Last Wednesday, Leah Waitzer, long-time trustee and pillar of our community, paid a visit to Dennis Manning to discuss several matters of school importance. As she made her way through the arch, she passed the assembled exchange students from Copernicus-Gymnasium Löningen in Germany together with their American counterparts and hosts. Ms. Waitzer thought back to 1978, the year her son Brad participated in what was then the sixth year of our German exchange. And so she went looking for one particular student in the crowd.
You see, Brad and a fellow named Marcus Willen had been paired for that year’s exchange. That is, after Brad’s stay under his roof in Europe, young Marcus (who would go on to become Mayor of Löningen) had stayed with the Waitzers here. Evidently the kids hit it off very well and kept in close touch over the years. Similarly, Leah and husband Richard had struck up a continuing correspondence with Marcus’s parents inasmuch as both had come to know the other’s child so well. In particular, Leah and Lieselotte Willen, Marcus’s mom, because as close to one another as could be given the circumstances. You have to remember that this is the 70’s and the 80’s, and “correspondence” means sealed envelopes with stamps bearing words such as “Air Mail.” As the exchange wore on, other means of communicating developed; perhaps younger siblings, cousins, friends, or repeat chaperones might be counted on to bring messages and maybe even gifts from one side of the ocean to the other. But the long and the short of it is that against long odds the two mothers somehow maintained a real friendship.
And so when Ms. Waitzer realized the incredible felicity of the encounter, she asked if she might be introduced to Pauline Willen, son Brad’s exchange partner’s daughter and thus Lieselotte’s granddaughter. Suddenly, Ms. Waitzer found herself face to face with a young woman two generations along, one who might legitimately call her an adopted grandmother. The two hugged and chatted and exchanged promises to continue in more depth when there was time. And in fact, Pauline went to dinner with the Waitzers for something of a family reunion.
As I say from time to time, there’s a lot going on here.
The first is simply the cumulative passage of time. We point with pride to the longevity of the German exchange, but numbers become more real when two women three generations apart celebrate that span of years by embracing under the arch. Exchanges are fragile things, vulnerable to changes in politics and culture and the unpredictable fortunes of schools, but ours has survived more than just intact – it has flourished. It hasn’t hurt that leadership at both schools has been consistent, most incredibly in the fact that the NA side of the equation has been directed by the same person for all those years, the inimitable Katherine Holmes.
The second is how much circumstance had changed from the time Leah and Lieselotte might have been eligible age-wise for such an exchange. Suffice it to say that for obvious reasons a school like Norfolk Academy would not have been at all interested in an exchange with a school in a nation at war with most of the world. The delight of the reunion of adoptive grandmother and granddaughter stands in sharp contrast to the misery of 1942. And yet these two adult women became so very close despite realities that would have kept them apart as girls.
Third is the enduring notion of family. It’s a word we don’t use here as often as we used to. I guess with a school community some 1400 strong now for two or three generations it is a pretty big family, but I miss hearing the word all the same. Family connotes more than just blood relation, even more than love. I believe that at the core of the idea of family lies shared experience. It can be as simple as the memories of young siblings in the back seat of the family car on a summer trip or as complicated and perhaps even as painful as the loss of family members, either by death, distance, or disagreement. But in all of these things there is a sharing that takes up personal residence in the soul.
When it is two families, kept apart by oceans and generations, that reunite through a hug under the front archway, then the sense of sharing explodes with all the energy stored up by time and physical distance. I am closer in life’s timetable to Leah Waitzer than I am to young Pauline, so perhaps I identify more with the former. For example, just a few years ago I got to spend a little time with a young woman whose father was my best friend from summer camp and whose mother was my wife’s best buddy in high school, neither of whom we had seen in quite a while. It was a wonderful few hours, almost as if I had been transported through time. I cannot imagine how delicious it must have been for Ms. Waitzer to have an additional generation to travel.
Finally, this whole episode reminds us that our school is fundamentally about the business of sending men and women out into the world to do good. A hundred years ago the “world” might have been a small place – Tidewater, or maybe Virginia. Today the word “world” means exactly what it says, including a small town in the north of Germany. And to have that first meeting of these two women happen under an arch is incredibly meaningful. Norfolk Academy is in many ways an arch, connecting and holding up pillars, helping them sustain weight, and letting air and light and life pass underneath and through. In this particular case, our school spans three generations, an ocean, and the tide of history.
Auf Wiedersehen, Fräulein Pauline. Till we meet again.