Last Summer's Family Reunion by Upper School Head Michael Denning
I have a great deal for which to be thankful, and this past summer’s family vacation provided new additions to my long list of good fortunes. After years of saving, Emily, Patrick and I traveled to Central Europe. I have been teaching European history for most of my career and had the privilege to study at two German universities during my undergraduate and graduate school days. Nevertheless, I had not returned to the countries about which I teach for many years, and I was excited to share this part of my life with my family.
I suspect that Emily and Patrick could expound eloquently on the pros and cons of exploring Europe with a history teacher. In spite of my unbridled enthusiasm for Europe’s histories, my family remained patient throughout and often seemed appreciative of what I could offer. And they became very good at prefacing questions with the following: “Dad/Michael, could you give us a brief explanation of…” I tried to honor their requests; you’ll have to ask them about whether or not I succeeded. We had a wonderful time.
We planned our itinerary together, but there were a couple of stops I felt we needed to make, in particular the remnants of Nazi Germany’s first and longest-running concentration camp at Dachau. There, we learned a lot and struggled emotionally, and I am grateful that we had this opportunity.
While firming up our destinations, I made one final request—a visit to a farm in Lower Austria. Bordered by the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Lower Austria is the northern-most state in the Republic of Austria; its name—Lower Austria—has nothing to do with its location vis-à-vis other Austrian states, but rather refers to its valleys and river beds which host and support the Danube and its tributaries. This is beautiful country whose topography might remind you of Vermont’s Green Mountains, Iowa’s bountiful fields and Wyoming’s lush forests. Home to a large portion of Austria’s farmers, foresters and wine producers, it is rich in history and natural resources. However, Lower Austria is probably not a destination I would choose to travel a quarter of the way around the world to visit or put on the itinerary of my family’s “vacation of a lifetime.” No, we were headed there so that I could fulfill a promise I had made to myself years ago to return to thank, in person, the Stanzls, a family of farmers and innkeepers who, in 1984, invited then-17-year-old me to come to work with them for the summer.
At the risk of sounding like that annoying older guy who insists on talking about how much harder it was “in my day," I am going to say it: my summer in Austria was not your child’s 21st-century study-abroad program. As far as I could tell, the opportunity came about in a pretty simple and straightforward way: I was part of the American Field Service club at my high school, wanted to go abroad and had three years of high-school German under my belt. The Stanzls were interested in an adventure with an American teenager and figured they could use another worker for their farm and bed and breakfast. The match was made.
To be honest, there is a part of me that still can’t believe my parents allowed me to go. I think they tried to call the Stanzls beforehand, but the language barrier prevented any meaningful communication. The internet did not yet exist, and there were no cellphones, ATMs or CORI and SORI databases. On a morning in early June, they dropped me at Logan Airport, and I was on my way, the first member of my family to visit Europe since World War I.
I arrived in Austria with a dozen or so other Americans. We became fast friends and I thought this adventure was going to be a blast—something akin to a roving summer camp. But the party was not to last. After a brief orientation, we were back in Vienna where Austria’s AFS volunteers wished us luck while sending us off in search of the various trains and buses that would transport us to our host families. I was on my own.
After hours on a bus—during which I kept my face pinned to the glass window in fear that I would miss my stop—I arrived in Rappottenstein, a place that looked like a cross between Mayberry RFD and Disney/Epcot Center’s German Pavilion. At one end of the town, there was a cluster of houses right out of a Grimm fairy tale; on the other end was a church square filled with tractors and hay wagons. I don’t remember what I had expected, but I certainly remember wondering why there was nobody there to greet me. I had, after all, come a third of the way around the world. But there I was—alone—wondering what I had gotten myself into.
As panic began to set in, I was startled by the sound of screeching tires. A Volkswagen Golf came to a dramatic stop in front of me and out popped a tall, young, red-headed guy with a huge smile, an extended hand and the question I had been hoping he would ask, “Are you Mike the American?” That was practically the extent of my host brother Hermann’s English, but at that moment, that was just what I needed to hear.
