You got to love exchange students. With apologies to Shannon Elizabeth, Wilder Valderrama, and the great Sean Sung who gets unfairly shafted in this countdown, the best exchange student I have had the pleasure of cultural exchange with was Piotr from Poland
Piotr was a great guy. His host family had about 6 little kids, and by all accounts he instantly became the quintessential big brother. They all ran up to him and climbed all over him whenever he came home. He hugged them and took care of them, and when they fought each other, he would sternly and yet lovingly rebuke them in the way only a person with a strong Eastern European accent can. Think Bela Karolyi, only young and thin. (Wow, Bela Karolyi, that's quite the obscure dated reference. I might as well bring up Kerri Strug too, just so that I can mention she is the half-sister of Kathy Ireland. Did that for you Von! And I might as well mention my brief crush on Shannon Miller whom the Spanish dubbed "The Porcelain Princess." Kim Zmeskal anyone? I am so very old.)
Piotr also played basketball, which is pretty much a prerequisite for anyone on this countdown. I remember him coming to open gyms that coach Fazzari would have during football season. Agan, my high school was winning state titles every year in Football and Baseball, and that meant Basketball was basically just a "winter break" between championship seasons. The only people to show up for these open gyms was me, Piotr, and Adam Driver who may or may not make his own appearance somewhere on this countdown. Of course, there was that one time that Adam and I didn't show up for an open gym because we were watching a Seahawks game or something, and Piotr, who wasn't even eligible to be on the team as an exchange student, was the only one to show up. That is probably the moment coach Fazzari knew it would be rough season.
Piotr did have some foreign quirks about him. At times he would kind of take to spacing out and would appear to be muttering to himself in Polish. I appreciated this because I tended to do the same thing (except for the polish speaking part of course). I imagine when I did it, I must have appeared to be a Schizophrenic loon. But when Piotr did it, he had more the air of the angsty existential smoldering intensity of an exotic foreigner from a mysterious and shadowy land behind the Iron Curtain.
So one day Piotr was sitting in the Library by himself "smoldering." He seemed upset so I asked him what was going on. He then told me all about Mara, his girlfriend back in Poland. Well, more like ex-girlfriend from the sound of it. I sat and listened as Piotr related the sad but ultimately cliche and inevitable break-up story of two 17 years olds who are 7,000 miles apart for a whole year. Now I think something was lost or maybe added in translation due to the language barrier because he made a simple case of "Aleksander asked me out" sound like "Mara does Warsaw."
Thanks to Piotr I learned something very important about myself that day. I am 1/3rd evil genius, and 2/3rds incompetent pansy. I always knew the pansy part, but the evil genius part was a revelation, and if it wasn't for Piotr, I might never have known it was there.
Piotr looked so sad that day in the library. I felt bad for the guy. I wanted to help him. I sat listening to Piotr drone on and on about Mara, and suddenly I had an idea.
I got a Wonderful, Awful, idea.
Piotr's heart was broken and needed some help putting the pieces back together. And in an instant, I conceived of a plan that let Piotr get his groove back, and simultaneously put me in the ideal position I had lusted over, pined for, and dreamed of for 8 years! Let me back up and explain.....
One early Spring day in 1992, I was sitting in my 4th grade classroom lost in a daydream as I stared out the window, avoiding busy work assignments I was supposed to be doing. Still zoned out I turned my head from the windows on my left to look over my right shoulder and suddenly I saw this girl and the heavens opened up and an angelic glow overcame her as the rest of the world faded into drab shadow and the heavenly host of triumphant Halleluiahs played. I quickly looked back left to get my bearings and then quick peek back right and the illumination and Chorus reemerged right on que. I looked down at my desk trying to make sense of the experience. "What have I been missing all these years?" I mumbled softly but aloud. I had literally been in school with this girl since Kindergarten and had never given her a 2nd thought. And now it was like seeing her for the first time and yet I already knew everything about her. Maybe that was the moment my pituitary gland secreted its first hormone? I don't know. But I was transfixed.
