When I was in the Fourth Grade, my father, a teacher, announced that he would be traveling to Russia after Christmas on an educational exchange. He would be gone for a week or so, departing before the decorations would have been taken down. I remember how elated he was, his eyes glimmering with the prospect of adventure. I was distraught. The end of the Cold War was years away, and I couldn’t understand why my father would take such a seemingly reckless trip, without his family, during the holidays. He assured me he would be safe, and while he tried to soften his talk of preparations and itineraries to spare me, there was no masking his delight. Of course, he had a marvelous time, and highlighted for my brother and me the warmth of the people he met and the importance of travel to appreciate our common humanity.
Fast forward to my junior year in high school, when I had my own opportunity to travel to Russia. Every other year, our two Russian language teachers took a group of students to Russian for the first week of our March vacation to explore Moscow and St. Petersburg. My mother worried, of course, as mothers do; my father, not surprisingly, could not have been more enthusiastic. It was all he could talk about for the weeks leading up to my trip, reliving his own, sharing tips about navigating the cities I would be visiting, pulling out old maps and photos and memorabilia to give me a taste of what I would see. The trip itself was pure magic. The colors of the buildings, the majesty of St. Basil’s, the crisp March air and the warmth of the people. Everything my father had promised unfolded before me, and my friends and I delighted in our adventure, carving out large parts of our hearts for Russia.
Many years later, when I found myself working in my current job in a small boarding school for boys, I had the great pleasure of witnessing a friendship develop between two international students — a Ninth Grader from Russia and a Seventh Grader from Ukraine. The politics between their two nations were tense back then, but you never would have guessed it by watching those two boys. They were like older and younger versions of the same person — incredibly smart, hard-working without taking themselves too seriously, talented athletes with a passion for hockey, and kind. So deeply kind, compassionate, and warm… They were nearly always smiling — wide open smiles as big as their hearts. I always held that friendship as one of the things I loved most about working in education with a, international population. The hope often ascribed to the young lived in that friendship.
As fortune would have it, I have remained in touch with both of these boys as they have moved on in their lives and into their young adulthoods. The student from Russia returned to the US for college after a stint in a junior hockey league, and we occasionally connect via the gift of Instagram messages. My Ukrainian friend ended up attending the same high school as my daughter, where they developed a friendship of their own and were I was able to visit him for the years they were on campus together. He, too, is living out his college dream in America. They are older, taller, deeper-voiced men now, but they remain two of the kindest people I have the pleasure to know. I have been in touch with both over the past few days, just to let them know my heart is with them…but while it felt good in the moment to connect if only briefly, my heart is sick for them both. For what they must carry as they move through their classes and their casual American college lives, for their families, for their homes. The knowledge that their smiles are dimmed and their hearts are broken shakes me to my core. I can do nothing but hold them in my heart, and it is inadequate.
I do my best to follow the news. I listen, I read. My head goes to learning, but my heart goes to those boys. I will continue to read and learn and donate. Mostly, though, I will hold these boys in my heart with every breath I take. May there be peace.