Students Speak: Trial By Fire

Jan 10, 2024

This article was written by Kennedy Cole, 10th grader at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, MD, for the World Is A Classroom Essay Contest.

“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.” – Wendell Berry

Isolation caused by Covid-19 modified how I felt about myself and life in general. Seeing the world behind a computer screen had changed me in ways I didn’t realize existed.

After spending two years in isolation, in the wake of social injustices and gun violence taking over America, I struggled to reintegrate into high school. When my parents realized I had successfully passed French classes for two years, but could barely conjugate verbs, coupled with a newfound social anxiety I developed, they sent me to a boarding school in Paris for the summer. Alone. By myself. For the first time ever… Talk about overreacting.

During my time at St. Nicolas in Paris, I lived life as a carefree teen; I did not fear a troubled student bringing assault weapons to school. I wasn’t anxious about needing to use a bathroom which may be occupied by students using or under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I traveled the subway freely, mildly concerned about pickpockets, but never fearing robbery at gunpoint. I happily unloaded the mental baggage I unconsciously carried. I felt safe.

I loved being social again. The teachers and students were friendly and helpful. I had to overcome language barriers to communicate. My French teachers did not speak English and were not interested in learning. French lessons became a means of survival. I learned French instantly, down to the accent. What I could not communicate in words, I was able to communicate through pantomime. I became quite an expert at it. Most of my peers came from countries where they were proficient in two or more languages, with the exception of American students, myself included.

I had floormates from all over the world; China, Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, Romania, Spain, and Sweden, to name a few. We all used our language proficiency to exchange language lessons from each other in the evenings. I helped my floormates learn English and covered the things I did well in French. I helped one floormate from Spain, Monica, learn English and she taught me Castilian Spanish.  I had another floormate from South Korea, Leeyee, who did not speak English or French. Leeyee inspired me. She learned both languages very well during our short time St. Nicholas.

We took formal French classes during the day and exchange language lessons in the evenings. I learned how to speak and write Korean. It was eye-opening to see what I could learn. This experience taught me that it does not matter where a person comes from, if you look hard enough, you can find something you have in common. I walked away from this experience learning so many conversational phrases in other languages, an open mind regarding different cultures and beliefs, and lifelong connections from friends all over the world who are eager to show me around their country as soon as I can visit.

Last summer, I took a French class that unintentionally taught me life lessons I will carry with me and forged meaningful friendships that inspired me to learn from the rest of the world.