As it turned out this girl was collecting the busy work assignments I was not completing, so I hurriedly rushed through it so that I could approach her to turn it in. In a sequence straight out of a preteen movie, I walked up to her desk holding out my assignment like it was some kind of gift for her. I stood there with a punch-drunk expression slack jawed on my face starring. She took it from me and immediately shoved it right back at me saying "name." I immediately went red faced with secret humiliation as I scamped off to my desk for a pencil to write my name on the paper and return it to her, upon which she took the paper and placed it the stack of all the other papers without even looking up at me. Stil feeling slightly euphoric but also befuddled, bewildered, and dismissed, I slowly return to my desk with an absolute resolve and compulsion to earn the affection I was just denied.
That very day, and I know it was a Friday, because it was Library day, I became aware that this girl and some other students were organizing a play based on out reading group book The Borrowers by Mary Norton. I was determined to get into that play. And so, I staged my own impromptu audition for this budding ensemble theatre troupe. When the group headed en mass down the hall to the library I followed suit closely. So closely that one of the group members (I think it was Matt Harri) actually asked me "who are you in the play?" To which I responded "Play? What play? I'm just going to the library.” I began watching the group out of the corner of my eye, ears pricked as they discussed their plans. When I heard them discussing amongst themselves "Who else could we get to play..." I shamelessly walked across the room to an adjoining bookshelf saying "Now where is that book, I am looking for." I then moved to a nearby table within easy earshot and began thumbing through a book on planets as if it was the tome I had been searching for. I can hear this girl say to the rest of the play group "what about Tony?" With my point guard peripheral vision, I see the group quickly huddle and then start walking towards me.
I was in.
As luck would have it (if luck you call it), a family vacation depriving him of rehearsal time took the original male lead out of the picture, and so within minutes of joining this play I was the lead opposite this very girl. And this all happened in less than an hour of the initial Heavenly Dispensation/hormone secretion that set these events in motion. I'm telling you this is straight out of a John Hughes movie in the 80's starring Patrick Dempsey as me (Ok more like John Cryer, maybe a skinny Cory Feldmen). But it soon turned into more of a Chris Columbus Film (see #13 on the link. But know that I never have).
After we all returned to school from Spring break, rehearsals got underway during recess and at appointed class times. I began to get teased by my friends because instead of playing basketball with them I was suddenly spending all my recess time with this girl alone doing the Romeo and Juliet thing. They started making the sort of "K,I,S,S,I,N,G," comments (or worse) that 4th grade boys do. They weren't wrong in what they were getting at, but I wasn't admitting to anything at that point. Funny how things can change quickly and dramatically in life.
Well, our happy little acting troupe was fractured by a coup attempt, as everyone's favorite person, Bernadette Davis, attempted to wrestle creative control from the rest of the group. A power struggle ensued, resulting In Bernadette being kicked out of the play and we got special permission to rehearse on the stage behind closed doors to keep her from disrupting our rehearsal as she had been on the playground. In retaliation Bernadette rounded up a mob of protesters, including the likes of Casey, Carlos, and Josh, and came through the front entrance and opened the locked side doors of the gym allowing the protesters to come in and agitate for her reinstatement. (I am not making any of this up!) Teachers responded to the commotion and we were all marched back to our classroom where the debate continued among much more cramped confines. I was upset that our rehearsal was being interrupted, and that Bernadette was being so bossy, and that my friends were pretending to back Bernadette in the argument while making kissy faces at me. I was totally going to back my costar in this Hollywood cat fight. Naturally I was in the mode to go for the bold heroic gesture. In my exuberance to put down all the extraneous rabble, I jumped up on my desk and called everyone to attention. I was going to cut to the heart of the matter of just the strict logistical particulars of the play, and get everyone else not involved in the play to shut up and stop getting involved just to get a peek of the action between me and this girl behind closed doors. Tragically I had no idea what to say to accomplish that goal, and so what actually came out of my mouth was:
"OK that's not what any of this is about. It's really about...well....I mean..So What if I Like.............." And as I said her name the realization of what I just had done and the implications flooded over me, and in that instant as the class erupted into shock laughter and pandemonium and the teacher desperately sought to regain order and restore decorum, I slinked down into my desk put my head down and drifted off into almost a fugue state.
