This past year, my 14-year-old son and I took in a high-school-age exchange student. This was not the first time we had done this. When my older son, Alyosha, was 12, we had hosted a Russian boy. I was hoping for a repeat of that happy experience.
The most difficult step in the process is the initial decision to go ahead. These kids come not as guests but as family, and they stay for almost a year. One can conjure all sorts of reasons for not doing it: What if the student's demanding? What if he doesn't fit in? What if he eats a lot?
Despite these perils, we took the leap, and in August 2010 our boy arrived – a strapping Swede who ran toward us as Anton ran toward him with a handmade sign proclaiming "Welcome, Gustav!"
What's interesting is that those first moments, hours, and days were never awkward. If ever a stranger were made for our family, it was Gustav. Sweet-natured, gregarious, good-humored, and generous of heart and spirit, he approached me one evening at the end of the second week and confided something that moved me deeply. In his pitch-perfect English, he said, "I've only lived with you for two weeks, but I feel as if I've known you all my life." From that moment on, I sensed that all would be well.
When one takes in a foreign student, one of the biggest considerations is how he will interact with one's own children. Gustav, at 17, had just enough of a maturational edge over Anton to not only be a good role model, but also to show big brotherly leadership. Some evenings, Anton would wander to his Swedish brother's room and the two boys would chat and laugh together until bedtime. They walked to school together, played on the same sports teams, and each got in his fair share of fraternal teasing.
A couple of months into his stay, I approached Gustav and asked, "Are you homesick?" He threw me a thoughtful look, then shook his head and said, "I think about home, but I'm not homesick." It was a perfectly reasonable, and honest, response.
And so the year went. Once we passed the halfway point the prospect of leaving began to whisper, but we decided we would not discuss the subject. "We don't want to talk about that," we'd agree, and we'd all smile and go on with what we were doing.
What was it like to have an exchange student for a year? It was a reemphasis on the pleasure of family suppers. It was mini-Swedish lessons during those meals – lessons in which Anton and I tried to move our mouths in ways to which they were not accustomed in order to make sounds that were alien to us. It was those offbeat moments when I had to treat Gustav like a son in every sense of the word by speaking with him about something he had done or said that I considered wrongheaded. And it was, of course, getting occasional "pushback" from a boy who, despite his charms and thoroughgoing goodness, was, after all, a teenager with his own mind.
With a month to go, we could no longer keep the beast in the box. We had to talk about Gustav's impending departure. There was a flight reservation to consider, graduation from high school, tying up loose ends with the exchange program, and, of course, figuring out some way for Gustav to pack a wardrobe that had easily tripled during his stay (Gustav had become a Hollister and Abercrombie maven).
The morning of our boy's exodus was as beautiful as a summer day gets in Maine. Anton said his goodbye, held himself together, and went off to tennis camp. I sat down next to Gustav on the back porch. "I don't want to leave," he said, but his comment was pro forma, because we both knew that there was no choice in the matter. "I know," I said. "We don't want you to leave. You have added beauty to our lives." That might have been the last thing I said, or needed to say, but something else erupted, and I'm grateful that it did, for it was one of those rare instances of having the right words at the right time. "Gustav," I said as he faced me, "I always wanted to have three sons. Thank you."