Libby Schollaert: PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE ADVOCATE
WHEN: 2 November 2014
WHERE: Arlington, Virginia
NARRATOR: Elizabeth Schollaert
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: Tell us about yourself, Libby. When and where you born?
ES: I was born in 1942 in Washington, D.C. in Garfield Hospital. My parents lived in Alexandria, Virginia. I grew up there and in New York and Massachusetts where I took French in high school. After two years of French, I was suddenly sent to a boarding school in Switzerland for foreign girls for a year, run by Swiss, and aimed primarily to teach French. It was called Château Brillantmont.
Q: Where in Switzerland was it?
ES: It was in Lausanne. Lausanne is a beautiful city. But, I had no desire to go. I was going to be a senior in high school and I thought it would be a lot of fun to do that in Massachusetts. But I wasn’t given a choice, just told “you’re off!” It was very eye-opening. I was a typical American kid with all the associated teenage interests; the idea of going to Europe had no appeal to me. My father had gone to Europe many times. I always had the opportunity to go and always turned it down, preferring instead to hang out with my friends. So, suddenly I was gone; it was a big adjustment, because after two years of French in public high school in the States I couldn’t pronounce a thing—that’s not the way it was taught in those days. I tested well, because we had done a lot of grammar, and even some reading, but no speaking. I was placed in the second highest class in the Swiss school. The classes were all in French. A lot of the girls were English, American, German, Italian, even Saudi-Arabian; they all came from wealthy families. I was in a distinct minority as one of only two who had been to public school in the U.S. So it was a whole big cultural change for me. But after a couple of months I got to the point where I could actually speak French and by the end of the year I could speak French easily, though my vocabulary was still quite limited. In the meantime, I was turned on to Europe, taken by the beauty of Switzerland’s mountains, cities, everything. By then, I didn’t want to go home—what would I look at? So that’s how I started. Returning to America, I entered college and majored in French, and went back for a year…
Q: Where did you attend college?
ES: Sweet Briar College in Virginia.
Q: How did you come to choose Sweet Briar?
ES: It was not a good choice. I picked it because my mother went there along with several of my aunts. We had moved from Virginia to Massachusetts and I had wonderful memories of Virginia. I should have looked at other options—there are a few good colleges in Massachusetts, after all, but I didn’t even look. I then found myself in rural Virginia, which was very isolating. It was not what I really wanted in my Freshman and Sophomore years. But as a Junior I went off to Paris for a school year, and of course I liked that. After graduating from Sweet Briar, I ended up working for a year in New York City for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, thinking that I would use French, but never did. Then, I got married and ended up, ironically, back in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I taught French for a year. My husband, Jim, was in law school.
Jim decided he did not want a legal career and went into the Foreign Service instead. He was first assigned to Vienna, a wonderful post, though I used no French there. Then there were assignments to Germany and the Soviet Union. I had learned German and Russian along the way and my French had degraded somewhat. When we returned to the U.S., I again gravitated back to teaching, slowly, as jobs were not plentiful in Arlington at that point. I taught for two years at Marymount Junior School and eventually got myself back into the public schools. I ended up teaching middle school and high school, mostly the latter. I taught two years at Kenmore, one year at Swanson Middle Schools, then Washington & Lee and Yorktown High School, with most of my career at Yorktown. At Yorktown, I taught mostly the advanced students. With teaching came many benefits: there were summer programs for French teachers that were very helpful.
Q: That sounds like a lot of years teaching. How many in Arlington?
ES: Teaching in Arlington: 28 years. And another two at Marymount Junior School. Also a few years teaching French in elementary schools. I retired in 2010.
Q: A real accomplishment.
ES: It is amazing how fast it went. I really enjoyed it. The advanced students were really good—above the level of many college students. They were motivated. They could speak, read, write—they were advanced placement kids. It was very rewarding.
Q: Before we go into that, let’s return to your early years. Tell us something about your family. How did the family get to northern Virginia?
ES: My father was from New Jersey; my mother was from Virginia, but her parents had been missionaries in China for 40 years. She and all her siblings came back to the U.S. to attend college. They lived only for brief periods in the U.S. Living in China at that time was in most respects a 19th century upbringing. My grandparents were basically 19th century people, as they left the United States in 1906. They built a house in Wuxi, where they lived, which looked like a mini-Mt. Vernon: it was a Virginia plantation house. Even though they were missionaries, they had a house full of servants. Nevertheless, they had no money.