As I came to, I slowly became aware of all the snickering faces looking back at me. That afternoon's rehearsal was the most awkward and painful experience of my life next only to having to tell my grandparents I wasn't going to their church anymore. The hatred in her eyes burned my soul. I was racked with shame and guilt. Not because I liked her, but because this moment and everyone's reaction indicated to me that not only was I not good enough for her, but I had somehow tainted her with the stain of my affection. After school I went up to her and tried to apologize. As she stared at me with those heat seeking eyes and a sad yet pained expression on her face, I said it was an accident and I didn't mean to hurt her or embarrass her. I was just trying to defend her and the play and fight for our privacy to do it in peace and I just misspoke. I asked if she could forgive me. She abruptly turned and walked to the classroom door and just before walking through it, she turned to look back at me with those cold burning eyes and said "Does that tell you anything," and walked out. "Yeah, that says a lot," I said out loud. (I'm telling you this sounds straight out of a Disney channel original, but it's exactly how it happened). And from that moment on I was irreversibly changed forever, in ways that I am only now starting to fully comprehend.
So back to Piotr and my evil plan. Like Pierre Despereaux, the genius of my Machiavellian Machination was in its simplicity. Piotr couldn't drive. He and his date would need a chauffeur. If I was that chauffer, I could take him and his date to the Prom. Then after the Prom I would take each of them home. Piotr would have to be taken home first, because he had a ridiculously early curfew imposed by the same conservative Roman Catholic host family that sent him to Catholic high school! And then I could chauffer home his date, taking full advantage of the endorphin high of the Mythologized Romance of "Senior Prom" and position myself and Piotr's date at the final good night moment I had been scheming and rehearsing for since 4th grade. I just had to make sure Piotr's date was that same girl. And as luck would have it, Piotr had already asked and escorted that very girl to the homecoming dance!! So, the skids were greased. He had asked her to a dance and she said "yes" once before.
All I had to do is get Piotr to try and ask out a girl to a dance that he had already successfully gone to a dance with before. Not a lot of risk in that proposition for either of us. But that did require me to give Piotr a little nudge and tell him to make it happen with this girl by Monday, or else I would ask her out myself.
Now this actually created a pretty crucial moment. If Piotr followed through and asked her to the dance, then the plan is in motion on a very smooth track. But if he doesn't, then I had just obligated myself to try and ask out this girl that I had wrapped up my complete personal identity with, and actually attempting to ask her out posed an existential crisis! I mean this is why I had to go through the trouble of getting Piotr to ask her out in the first place. In truth, I was bluffing. There was no way I would ever actually be able to go through with it. But luckily, he didn't know that, and no one else did either.
The moment of truth came down in dramatic fashion. The Sunday before the Monday deadline, I found myself at Adam Driver's house, along with his neighbor, fellow classmate, and future wife, Claudia (hmm, I wonder if maybe Adam and Claudia will get their own spot on the countdown? Together as a couple maybe? Hmm? anything is possible. You will just have to subscribe to the blog feed to find out). And for some unknown reason, old what's her name also happened to be hanging out there that day.
While I am there hanging out, the subject of prom comes up, and at this point I have to find out if Piotr has asked this girl out or not. If he hasn't then I have one more day to get him to do it. I am sitting there listening to the conversation and trying to subtly get her to say if anyone has asked her to the prom yet. There was a lot riding on this so there was palatable tension on my part, and after a while I couldn't stand it anymore. I just whimpered out in a squeaky voice "who are you going with?" Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Claudia trying hard to suppress a smile, and Adam not really trying to suppress his at all.
"Piotr asked me," she said dryly.
It was a very strange moment for me as on the inside, I was secretly both completely relieved and jumping for joy and thinking "Piotr, you da man!" But on the outside, I had to feign disappointment, and said "Piotr? Again," like I was surprised, disgusted and sad. It was my best acting performance since the Borrowers.
