Saturday, June 11, 2011

Growing up in Chandler OK and Swedish Exchange Student

I grew up in a small town.  Although we didn’t think so at the time, now I believe it was the best way to grow up.  There is nothing better, for me, than getting together with the people I went to high school with.  With these people there’s no sense in trying to pretend I am something I am not.  They all know me too well.  We laugh, tell stories and have a wonderful time. 

I am truly blessed because I have stayed close to many of the people I grew up with.  There were 75 people in our graduating class and we have only lost one in the 35 years since we graduated.  We know that each year we have with each other is precious and that has become more apparent to us in the past couple of years.  We have vowed to get together as often as possible and to stay a part of each others lives.  There are at least 10 of the people I graduated with that I could call anytime, night or day, and they would be there for me with whatever I need.  There are at least a couple dozen more that would do what they could for me in a time of need.  I can’t think of a single one of those other 74 people that I wouldn’t do the same for. 
We grew up in central Oklahoma, but we are scattered all over the country.  There are a few that have stayed in Chandler and other close-by small towns, and a few that have left Chandler but came back to live again.  I also have close friends from my class that live in Tulsa, Las Vegas, Houston, Austin and Washington, DC., among others.  

We were blessed to have a foreign exchange student from Sweden.  He is the primary reason why I am writing this today.  It was very interesting to have a student from Sweden in Chandler, OK for him and us.  It was such a good experience for everyone, however, that he comes back every five years.  We have a very active Alumni Association in Chandler and give out an award for the person who traveled the most distance to be there.  Anders, our foreign exchange student,  has won that award at least three times.  With the award comes a plaque and he donated his plaque this year to the Alumni Museum.  Anders was “honorary salutatorian” of our graduating class, which meant, among other things, that he gave a speech at graduation.  He decided to include that speech in his donation to the museum.  He sent us all a copy and I was so moved by what he had to say, I wanted to share it.  I hope you enjoy it even a fraction as much as I did.

Chandler High School commencement ceremony in the auditorium of the old high-school building on Steele, on Friday, May 21, 1976.

Since I’m not the regular salutatorian, I ask that you let me make not a regular salutatory but a speech about my personal experiences this past year.

I’m the first foreign exchange student there ever was here in Chandler. That has been both a privileged and difficult position. Privileged, because people have been curious and interested, as with anything new; difficult, because people haven’t known what such a person is or understood what sort of a culture he comes from.

The organization that sponsors me calls itself “Youth for Understanding”. Their purpose is to create more understanding between different nations and cultures through letting youths see other nations from the inside, as exchange students. I hope that I have broadened not only my own mind but yours a little bit as well.

People often ask: “Why did you come here? What made you want to become an exchange student?”

I think it all started about five years ago. It was November. It was gray, rainy, and dismal, and I was ill. I lay in my bed, with my lamp on to keep away the twilight, and was bored to death. Then I got this booklet with the mail, about trips abroad for students who wanted to practice a foreign language. They spent a month with a selected family in England, France, or Germany. There were lots of beautiful pictures in color in that booklet. My imagination was carried away. I so much longed to get away from where I was, go to another country, be on my own, speak another language, and make new friends.

A few years later I saw some posters at school, about going to the United States for a year as a foreign exchange student. It sounded exciting. I talked to my parents and discovered that my father had always intended for me to study for a year abroad.

From then on I worked more methodically toward a year in the United States. It was too late to apply for anything that year, so I waited till early in the fall of 1974.

There were three organizations that sent high-school students to America, and I applied to all three. In each case I had to fill out a long application form. Then each of the organizations had an interview with some of their applicants. All this together was so much work and grew so monotonous that it just about turned me off. I stayed with it, though, and then there was nothing to do but wait for their decisions. First I got one negative answer, and on Christmas Eve – really perfect timing! – I got the second. I was very disappointed. As I had gotten closer to my goal, I had gotten more and more anxious to go. I so much wanted to live in another country. It seemed like a gorgeous adventure, and at the same time I wanted to get rid of my family for a while, something I’m sure everyone feels at times. When I got that letter on Christmas Eve, it was like a door had been slammed in my face. I still hadn’t heard anything from YFU, but I really didn’t expect anything but rejection from them either.

Then something I could hardly believe happened. YFU wrote to my parents and said that I was one of the students they had selected. They still didn’t have a host family for me, but I was going! Now there were more forms to fill out, in English this time. I had a medical examination, applied for a passport and a visa, had shots, bought clothes, gathered information about Sweden [to bring with me], etc. etc. There was no end to it.

It wasn’t till ten days before I left that I found out where I was going. I was gone when the letter came, and my parents opened it. As soon as I got home, they told me I was going to Oklahoma. I knew that was the name of a state, but that was about all I knew. I didn’t want to show my ignorance, however, so I said: “Uh – isn’t that somewhere in the middle?” Which happened to be a pretty good guess.

I left my home in the evening of August the 15th. During that day, I was supposed to pack, but I was so fidgety and nervous that nothing got done, and my father had to pack for me.

Well, finally I got all packed, and after an extremely tiring journey, which lasted for nearly 48 hours, I wound up in Oklahoma City and then in Chandler.