Q: Your grandparents on your mother’s side were both from Virginia?
ES: That’s right. Very old Virginia families. My mother’s name was Elizabeth Duke Lee; my grandfather was Claude Marshal Lee. My grandparents were swept up in the missionary zeal of the late 19th and early 20th century. Now, my father used to say, “someone has to be a missionary…but does anyone have to do it for forty years and have seven children?” My grandfather was very caught up with it. He was not a “missionary missionary,” he was a doctor who founded a hospital in Wuxi in 1908. My grandparents got to China in 1906 and my grandfather spent two years learning Chinese before opening the hospital. Jim and I and two of my cousins went to Wuxi in 2008 for the centenary of the hospital’s founding. It was amazing to us to see a small museum dedicated to my grandfather there. At the celebration there were testimonials even by Chinese Communist officials, praising his qualities and for bringing civilization to that part of China. Aside from brief visits and a spell during World War II, he did not come back to the United States until 1948. The Japanese actually imprisoned him in his house for a while, until they expelled him from China.
Q: His name was Lee? Was that your maiden name?
ES: No, that was my mother’s maiden name. We are descended from Richard Henry Lee, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. My great-great grandfather was a first cousin to the famous Robert E. Lee.
On my father’s side, I have a German great grandfather. His name was Kopper and he was from Marienburg, which I think is not too far from Aachen. My great grandfather Kopper left Marienburg in 1848 for Scotland, married there, and then emigrated to America, settling first in New York.
Q: In 1848—as a revolutionary?
ES: That’s what the family folklore is. Well, my maiden name is Kopper, as he was the one who gave the name to everyone. Intermarriage was subsequently with English ancestry, born in the U.S.
Q: When was the immigration?
ES: Except for Kopper, it was 17th century on both sides of my family. On my mother’s side they were Lees and had come originally from Shropshire and were granted small tracts of land in Virginia as minor nobility. On my father’s side, the Claggetts went to Maryland. The Wheeler name also plays a role. Kopper arrived in 1848 or 1849, ultimately to settle in Madison, New Jersey. His son fought in the Civil War.
Q: How did the family get from northern Virginia to Massachusetts?
ES: My father was in the State Department. He was also a lawyer who didn’t practice law immediately. As my mother resisted the idea of their children growing up overseas, he did not become a Foreign Service Officer and was not subject to overseas rotations. After her 20 years growing up in China, my mother wanted her children to have a typical American childhood. My father travelled a lot nonetheless. He was an Arabist.
Q: How did he come to that?
ES: He just got the interest. I don’t know when or how that happened. He passed away before I could become curious about that and could ask him about it. Presumably, when he was already in the State Department. His home bureau was Near East and North Africa. He also served as a staffer and speech-writer for Adlai Stevenson. When Stevenson lost the presidential election the first time (in 1952 to General Dwight Eisenhower), my father resigned to take a job in New York with the Arabian-American Oil Company. And there he did work as an attorney in their legal department.
Q: Did you live in Manhattan?
ES: No, we lived in Larchmont, Westchester County. My father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1957. Then my mother died a few months later in early 1958. After that happened, we went to live with an aunt and uncle in Massachusetts. They took us in. They had three children, so we were seven children all together; I was the eldest. They had friends that were going to Europe and thought that might be a good thing for me. So it was arranged that I would attend school in Lausanne. The idea came entirely from my aunt and uncle.
Q: It sounds like you cottoned to it eventually.
ES: I did. It was probably not a great thing emotionally. I had been through too much. I was 14 when my father died, 15 when my mother passed away. I lived with a friend of my mother’s for about six months so I could complete the school year in Larchmont. I only attended school in Massachusetts for one year before leaving for Lausanne.
Q: Where in Massachusetts?
ES: Hingham. So I went from my junior year at Hingham High School to Europe. It was just too many changes. Through this rocky transition from New York to Massachusetts, Lausanne and Sweet Briar College and Paris, it began to occur to me that maybe French could be a part of my life. I took to French culture. When I went back for my junior year in France, I lived with a lady with whom I bonded, a widow. It was just she and I and the other American girl there. That proved to be a help to me. So I ended up with French, not thinking that I would be a teacher, though for someone who majors in French that is somehow in their destiny. At one point, I hoped to work at the UN, but circumstances led to a teaching career instead.
Q: Let’s revisit Lausanne for a moment. It is in Switzerland’s French-speaking area. What was it like living there?