With all the stars seeming to align, I just kind of let the matter go, trusting that it would all work out. No official plans were made or finalized. I was just assuming me chauffeuring Piotr and his date to the prom is the most obvious thing. And life went on for a couple more weeks until the very day before and it suddenly hits me, there is no definitive plan in place, this whole thing could fall apart. Now I am not typically a very spiritual or faithful person. Trusting that everything happens for a reason is not my modus operandi. But for some reason this time I just had this irrational confidence that it would all get worked out naturally by the end of the day. And I had that irrational confidence, for 7 class periods and a lunch. And not until the final bell rang and I am standing at my locker packing up to leave did I suddenly realize I was heading home like every other Friday of high school with NO PLANS FOR THE WEEKEND! I was in a moment of stunned despair. I couldn't believe I had been so laissez faire about this whole thing. 8 years I had obsessed over this possibility and it was miraculously put in my grasp and I did nothing to grab hold of it. The realization of this churned my stomach and I might have been about to cry, when suddenly I heard a voice say my name. "Tony."
I looked to my left this time, to see Piotr's Prom date approaching me, and say "So I guess.... you will pick us up then?"
"Yeah sure," I replied with all the casual disinterest that a person with the equivalent of getting their Christmas, Birthday, and a Powerball Jackpot winnings all at the same time, can possibly muster.
And just like that, it was all set. My brilliant mastermind evil plan had come together seamlessly and all I had had to do was play it cool and pretend I didn't care the entire time. And now, it was on.
The following night, Saturday night, was Prom night. I picked up Piotr at about 5pm. Piotr looked good in his Tux. If I remember it was classic bowtie, no tails, padded shoulders or weird fashion trends from the 90's that only I still think are cool. I honestly can't remember if he went vest or cummerbund, but overall well-tailored with a clean finish. Very James Bond.
We now had to pick up Piotr's date, all the way in Milton-Freewater. That meant driving all the way to Oregon. We picked up Piotr's date and it turned out that our friend Jenny, who also lived out there in that other state, was coming with us too (so maybe I wasn't the only one with evil genius schemes). Parents took pictures. I think I may have even been in some of them. It really started to play out as kind of a group night on the town thing. We went to eat at El Sombrero with like half of the other students going to prom that night because the owner's kids went to our school. There was a Mariachi band going table to table. We ate carnitas and nachos. It was a good time.
Too bad we had a dance to get to.
I had joked through all of dinner that I was just a chauffeur and I would be waiting in the car reading the newspaper. I even wore my Nike golf Beret backwards so it looked like a chauffeur's cap. But ultimately, I went in to the dance with my friends.
I didn't do much dancing as I recall. Mostly hung out on the wall with my friend Tim. I had a few girls ask if I wanted to dance, but I turned most of them down, including Piotr's date. Dancing is not my strong suite. But Piotr is from eastern Europe. He had spent more than few nights in a Polish Dyskoteka. The man had all the right moves and no sense of American shame. And yet he stayed classy. That is what you get when you are born and raised in a community where civilization may rise and fall but people, children, families, have inhabited this place, this town, this community for thousands of years continuously, but I digress.
The most memorable/annoying part of the evening was that the fire alarms got triggered. There was no sprinkler action but there was a piercing fire horn and flashing emergency lights in addition to the bass pumping music and laser light disco ball. A full-on red fire engine rolled on the scene and we all go our picture taken with it. Maybe not the best prom ever but not a bad night.
And then it was time to go home. I took Piotr home first. Actually, I am unclear on this. I think I ended up giving someone else a ride home to in town and maybe they were first. I don't know and it doesn't really matter. At any rate I was taking Piotr's date and Jenny home to Oregon. So after all of my panning and scheming and uncharacteristically trusting in karma and a higher power, Jenny's presence posed a conundrum. Who would I take home first? I had to take Jenny home first to preserve the magic of the final moments of the evening for taking Piotr's date home. What was the Geography of Rural North Eastern Oregon? What route do I take? I think both of the girls were in the back seat as this point so I really was playing chauffeur at this point. I don't remember how it went down exactly but I did end up dropping off Jenny at home first. And then something incredible happened. Piotr's date got out of the car and came up front to ride shotgun.
Was she giving me an opportunity?
Maybe she was getting car sick?
There was only one way to find out.
But we will never know
As I pulled into her driveway, I intentionally kept a light conversation going. I avoided any lull or awkward pauses like the plague, because I knew if there was one, I wouldn't be able to help myself from saying something. Something I had waited 8 years to say. But I didn't have to say anything. And not feeling like I had to say something, to fix things, to desperately persuade or convince her of anything, was the other opportunity I had that night.
And that is the opportunity I took.
