The state of Virginia probably didn’t know about the twin pillars of Taylor Elementary’s P.E. program. All first through fifth graders were required, without exception, to practice volleyball and folk dance. Needless to say, I thrived. Both activities came naturally to a budding homosexual like me. But I was also easily bored and, by the 4th grade, I was craving more exciting extracurriculars.
Lucky for me, Taylor Elementary had more up its proverbial sleeve. The school also hosted a week-long student exchange program for fourth graders with the International American School in Warsaw, Poland. I can only assume it was the vestige of a Cold War era charm offensive, with capitalist overtones designed to lure youngsters to consumerism. And I was all the way in.
I had seen enough Disney movies to know it would be a dramatic romp.
For the first few months of the 1996 school year, things got very Eastern European. White eagles in Art class. Marie Curie in Science. Slavic folktales in Language Arts. Never before (or since) had Polish culture held such sway in my life. And it would all prove remarkably unusable when we were matched with our International School buddies—the children of expatriate Brits, Chinese, Singaporeans, and Israelis whose jobs had relocated them to Warsaw.
I was matched with Dae Hyun Byun, a sedate and unassuming Korean boy. We met at the welcome dinner on the first night. The other buddies seemed to be fast friends, but mine was to remain an enigma. His father was an executive at Daewoo, although it took me a few days to interpolate this because Dae Hyun rarely ever spoke.
On my first day, when Mrs. Byun offered me a “Polish hot dog” for breakfast, I was unable to communicate my preferences. It felt rude not to try the exotic condiment-slathered kielbasa wrapped in rye bread. It’s hard to say how much I vomited. It all happened too fast.
After cleaning myself off, I set off for school with Dae Hyun. During recess I jumped into a game of soccer with older kids and badly sprained my ankle. In what was surely a tribute to Soviet-era privations, the nurse’s office was out of ice. The swelling was ample enough that I had to miss the afternoon’s Warsaw walking tour. Instead, I went home for a silent hang with Mrs. Byun.
It wasn’t long before I hit my breaking point. Maybe it was the lack of conversational stimulation. Maybe it was the FOMO. Maybe it was being served cold Campbell’s Soup while staring at indecipherable Polish cartoons.
I called home multiple times a day, crying louder than I needed to. I whined about the discomfort of my room, the inadequacy of the food, the lack of basic communication.
Eventually, the school moved me to the house of an English family where another student had already been placed. My first night with my new hosts, we went to see Disney on Ice at Gwardia Stadium. What a magical and soothing experience. The wildly effeminate display of athleticism was a little slice of home. Even after all that travel and hubbub, it was a garish Disney spectacle that helped me grow and flourish. I considered that adventuring didn’t hold a candle to a Taylor Elementary P.E. class.