ES: Girls attending the Chateau did not mix with the Swiss all that often. That was one down-side of that school. I did become acquainted with one student from Bern (capital of Switzerland), who was an AFS exchange student who had stayed with my family for a short spell. When she discovered that I was going to Switzerland, she invited me to visit her family for a similar period. That episode was probably my most normal interaction with Swiss people that year, other than with the teachers at Brillantmont. From that I could get a feel for what it was like to be a Swiss family. It was a German-Swiss family, but had relatives living in France who visited often. I can remember the family discussing the national elections and I realized how little I knew about Lausanne. It is probably different now, but students really didn’t talk about what was going on in Lausanne. I was living in Switzerland, but I wasn’t a part of life in Switzerland.
Q: It sounds like Brillantmont was a finishing school of sorts.
ES: I think definitely it must have been started as a finishing school. When I was there, there were still two sections—the Château and the Villa. The English girls all went to the Villa, where they learned to cook and sew. In our side of it (the Château) we had a college program. There the French was excellent; the English was pretty good; most of the rest of it was really not up to preparation for college. So it still had something of the ambience of a finishing school, in addition to the fact that all the American girls were talking about the debutant parties. That hadn’t been my world. Texas oil heiresses and General Motors daughters, and the Saudi princesses were there as well, along with counts and countesses from Europe—it was a different world. It was very interesting and everyone was nice—it was just a different world from the one I had grown up in. It was not really part of Switzerland. I did learn later that the attitude among the different language groups is fairly friendly. They are not at each other’s throats as in Belgium. Many of the German speakers also speak French and are quite proud of the fact.
Q: Swiss German is quite different than its counterparts in other parts of the German-speaking world. What kind of French is spoken in Lausanne?
ES: It has its own accent. But at the school we got Parisian French. What we learned was very Parisian pronunciation and literature.
Q: Later you went to Paris.
ES: It was a wonderful year.
Q: How did you meet Jim?
ES: I was happy to be out of Virginia at that point—I was living in New York. But the summer before I was working on Cape Cod. Jim at worked on Cap Cod, by then working in Boston. But he came to the Cape for a weekend.
Q: Was he from Massachusetts?
ES: No, he was from western Pennsylvania, southwest of Pittsburgh. He had spent several summers working on the Cape, then worked in Boston at MIT Press, but enjoyed coming down for the weekends. I was working in Chatham as a waitress. As I got off work one day, a friend approached my group with a question: “who would like a date?” Her date had shown up with another guy. I asked what he looked like. Her response: “eh!” I hadn’t had anything else to do, so I said I would go out with him.
Q: It must have gone pretty well…
ES: Actually, that’s a story, too. It was actually pretty boring. We were just wandering around, exchanging small talk. So I thought to myself: well, that’s it. He’s not going to ask me out again. But he did and it was for the next night. The next night he didn’t show up. “That’s the end of that,” I thought. I left with some friends to get ice cream. When I got back to the house, my room-mates exclaimed that “your date was here looking for you.” As it turned out, his car didn’t start and so missed our meeting at the restaurant. By the time he got it going, he had a tough time finding me, as he didn’t know exactly where I was living. He went up and down the streets looking for my car. It was a Peugeot, an unusual car for the Cape then. He found it, knocked on my door and left me a note. And that’s how we ended up having a second date.
Q: He persevered.
ES: He did. He definitely persevered and I was impressed that he persevered. Subsequently, we really bonded over discussions of world affairs and the situation in America as well. It was 1964. At summer’s end I went to New York and he returned to Charlottesville for his second year of law school. We saw each other intermittently and then decided to get married. We lived in Charlottesville for his third year of law school. Then we came to Washington as Jim entered the Foreign Service.
Q: Is that how you came to Arlington for the first time?
ES: We rented in Arlington while Jim was going through German language training. We were posted to Vienna for two years, from 1967-1969. We had two children born there. We returned to Washington in the winter of 1969, but Jim was dispatched to Czechoslovakia almost immediately to conduct a survey on social security there, looking for people who had worked in the U.S. and had returned to Czechoslovakia. Such people were owed Social Security payments and it was his job to track them down. He had a translator with him and a driver. They drove through the countryside to Czech and Slovak villages. It was wonderful propaganda during the Communist period.
