Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Houston, We Have a Problem!

The past 24 hours have been quite the rollercoaster. Yesterday afternoon my cell phone rang. I almost ignored it because the number displayed on caller-id made no sense at all. I answered it and found Toby on the other end. When I told him about how I almost answered and described the number, he said "yep, that's my number...well, probably not after today".

What?! My mind immediately starts racing ahead of any of the facts to follow. I slow myself down to listen to him. He's telling me that he is going to be changing families because his host mother doesn't like him. I dig for some specifics, but he's having a hard time giving me anything. I can't tell if he's uncomfortable talking about it, or if he really doesn't know what the problem is. He tells me they will try to keep him in the same area, but he will probably have to switch schools. My stomach turns.

I switch gears and ask about school. He says he's doing great in English. They're reading a novel (I've forgotten the title...imagine that!), and they don't spend time discussing metaphors and allegories, and other things that oh-so-annoyed him at school here. How about other classes? He admits to not really understanding anything that's going on, to the point of having just written a test in Physics that he guessed on based on the diagrams and math, and wrote about in English, hoping his teacher's command of our language would be poor enough to not catch whatever mistakes he made. Oy! In his other classes he says he zones out a lot, because it's too hard to stay focused on the teacher when he can't understand the lecture or conversation.

He says he understands his friends and others a little bit when they are speaking directly to him, but he still has very little German.

He sounds ok, but maybe a bit down. It's hard to tell with Toby sometimes, especially having just his voice to judge by. I offer up some nuggets of advice (hopefully useful, although I can't remember a word of what I said to him), tell him to hang in there, ask again several times if he's ok, and reminds him that we are here anytime night or day if he needs anything at all.

We've been on the phone for nearly 15 minutes now and he's in no hurry to hang up. This only makes it worse for me, seeing as how he pretty much never wants to talk on the phone. I finally tell him I need to get back to work and hang up the phone.

I'm in a daze; I can't think about anything work-related right now. My eyes are tearing up, I've got a huge lump in my throat. He's halfway around the world, having a miserable experience right now. I know he's hurting, even if he won't say it, and I can't do a damn thing to help.

Now my brain goes from zero to insanely-fast...what's wrong with that family, why don't they appreciate him? Why didn't Toby put more effort into learning more German before he left? Why did he choose Germany in the first place? And what about this beer-drinking he's been doing? Is he drinking to escape problems, and coming home drunk and disorderly? What if can't cut it at school? Is he going to fail? How did I let this happen?

I may have gotten something else accomplished before leaving for the day; I couldn't tell you. I get home to find that Judy had just spoken with an AFS liaison here in town. She suggests I call her too. I don't feel like talking to anyone, but it was damn good advice. The volunteer explains that this is not uncommon at all, and that they have a standard process to address it. An volunteer in that area sets up an appointment with the family, where family and student get to air grievances in an uncontested way, and then together create a contract of behavior that they all sign and can use if things start to become difficult again. If that doesn't work, AFS finds a new host family for the student. She adds that every year they have to re-host 30-40% of all exchange students. This is somewhat comforting, but still, why our kid? Everyone loves Toby. What's going on here?

Today I wake to find that Judy has written Toby an amazing e-mail, capturing everything I wanted to say but couldn't begin to find a way to say...how we love him and that he's a wonderful human being just the way he is, that he can surely work on finding ways to fit in, but never to sacrifice who he is. Just reading it makes me feel better. Now we just have to sit and wait.

Fortunately, I have a ridiculously busy day, so there's no time to think and worry and chastise myself any further. When I get home Judy tells me that Toby has already been moved to a "bridge" home with an AFS volunteer, while they work on finding him a new permanent placement. I'm curious why they apparently skipped the next step of their process, but also relieved, especially to hear that he sounded like himself on the phone when he called Judy with the news earlier. Then we pick up a message from the volunteer here, in which she conveys comments from the volunteer in Hamburg saying they have never dealt with a more difficult parent. Now I'm feeling better. Good thing I didn't listen to those voices telling me to doubt my son....and come to think of it, why didn't the parents ever write back to us, after we sent such a lovely note, and even went to the effort of asking a friend to write a summary of it in German for us? Seriously, it sounds like in the end this was a match made in hell, and that the parents may have had some unrealistic expectations in the first place.

A great lesson for all. Toby's already thinking about what he can do differently in his new home to make things smoother, and I'm coming to grips with the reality of him having to work through things like this (and making the decision when he's had enough to drink) on his own, with us as his cheering section, sounding board, and safe haven (at least emotionally) whenever he needs us. There's a decent chance he will be staying in the same area at the same school, which is a huge plus, as he has already made several friends.

Wow, who knew this was going to be so hard on me?!?!?