It was the right decision at the time. But only because of all the wrong decisions I had made for the last 8 years. Its not like I had played it cool since 4th grade and patiently waited for the perfect opportunity to make my move on her. I told every new friend I met about what happened in 4th grade within like an hour of meeting them. Not as a funny story but as a confession. “Hey you might think I’m cool now, but let me tell you what kind of loser I really am before you decide to be friends with me.” I had wallowed and thrashed in a swamp of shame and awkwardness for 8 years. The stench of my desperation followed me everywhere, and this was a chance to let it dissipate if I could only keep from raking up the muck again. I had made a deal with the Universe and the Universe had kept up its end of the bargain. There was No Hatred here. I could move on with my humble little life knowing I didn't destroy anyone else's. I couldn't get greedy now by seizing on a manufactured moment and expect it somehow to completely reverse the trends of 2 lives in an instant simply by bearing my soul, or worse, by attempting some obsessively scrutinized and often rehearsed, yet still bumbling pick up line.
But if I had been stupid enough to try something, this is what I would have said:
"You know for years now people always come up and ask me in private if I still like you. And I always tell them the same thing. Why should I have stopped? You are Beautiful. Smart. Intelligent. Hard working and Ambitious. Always have been. You can spell. You do trigonometry. You can act. You play volleyball. What is not to like? I liked all of that about you in the 4th grade, and you have only become all the more so with age. I think we share a sense of humor and there are things that I say and do that you just get that others don't. I know you can't really admit it, but I think you have always appreciated my affection, and knowing that I like you as much as I do, does makes you feel special in a way nothing else has. So yeah, I think we actually do have a special connection. The only problem is.........."
And naturally that is the point in my imagination when she is so taken with my words and swept up in the magic of the moment that she kisses me and a sudden musical key change occurs and the movie camera pans around us in a circle to signify this romantic comedy is one last punch line away from happily ever after.
But I wasn't going to try that. Had the night gone poorly, I probably would have. I would have been frustrated and at the end of my rope and have nothing to lose, so I might as well just let it all pour out. But that wasn't the case. I had been seeking a chance to get back to good. I wanted to lessen the awkwardness, the burden. She did not have to like me for me to feel good about myself. She just had to forgive me. To accept me. We could just be 2 kids in the same class since Kindergarten, and we didn't have to mention 4th grade again if we didn't want to.
As much as I described my evil plan coming together as some kind of fate or destiny, it wasn't anything cosmic or even genius.
It was all her.
She recognized the situation for what it was. She had to have known how awkward it would be if I actually had asked her out. How that would have felt like the defining moment of my life and that would be too much weight for me to function under and totally not fair to her to have to carry either. She threw me a bone and came to me about driving her and Piotr at the 11th hour because (like I said) it was the obvious plan, and she knew I would appreciate being a part of the evening.
So, I decided to return the favor by keeping the integrity of that fun and memorable evening intact and unsullied. (I suppose maybe I have sullied it by writing this now, but I doubt she will ever read this)
I drove home feeling good about myself and my place in the world.
And it was all thanks to Piotr and his prom date, showing me such kindness.
Piotr and I were only friends for a short time. Only for a school year. And yet we shared so much. Cultural heritage (on my mom's side at least), basketball, slightly mis-translated Saturday Night Live references, and great taste in women.
I wonder what he is up to these days? Does he have a family? What kind of a career has he had? Unfortunately, if I try to look up "Piotr from Poland" on Google or Facebook, all I get is this.....
While I can hear his last name in my head, it is Polish. The language that brought us Mike Krzyzewski and Steve Wojciechowski. I have no idea how to spell it. So I guess my defining memory of Piotr will be this.
The last time I saw Piotr was in SEA-TAC Airport. I was embarking with my history class on a tour of Italy, and Piotr was catching his flight back home to Poland. As luck, or fate or destiny would have it ( and I really mean those this time), we were on the same shuttle flight from Walla Walla to Seattle. I remember writing about the experience in the last of my original Thinks I've Thunk notebooks. We exited the plane together and parted ways in the terminal as we headed to our respective gates to take on our respective lives. I remember after a couple of steps into the cowed I looked back over my shoulder. I wonder if he did the same?
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