Q: It was around the time of the Prague Spring…
ES: It was after the Prague Spring—we were still in Vienna in the summer of 1968. So it was after Dubcek’s fall; Jim was there bringing a little cheer from the U.S. government. It was like the millionaire coming to the village. They would kill the fattened calf for him and the Slivowitz was brought out. He had a wonderful time handing out money to worthy recipients. When he returned to Washington, he went into Russian language training at the Foreign Service Institute. But he was first sent to Garmisch in Germany, where the U.S. Army had a Russian language school, so he actually had two years of Russian language training. We lived in Garmisch for a year and then proceeded to Moscow for a two-year tour from 1971-1973.
Q: You were in Moscow just at the beginning of détente…
ES: That’s right. It was Brezhnev. Nixon came while we were there. That was the beginning of détente, exactly. It was really interesting because, although it was détente on one level, way up at the very top, down below it was not détente, it was still the old Soviet Union. We did a lot of travelling in the Soviet Union—Jim more than I.
Q: All around the USSR?
ES: There were places Americans were not permitted, but Jim, at least, went to every single place Americans were permitted. He was able to get to outer Siberia, Central Asia. Both of us got to Murmansk and Georgia.
Q: You were able to visit Georgia?
ES: We did. We went to Tblisi. We were also able to visit Kyiv in Ukraine. We went wherever we could. We had two small children and the last child was born in Helsinki on our tour to Moscow. That tied me down more than him, of course. “I have to go, sorry! It’s work…” he would say, but I knew it was what he wanted.
Q: Did you get to Crimea?
ES: I think Jim did, but I did not. We returned to the States in the summer of 1973. I was here from then on. We rented a house in Arlington for two years, then we bought this house. Jim left the Foreign Service for a time to work on Capitol Hill working for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. First he was on loan, then he was made permanent, but he didn’t stay on the Hill permanently; he went back in to the Foreign Service in the early 80’s. By then, I had launched a career in teaching, so I did not accompany him to his assignment in The Hague for three years, followed by a short tour in Kazakhstan after the Soviet Union disintegrated at the end of 1991. Then he was posted to Bosnia for a year in 1997.
Q: What kind of jobs did Jim have as an FSO?
ES: He was in the economic cone. While in Washington, that meant tours at INR (State Department’s bureau of Intelligence and Research) and EB (bureau of economics and business) working on trade issues. Jim retired from State in 2002. By then he was into manufacturing. For three years after his retirement from State, he worked for a lobbyist representing American manufacturers, called AMTAC.
Q: And the whole time, you were teaching French.
ES: That’s right.
- What sorts of changes did you see in your 29 year career as a teacher of French in Arlington?
ES: I started out teaching the lower levels of French at Kenmore and Swanson schools. Gradually I moved to the high schools, three years shared between Washington & Lee and Yorktown. At Washington & Lee I was teaching advanced placement French. Eventually, after a retirement at Yorktown, I moved there entirely. There are definitely changes to register. When I first started teaching in Arlington, French and Spanish were about equally enrolled with students: about the same number of French and Spanish classes in Arlington County. Over the years, French began to lose ground while Spanish picked up, eventually becoming by far the predominant language studied. Over the same period, I moved up into the higher levels of French teaching. For me, it was a sort of enchanted life. I had the top levels of what by then had become a kind of elite language, which it had not been when I first started. I was teaching very motivated kids. At the same time, the phenomenon of “heliocopter parents” became more and more a factor, especially in a school like Yorktown.
Q: Heliocopter parents?
ES: It’s a term that refers to parents who hover over teachers to be sure that kids get what the parents the grades want them to get. I didn’t run into many heliocopter parents in my career, but I did run into a few very notable ones from the period beginning about 2000. In a few cases the parents were either French or francophone, very involved in French and how it should be taught. In this period, I began to think that the best way to motivate my students was to get an exchange program going. I had looked into the possibility several times, knowing that the French were very eager for exchange opportunities with Americans. I had scoped out an exchange, had it set up, and my principal had agreed to it.
Q: Had you been considering this aside from ASCA?
ES: Yes, I had been thinking of the exchange as the ultimate field trip for foreign language students, the thing that would let them know that there are real people in this world who speak French. It would be a fantastic experience, even if they did not become fluent as a result of a trip to France, they would definitely become more motivated. There were several occasions when I almost got the exchange arranged, and one time when it was all set up, with a teacher from Annecy, a beautiful location right on a lake ringed by mountains—you couldn’t find a nicer place.
Q: What year was that?
ES: It must have been in the early 1990s. I had it all worked out. Everybody in my school agreed to it, but then the central administration said no, thumbs down. No trips for Arlington kids.