I suppose it would be nice if I could report that the time I spent with the Stanzls was one fun experience after another. But, thankfully, that is not how things went. Certainly, there was plenty of fun and lots of laughs. But there was a ton of work, too, and farmwork is hard and my learning curve was steep. In elementary school, I had heard how farmers rise at dawn to a rooster’s crow to milk cows and clean stalls. But with the Stanzls, I learned that not only was this true, but also that the stalls needed to be cleaned at the end of each day, too. In fact, poop needed to be shoveled before both breakfast and dinner or there would be no meal.
After a breakfast of bread, meat, butter and coffee—yes, this is where I began my love affair with coffee— the work continued, this time weeding rows of potato, clearing forests and maintaining trails. And as autumn approached, we began to harvest the hay. Of course, there was always work to be done in the bed and breakfast, and if you have an extra five minutes in your life that you’re willing to give up, ask me about the day we slaughtered pigs and filled the smokehouse.
The Stanzls were immensely kind and generous. They were patient while teaching me how to speak German, farm and run a B & B. They took me everywhere with them and made me feel a part of their family. And when I experienced moments of illness and homesickness (and I did), they cared for me as if I was one of their own. Indeed, the Stanzls not only taught me about how they lived, but they taught me a lot about how to live, and through their many acts of kindness, I became a more empathetic, resilient and confident person. They were great teachers.
Hardly a week has gone by over the past three decades when I have not reflected on the privileged education I have received in and out of schools. I fell in love with studying European history and cultures that summer, and this passion has never waned. However, in recent years, I have found myself thinking about education—and my education that summer, in particular—in more holistic and nuanced ways. I now know that I was privileged to learn far more that summer than I could have ever thought possible, lessons that have made a huge difference in my life. Unknowingly, I returned from this experience with a stronger, more mature sense-of-self, confident that I could:
live away from home
work hard and add value to business enterprises
learn a foreign language and develop an appreciation for, and relationships with, people from backgrounds very different from my own
travel on my own and get to where I needed to be
problem solve and improve from mistakes
work through and overcome feelings of insecurity and homesickness
take appropriate risks
make my own way in the world
I also learned a little bit about reflection and perspective, and, for the first time, began to take some stock of who I was, where I lived, what my family valued and what I might do with my life.
I desperately wanted to travel back to the Stanzls to thank them for all that they offered and taught me, and I am so lucky to have had that opportunity. It was an emotional reunion. Hermann greeted me with the same warmth, but this time with a big hug, too. And I took some time to walk back to that spot in the town square where we had first met. Most remarkable of all were my visits with Frau Maria, my host mother. Widowed and a bit less mobile these days, Frau Maria still possesses the sense of humor, wisdom and desire to care for all those around her that she had three decades ago. Although she never had a chance to complete her formal education, she remains one of the smartest, most intuitive and capable individuals I have had the privilege to know. We talked for a long time, and as I considered all that she had taught me about family, friends, joy, love and resilience—and how she had been there for me when I really needed someone—I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
While talking with my son about my relationship with this great family, I was struck by the realization that inasmuch as Emily and I are Patrick’s first and most important teachers, there are very real limits to what we can offer him. As he gets older, we will have to place greater and greater responsibility for his education on him and on the many teachers and mentors he will encounter away from us. When we arrived home, I took some time to thank my parents for having had the courage, prescience and wisdom then, and in years that followed, to encourage me to embrace risks and experiences where they would not be able to support me directly. Now, as the parent of a teenager, I have a better sense of how hard this must have been for them to do. I also told them, again, how lucky I have been, expressing my hope that Patrick would be as fortunate in finding great teachers as I have been.
Risk-taking is embedded in our academic and co-curricular programs, and it is at the foundation of our EXCEL initiatives. But while we encourage appropriate risk-taking in our students, so too do we ask parents to embrace it in their parenting. Most of us know that in order for our children to develop the confidence and resilience they will need as adults, they must learn to solve problems and seek support away from home and within larger, more diverse and complex communities. The challenge is finding the courage to create opportunities for our children to learn to thrive and, at times, cope without us. How lucky Emily and I feel, knowing that many of the new risks and challenges that Patrick will confront and embrace this year away from us will be supported by a community of adults we know and trust so well.