Outside the classroom…and the country
Picture 21 eighth-graders, together on a nine-hour flight from France to rural Minnesota, where they will spend a little more than four full days immersed in Midwestern America.
This is the dream of Marine Lefranc, an English teacher at Collge Jules Verne in small-town Rosires-en-Santerre, about an hour north of Paris.
And, this week in Blue Earth, it was also reality.
Twelve years ago, it was Lefranc who was on a visit to the states as an exchange student the first of seven international visitors hosted by locals Perry and Peggy Olson.
And after more than a decade and at least 10 return trips to America since, Lefranc brought a little something extra to her reunion with the Olsons that began Oct. 6: Her entire English class from France.
All 10 boys and 11 girls in the class elect to spend extra hours each week learning English back home, and Lefranc decided to reward the students with as authentic an experience with the language as could be.
“A month after we started,” she says, “I told them all, ‘I’m going to take you to the United States of America.'”
And she did.
The bunch of foreign middle-schoolers split between 14 host families upon arrival, calling rural Faribault County home on their biggest field trip to date.
Three days of Twin?Cities tourism preceded their time in and around Blue Earth, and it did not take much longer to hook the young French explorers on life in America.
“The kids said to me, ‘I’m homesick,’ not because they miss home but because they’re going to miss their home here,” says Lefranc, a day before she and her students were scheduled to fly back.
The rapid attachment of her students to America is much like the one Lefranc herself encountered as an 18-year-old high school senior the one that drove her to come back not only as an unofficial part of the Olson family but, years later, as a mentor to other European kids.
“‘Like’ wouldn’t even be the word to describe it,” she says, of her first taste of America. “Right away, I?was part of the family, and I loved it.”
The Olsons agreed.
“She’s from France,” Peggy says, “but you’d think she’s an American girl, born and bred.”
Like most exchange students, Lefranc says her first moments abroad were not completely devoid of shyness, let alone hurdles of the language barrier.
She quickly found school, work and day-to-day interactions of Americans to be more easygoing more freeing than those of her homeland, however. The welcoming spirit of the Olsons, then, simply served as a bonus.
“As a student in France, I didn’t get to pick where I went,” Lefranc says. “They picked me, so of course you always want to end up somewhere like New York City or California.”
Instead, she landed in Southern Minnesota.
New York eventually found its way onto Lefranc’s radar she actually led another class trip to the Big Apple in 2014. But the flat lands of Blue Earth left the largest imprint on her heart.
It is in the quiet small towns, not the luxurious cities of global recognition, Lefranc says, where doses of human interaction are easiest to come by.
That is one of the reasons she clung to the Midwest long after her exchange program came to a close in 2004, and that is also one of the reasons she saw Minnesota as the perfect platform for her students to further their English language.
Too perfect, perhaps.
Door-to-door fundraising for the class’s overseas adventure had many people in France questioning the validity of the trip.
“The kids sold chocolate to raise money,” Lefranc says, “and lots of people didn’t believe them they looked at them and said ‘Why would you go all the way to the United States?'”
The students’ parents, like Lefranc, felt otherwise.
“I had my last meeting with parents before leaving and asked if there were any questions,” Lefranc recalls. “There were none, and I?was like, ‘Are you kidding? I’m taking all your kids to America.'”
And now, if it were up to those same kids, they may very well have stayed in America.
It turns out the parents and, more fittingly, Lefranc were justified in their support.
“The joy, you see it in their faces,” Peggy Olson says of the students. “They are so appreciative. They love the U.S.”
Touring Minneapolis’ Target Field may have solidified that. Or biking around Minnehaha Park. Or catching an IMAX showing at the Science Museum in Saint Paul. Or making the inevitable visit to the Mall of America.
But the little moments, the ones nestled in front of agricultural backdrops in Blue Earth, may have been the truest signs of cultural immersion.
“The best part of the trip wasn’t those first few days in the cities,” Lefranc says. “It was here, Blue Earth.”
The place where Lefranc, along with fellow French teacher Yann Sthal, led the students on a downtown scavenger hunt, orchestrated in part by collaborating local business owners and ending with a “treasure” of American goodies: Ranch dressing, licorice and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
The place where Blue Earth Area High School opened its doors to the French visitors for a day, as did the county law enforcement center.
The place where families across the county, organized by former BEA teacher Gary Agren, got a sample of what it is like to share life with a student from afar.
And, most of all, it was the place where Lefranc’s passing-of-the-American-torch saga came to fruition.
How fitting it was that the students’ last full day on United States soil was spent at the home where that saga began 12 years earlier, with the Olsons.
As the 21 eighth-graders tossed bean bags, hummed American pop songs and prepared for an afternoon of four-wheeling, Lefranc joined in, then stepped back to observe.
At that moment, 24 hours away from a layover in Iceland and the final flight home to Rosires-en-Santerre, she admitted with a laugh that one of the first things she will do upon arriving in France is shed a few tears.
The trip meant that much not only to Lefranc but those who helped make it possible and those who were daring enough to embark on it.
Plus, for her and, now, perhaps some of her students leaving the states was like saying goodbye to home, not returning to it.
After all, she’s (almost) an “American girl, born and bred.”