Q: Was a reason given by the school administration?
ES: NO! They gave us no reason, nor were they required to. I had also tried myself, during the years Jim was in The Hague, tried to do a Fulbright teacher exchange. That, too, was turned down.
Q: The school administration would not let you go?
ES: NO! They wouldn’t let me go. Probably because a French person would have come to teach my classes. They didn’t want that. About then, I heard about the Arlington Sister City Association. I thought ah ha! I heard that there was a German student exchange.
Q: The first Aachen-Arlington high school exchange was in the spring of 1994.
ES: After that, in 1995-1996, I realized that we needed a French sister-city to create the framework in which we could develop an exchange. But when I first approached ASCA, I was rebuffed with the message that there was no interest in getting another sister city at that time. There were two already (Aachen and Coyoacan) and ASCA needed to devote its resources to them. Then, I was talking to Harry Amos…
Q: How did you know Harry?
ES: He and I go to the same church—St. Andrew’s Episcopal. So, talking to Harry at church one day I said: “Harry, isn’t it too bad that there is a German sister city and a Mexican sister city, but not a French sister city?” Now, Harry had been on the Citizens Advisory Committee for Foreign Language, and so I had also known him that way. He had been very interested in French teaching and had come to my class a few times. So I thought: if Harry knows this, Harry will do something about it. Lo and behold, he did! He joined the sister city committee and he began working on it. Meanwhile, I had become president of the American Association of Teachers of French for the Northern Virginia chapter. In that role, I had begun to make contacts at the French embassy. It was in 1998 or 1999 that I told Harry I had an appointment at the French embassy to discuss the possibility of an exchange. By then, Harry had been working on Reims as a possible partner for Arlington. Arlington had come around to desiring a French sister city and had approached Reims, but Reims was stalling. The mayor there wasn’t sure that they wanted to take on another sister city. Be that as it may, I had set up an appointment at the embassy to explore how to get names of teachers in Reims to whom I could write with the object in mind of getting a student exchange going. Harry was excited by this prospect and accompanied me to the embassy meeting. I met with Dominique Malicet, the deputy cultural attaché, who gave me the names of all the classical high schools and their principals. I wrote letters to all of them, asking them to pass my letter on to a teacher of English to see if any of them would like to do an exchange with my school, Yorktown High School. I got some negative responses, but also one affirmative from Kristine Vial at Lycée Marc Chagall. She wanted to set up an exchange. So we worked it out and they came for the first time in February, 2001. We in Arlington made a reciprocal visit that year. The planning was enormously time-consuming. And I didn’t have sufficient enrollment from my school, so I opened it up to other high schools. I had a chaperone and a bunch of kids from Wakefield. So we went with a fairly small group, but we went.
Q: How many of you were there on this maiden voyage?
ES: The first group was about 15.
Q: What month was that?
ES: They visited us in February and we made our trip to Reims in April, 2001. We were well and truly launched. The only problem was the level of commitment required. Working a full-time job, there were real limits to what I could do. An enormous amount of work is involved in organizing and implementing an exchange like this. I had become department chair by then as well, with even greater responsibilities locally. Luckily, Washington-Lee, which had not been involved in the exchange in the launch year, now signaled that it desired to become involved in the program. They had the International Baccalaureate by then and thought that our program would be advantageous for them, too. So I went over to meet Margarita Cruz and another assistant principal. They definitely wanted to be involved. 9/11 then intervened. It was the French who suddenly said “no, we can’t do this.” They said they were not allowed to bring students into the United States that year. Consequentially, after having the exchange in 2001, we did not have one in 2002. The critical period for organizing exchanges is in the autumn. 9/11 voided any progress in the autumn of 2001. Then we were going to have it in 2003, with Margarita Cruz doing much of the organizing. I was delighted. She was able to take it on, using her secretary and the school treasurer in the effort. Alas, the Iraq War then intervened. In the end, the French group came in February, 2003, but the war in the Middle East quashed our efforts to reciprocate in the spring of 2003. By June, the mood had stabilized and we were able to go that month. But the timing was bad for the French. They do not like summer exchanges. The teachers are too busy with the baccalaureate exam, and are not available immediately thereafter, in deference to the summer vacation. They never again wanted us to come in the summer. From then on, we began an alternating-year exchange program. It went on like that beautifully for many years. But in 2013 the APS Superintendent signaled that it would be the last time he would approve a student trip to France during school time. The problem was the awarding of professional leave to their accompanying teachers/chaperones. We were running into problems as well. I had tried and failed to get a week off for students and professional leave for teachers to do this exchange. As long as Margarita was involved it was done. By 2013 Arlington Public Schools was making it ever more difficult. So this year, Arlington’s year for the outbound exchange, we will have no group. Hopefully, we can get it going again for next year.
