you traveling through Germany to get to Croatia?” I asked her. If so, that would mean she’d be on Amy’s flight.
“Yes, I’m on the 5:30 flight.”
“Cool,” said Amy, her eyes lighting up. “So am I!”
She gave the ticketing agent her passport and as he finished up his work, he asked, “Any seating preferences?” Not knowing exactly what that meant, Amy responded with, “Umm… no, I don’t think so.”
“Well,” I started, “is there any chance you could seat her next to the young girl who just checked in? The one in line in front of us? They’re both minors and they might feel more comfortable sitting together.”
“Sure,” he said. “I can do that.”
We were plenty early to the airport, but Amy was too nervous to have lunch or look around in the shops. So we made our way to the security area and plopped down on some seats there. I asked Amy how she was feeling. She seemed okay. I felt okay myself, compared to what an emotional mess I’d been the two weeks leading up to this point.
The line going through security looked long and I guessed the process might take about 45 minutes to an hour. After a while, when it seemed like it was probably time for Amy to make her way to her boarding gate, I said, “Hey, maybe I can stand in that line with you. That’d give us a little bit longer together.”
The woman in charge of the entrance to the line said it would be fine, that I’d just have to exit the line when they started checking boarding passes. “Unless, of course, you get randomly selected for Pre Check.”
“Pre Check? What’s that?” I asked.
“Oh, we randomly select some people to go through a faster security line. You don’t have to take your shoes off.”
“Okay,” I said and we started winding our way through the serpentine straps used to create and manage a line of people. We didn’t go more than 20 feet before a man said, “Pre check. This way.” We veered off to the right into a different line.
I guess we were randomly selected, I thought. Amy was the one to notice. “Interesting. Everyone in this line is in a family. Look at the babies and kids. And us. The other line is all men. Nice random selection.”
I had it in my mind that I would be with my daughter for about 45 more minutes before I had to say goodbye to her once and for all, but the Pre Check line was only about two minutes long. The time was now. “Oh my gosh, Amy, we have to say good-bye now. Are you good? You okay?” I pulled her in for a hug.
“Mom, I’m sad,” she said, and started to cry a little.
I was sad, too, but tried not to let it show. “Don’t be sad, be happy. Go have the time of your life!” And I let go of her. And I walked away. And I cried, but not as badly as I thought I would.
I had to go upstairs to level two to exit the area. When I got up there, I realized I could look down on the security lines. So I found a quiet spot and stood looking over the railing, scanning like crazy to locate Amy. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure out where that Pre Check line was. Or maybe she had already gone through it.
I glanced at my phone, it being in my hand, and saw a notification from Facebook that Amy had mentioned me in a status update. What? How? I thought. She’s in an airport security line. I opened it up and there was a picture of me standing on level two, looking for her. Randee Bergen spying on me it said. What? She saw me and I couldn’t see her? I wish I was spying on you! I wish I could see you one last time! I thought. Or, maybe not. Maybe this is for the better.
I exited the airport and went to find my vehicle in the parking area. Should I leave? Was it okay to leave the airport and head back to Grand Junction when she had more than an hour to sit at her gate? What if her plane didn’t show up or wouldn’t be able to take off? Maybe I should stay.
But I couldn’t. I drove away.
When I stopped to get gas, I texted her. Are you at your gate? Have you found your friend?
Yes, I”m here, but I don’t see her anywhere!
You will, eventually. I love you!
Not too long after that, there was a text from Amy. I found her and guess what? Her name is Amy!
Crying, I typed. No, that wasn’t texting language that I typically used; it was something Amy would have said. It usually meant happy tears, oh how special, how meaningful, something like that.
Then I added a smiley face and pushed SEND.