Many people in Chandler didn’t know too much about other countries. Strangers were looked upon with certain scepticism. I got a funny illustration of this. Just a few weeks after I got here, we had the Lincoln County Fair. On its last day I went down there on Eric’s bicycle to take some pictures. The bike didn’t have a lock, so I put it in the Republican booth, which was already empty. I walked around down there for a while, got my pictures, and went home again. Not until a month later did I hear that some wild rumors about me had been going around at the fair that day. They said that a spy had come down to the fairgrounds, on a stolen bicycle, and taken pictures!

Anyway, everyone was curious, and before long they started to ask me questions. From then on you never really quit asking, and I’m glad you didn’t. You helped me overcome my shyness, and I helped you understand that the whole world is not the same as the United States. Such a simple thing as language, for instance. A lot of students – younger students mostly – fount it hard to believe that people in Sweden don’t speak English. They just couldn’t understand that we have our very own language, and that we must learn English at school, just like you learn French or Spanish or German.

They guy who really had to learn about a different culture, though, was me. And believe me, it wasn’t always easy. The hardest thing of all was probably the language. I knew English all right; I had had eight years of it at school. But I soon found out that they hadn’t taught me the kind of English they speak in Oklahoma. Besides, the difference between being able to read, speak, and listen to a language well enough to understand what is going on, and really knowing a language with all its idioms and slang expressions, is astronomical. It’s not just a matter of learning new words; it’s a matter of learning a whole new culture. Before there is any point in learning a new word, you must learn what it stands for. People in my country don’t drag Main, mainly because few kids have their own cars. I didn’t know there was such a thing as “dragging Main”. Consequently, before I could learn the term for it, I had to learn what it was. That takes time, and more than once I was exasperated because I just didn’t seem to be able to get your language into my tick head. There is still a whole lot I don’t know, but you have taught me very much.

There were other things, too, I had to get used to. The Oklahoma weather, for example. It never could make up its mind whether it was going to be hot or cold, clear of overcast, rain, snow, hail, or drought. About the only thing you could rely on was that it was going to be windy, although you never knew how windy.

The food was somewhat different, too, but I’ve always loved all kinds of food, and the American food was no exception, luckily.

Well, I got settled down, and before I knew it, I felt at home in Chandler. I made friends, the American language began to sound natural, and I got used enough to school to look forward to weekends. At times, I felt like Chandler was all I had ever known.

During a full school year I led a very eventful life. I have never been so busy before. There was always something going on: band every morning, marching at football games every Friday night for a couple of months, basketball practice after school every day during the following months, basketball games, working at the lumber yard a couple of times, dropping eggs with Science Club, washing cars with French Club, going to speech tournaments and band competitions, going to the show or eating pizza in Shawnee, watching TV, writing letters…  I just never had enough time.

Something I’m glad I got to do is basketball. For several years I had wanted to start practicing some sport and work with my body. The Swedish schools don’t offer the same opportunities in sports as do the American, and I just never had the resolution, or maybe it was courage, to join one of the many sports clubs [outside the school system]. I was not particularly used to hard exercise, and I had played very little basketball before. Really, I had only one obvious asset, and that was my height. Coach Cooper was a good coach. He treated me fair. I learned a lot, and developed, not only physically but mentally. I learned what team spirit is, and pride in a sense new to me. I enjoyed comradeship. I think that maybe Coach Cooper had hoped for even more than I was able to give him. —If I disappointed you, I apologize.

My most rewarding experience at school has been speech. Speech is not taught as a separate class in Sweden, and that’s a shame. It has been the class I’ve enjoyed the most and also the class I’ll have the most use for in the future. I learned how to organize a speech and how to deliver it. I learned to stand in front of a crowd without being quite so nervous as I had been before. And I go to act in four plays, where I had some of my best times ever. Mrs. Jones has been a wonderful teacher, better than what I could ever have hoped for. I owe her a lot. In Speech Department I also made my closest friends. We’ve had a lot of fun together, and I think they would be the first to come to my help whenever I needed it.

The foundations of my life in the United States has been my family, the Whites, who truly accepted me as a member of their family and have shared their lives with me. I even call Mr. and Mrs. White “Mom” and “Dad”. Without them, I could never have become a part of this society but would have remained a stranger, a mere spectator.

But finally, I would never have made it through this year without you all. You always showed interest in me. You were generous. You always gave me rides. One day when I really felt like taking a walk, I walked from Junior High [on Steele] to the post office, then to the Pences’ house [on E. 1st Street], and home [to Marshall Drive]. I was stopped no less than four times by people who asked if I needed a ride somewhere! All year long I’ve been chewing gum other people gave me. You always said “Hi!” when you met me in the hall or in the street. You always showed that you cared. Sometimes I got homesick, but then there was always someone around who showed that he or she liked me.

We’ve had a good time together. As we got to know and understand each other, we learned to respect each other, and like each other. Soon I’ll return to Sweden, and though I’ll come back one of these days, there are many of you, perhaps even most of you, that I won’t ever see again. I will miss you, my friends, I will miss you. Thank you for giving me a year that will stand out in my memory as long as I live.  Thank you!