Q: Before we continue with challenges in recent years, let’s talk a little about the content of the exchange. What, typically, did you do?
ES: The exchange with Lycée Marc Chagall typically produces a group of about 35 kids and three teachers who visit Arlington. The core of the experience involves students staying with Arlington families that volunteer for the program. We have gone back to Reims with as many as 30 kids and three teachers/chaperones.
Q: Those numbers alone already suggest that the program has been popular.
ES: Oh yeah, very popular indeed. We needed to develop a waiting list for interested students. The other centrally significant feature of the program is that we always took at least two French teachers. For the years that Margarita was involved, she always tried to bring along an administrator as well. Margarita herself participated on several occasions. When she could not, other administrators from Washington- Lee would go. For the French teachers it was a fantastic experience. It did them as much good as the students—especially the teachers who were born and grew up in the US—because they also were in a French immersion situation, visiting a French school, and seeing a part of France they may not have seen before. They also made friends with people there. It was tremendously enriching. Schools typically organize staff development programs but you could not get a better staff development program than this.
The French group came to Arlington and went to school for at least one day. The group would visit Washington and would also go further afield to Williamsburg and Yorktown. They seemed especially to like Richmond.
ES: We were puzzled and bemused by that. Their trip leader, Kristine Vial, said “well, isn’t that your capital? And isn’t it normal to want to visit it?” I confessed that it is our capital, but we don’t normally visit it. But one year I accompanied the group there and discovered that it is interesting after all. As well, the group organized a visit of at least two nights to New York City. In Reims, we mainly explored the city and surrounding region, but some years did side trips, sometimes to the Chateau Bouillon in Belgium, and one time to Aachen. Two or three nights in Paris at the end of the trip was a standard feature of the exchange. Life-long friendships have been formed out of these exchanges. There is one girl, back there now, who did a gap year in Reims after high school, and now is engaged to one of the boys she met in high school.
Q: Talk about the texture of the encounters during the exchanges.
ES: They were super good experiences. Once in a while we took kids on the program that had no formal training in French. They were so inspired by the trip that when they returned to Arlington, they took up the language. The immersion was just a little over a week, so one has to take care in evaluating the linguistic benefits in a strict sense. While they were with their French families evenings, they were with the American group during the days. If they were ready to speak French, the visit certainly helped them along. Those at lower levels of preparation may not have learned to speak French, but they were definitely inspired to keep working at it and do something with it later.
In the beginning, I had envisioned that we would take a smaller group of advanced kids only. They would get maximum benefit from the encounter because they had everything in place. Those with less preparation may not have come back with fluent French, but they came back inspired. Beyond that, some of the kids on the program would not otherwise have been able to go to Europe at all. That is particularly true of those receiving scholarships.
Q: Generally and comparatively speaking, how expensive was the program for participants?
ES: Because the program involved home-stays with families, during the first years of the program the cost per student was as little as $1,200, airfare included. As airfares escalated, the cost reached about $2,000 for the two-week experience. Were you to go on your own, without a home-stay, and with a parent accompanying, the cost would clearly be in another ball park. Families who could not travel all together, might be able to send one of their children on the program.
If we need to arrange for liability insurance, a matter under discussion now, it might be better to have an agency arrange the trips. That move would result in a price increase of around 25% to $2,500 or so, depending on the size of the group. But no matter how you slice it, this is the most economical way to do it. Teachers volunteer their time to arrange it. Home-stays keep the costs low.
Q: You are the president of ASCA’s Reims committee. The Chagall exchange is but one of your ASCA activities. What are some of the others?
ES: There is a middle school exchange with Collège Schumann started and run by Melissa Cabocel. The group from Collège Schumann has come every year since the exchange was started, but Arlington middle school students only went once to Reims. More cooperation with the school system would enable middle school students to go to Reims each year.
The Jeanne d’Arc festival in Reims is an important gathering that I have participated in for the past two years. This year I was accompanied by Virginia State Senator Barbara Favola and Arlington County Board member, Walter Tejada, and their spouses. At that time, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the program and “renewed our vows. We expect the newly elected mayor of Reims to come to Arlington in 2015.
We have an intern program here involving young adults from Reims. They come for the summer and we place them in host-families. They work for the County government, staying for about two months.
Occasionally, we sponsor exchanges of artists. Reims has an artisan fair in the weeks before Christmas that offers an opportunity for participation. We came close last year, but logistical issues involving the transportation of paintings ultimately proved too daunting to overcome.
By far most of my energy is devoted to the student exchange. I have been doing it solo for the past two years, and over the past year I have been trying to save the program from policies of the Superintendent of APS that threaten to kill it.
The driving force of our relationship on the Reims side had been Arnauld Desplanques, president of the Reims-Arlington committee. He was a fount of project ideas, but his illness caused him to slow down and his death in July 2014 means the relationship will be in transition for a time. Reims has a new sister city president, Stephane Damien.
Q: Tell us about the Arlington-Reims committee.
ES: There are about a dozen of us. We meet as needed, on average usually in six week intervals. Several committee members are French teachers. A core of six or seven are active throughout the year. Melissa Cabocel has been arranging the middle school exchange alone.
Q: There is a third school exchange, too.
ES: That’s right. Two Catholic high schools have an arrangement: Bishop O’Connell and Jean XXIII. The exchanges are for about ten days; inbound and outbound visits alternate by year. Also in this case the students live with families and then visit New York City. It’s a smaller group, 10-12 kids. Joan McCarty directed this program until last year, when she retired and it is now being run by Sebastien Hobsen. It was an initiative of Arnauld Desplanques; Jean XXIII wanted an exchange. Harry Amos asked Muriel Dominguez and Joan to work it out.
Q: How far back does this program go?
ES: It must have been 2008. I can remember attending meetings at Chuck Daris’s house when he chaired the committee and it was being discussed.
Q: It appears that the relationship is thriving.
ES: C’est vrai! The only problem is the high school exchange, though I am confident we will get it going again. We need someone besides me to run it. We either arrange for the liability insurance required by Arlington Public Schools, or we outsource the program to a for-profit company.
Q: How would responsibilities be divided under the latter arrangement?
ES: An agency would get the airline tickets, the buses, they would arrange all the site visits. We would probably lose some flexibility, for example, in routing and carriers. We might have to fly Iceland Air and not directly to Reims. We are used to staying in a hotel close to the center of Paris and may find that the agency would locate us at a distance. But they would also be helpful; they would manage the applications and handle the money.
Q: How do the Reims programs play in the Arlington community?
ES: The parents are very enthusiastic. This year we were unable to stage the public school exchange and there were many inquiries from parents and students. They seemed disappointed, but that said, no one has come forward to help run the program and there has been no storming of the Superintendent’s office or the School Board actively advocating for it, either. They are typical parents—they are busy and want their kids to have a good experience. The ones that have had the experience tend to be happy that they got it. The ones that didn’t this year are probably disappointed, but I haven’t heard from them, though the teachers have told me they have been hearing from them. It appears that the program is something the community likes and wants, but has not reverberated as much as I had hoped it would. I hoped that there would be clamoring for it, that they would insist that it come back.
Q: Is it partly a matter of the community not knowing enough about the program?
ES: We had pretty big programs—30 kids per year—and over the years that has involved a lot of families. Engagement is opportunistic in the sense that once a kid has participated in the program, parents are rarely motivated to continue any sort of connection with it. In an earlier era, it might have been different, but nowadays people are busier, it seems. Either they don’t have the time to invest, or it is not enough of a priority. The most likely ones are those with younger brothers and sisters, but there are not a lot of them.
Recently, I contacted parents to apprise them of the situation and some responded. One wrote an article for Arlington Now and another contacted the central school administration and was told that the schools were now beginning to enforce policies that had existed all along. Nobody pushed this any further. Other school systems are doing exchanges to France—our county neighbors—Fairfax, Louden, and the city of Midlothian, for example. Perhaps next week’s election will make a difference. I have approached County Board members about our issues. Our County Board liaison, John Vihstadt, seems to be interested in helping us. Much of the issue revolves around the timing: our exchanges run during the school year. If they were in the summer, like the Aachen-Arlington exchanges, nobody would complain. Of course, for their own protection the people who organize and chaperone the exchange programs to Aachen should also be insured. We really want to be able to announce the programs in classes—a privilege denied to us at the moment. And we really want the kids to be able to absent themselves from school for a day or two to allow an exchange of at least ten-twelve days.
Q: Why don’t we turn now to the third broad area of our conversation: the performance of ASCA and the trajectory of the sister city idea more broadly. How would you say ASCA is doing?
ES: ASCA has done some incredible things. When you think about how different the city committees are, it is amazing that everyone seems to figure out what will work well for them. Aachen and Reims are perhaps the most similar. But what Ivano-Frankivsk and San Miguel do are really quite different. It’s grand that everyone can work under one umbrella. That said, ASCA is not performing as an efficient organization just now. This is frustrating.
Q: One question must be how much each committee actually needs from the central organization.
ES: Agreed: that is a big question. As for Reims, for years when the exchange program was being run through Washington-Lee, we didn’t need much from the central organization (ASCA) and we didn’t ask for much. In fact, in those days, [former Reims committee president] Harry Amos kept asking me whether he could give us some ASCA money. My response was “sure, but we don’t really need it.” But when the school system implied that it would not touch us with a ten foot pole, then we became more dependent on ASCA. I will have to drop it at some point, as with or without ASCA, running the Chagall exchange has become too littered with obstacles. But right now, we need ASCA because we need the insurance; it is in the proposed MOU with the school system. Our French partners have said that we must come during the school year. Therefore, we really need some cooperation with the Arlington school system. If the insurance comes instead through a private contractor and the school system is good with that, then we can get back to having the Chagall exchange It is also really enriching to have adult exchanges and to make friends in Reims. But the most important thing we do for the community is the student exchange—to have kids know what it’s like to go to Europe and be in a French-speaking country.
Q: Step back a moment and tell us why that is.
ES: Many of us are well traveled. We interested adults also probably have the means to travel again. It is wonderful for us, but that is not ASCA’s reason for being, for taking tax-payer money. There are many citizens of Arlington that don’t participate in any of this. If we can offer something to the young people, especially to the ones who would not be able to go otherwise, then I think we’ve got a mission.
Q: The Reims programs run themselves financially. You don’t get money from ASCA to run the exchanges, right?
ES: Yes, that’s right. With minor exceptions amounting to a few hundred dollars.
Q: So, if the ASCA superstructure went away and we were only left with the committees, you would be fine?
ES: One way or the other, we need the liability insurance. If we have a company/agency running the program, I think we would be just fine. But consider our counterparts in Reims and Aachen, where there is no trans-city infrastructure. Their city committees are enormous. How many does Aachen have?
Q: I am told that the membership amounts to several hundred for the Aachen-Arlington Partnerschaftskomitee, or at least their paid-up supporters.
ES: It’s the same with the Arlington committee in Reims. They probably have around 200 supporters. Our committees are too small to be independent just now.
Q: If liability is now considered to be a major issue, the calculus of our activities has changed or will have to change.
ES: We have one teacher on our committee from Wakefield High School who refused to chaperone the exchange because of the liability issue. We worry about a kid somehow getting hurt or lost in Paris. We go around as a group, or let individuals move around in a confined space, but still we worry about this. It must be resolved.
Q: Finally, let us step back even more to look at the sister city idea more broadly. That idea was launched in the 1950s when it wasn’t as easy as it is today to get around and we didn’t have instantaneous communication of any kind. Now that has all changed. What is the case for sister cities today?
ES: The case is the young people and the people who otherwise couldn’t go to a foreign country. I think Americans really need to travel and see other cultures. In the 1950s, they didn’t so much, but in the 1960s a lot of us did. There were a lot of Americans traveling. There are fewer now. It has become too expensive for them. Getting the average Joe to go would constitute reason enough for sister city exchanges. I don’t know if the average Joe in Arlington has ever been asked. But the average Joe’s kids have at least been asked. I think that is really the mission, the reason to have sister cities.
I think having trips for adults would really be nice. In the beginning, I think we did. I have been called by older adults in Arlington asking why we did not arrange trips for them. In general, arranging trips for people who otherwise couldn’t go – that should be the mission.
Q: What would be lost if ASCA no longer existed?
ES: All that potential. It has really been wonderful for everybody who has participated in it. Anyone who has been on a trip to Aachen, Reims, or Ivano-Frankivsk has enjoyed a wonderful experience. It’s the experience of meeting people that you don’t get when you are on a regular trip, when you go to museums and stay in hotels. It’s a whole different thing. It’s a people-to-people thing. You really come to understand that people think alike in many ways. It is most valuable for young people, but it is valuable for everyone.