Forest Hills — Every morning for about two weeks, Daphné Michel has gotten up at about 5:30, just to attend the zero-hour drumline class with Central High freshman Aubrey Hyde.
“I like playing the cymbals,” said Daphné. “Going to zero hour and participating in the drumline and being with the marching band has been something different. Then again, everything is different.”
Daphné was one of about 28 students and three teacher chaperones from Lycée Jean Monnet, a school in the French city, Strasbourg, near the German border, who recently visited Central High for two weeks.
For the past 25 years, except for the two travel-restricted years of COVID, students from the school have stayed with Central host families.
The program was started by now retired teacher Lorraine Miles, said Central’s French teacher Laurie Van Houten. Miles was from Strasbourg and knew the principal at the school, Van Houten said.
“(T)he principal called Lorraine in a panic asking if there was any way Forest Hills could host the students, as their original host site had backed out,” Van Houten said. “We have been doing it ever since.”
The French students attend school with host family students. There also are field trips that have included the Grand Rapids Public Museum, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, Union High School and Grand Valley State University.
“It sounded like a cool opportunity,” said Central freshman Aubrey. “Having been in French (class) for two years, I felt like it would be interesting to meet someone from another culture and to learn about that culture. And hopefully, I can do what she has done and visit other places.”
The Central students are almost like ambassadors, said senior Elana Kavanagh, who hosted a student last fall.
“You get to introduce the student to your friends and they get exposed to a different culture and learn about the differences in the two counties,” Elana said.
French students’ studies focus on German and English, and they are required to visit one German-speaking and one English-speaking country, said exchange student Carla Cherchi, who added that her class visited Vienna, Austria, last year.
“For me, it is really important to have good English skills as I am planning to study law,” said Margot Houpert, who hopes to have an exchange year in the U.S. when she is in college. Margot said she thinks her English improved over the two-week visit.
Discovering a Whole New World
Improving their English is one goal; another is simply experiencing American life, which students agreed was different from France, from streets to schools to shopping malls.
“One day, all the students here wore their pajamas to school,” Margot said. “In France, the students are always working to look their best, wearing their best clothes. You would never see that in a French school.”
Pajama Day was part of Central’s Homecoming week. Van Houten pointed out that the students used to visit in January, but for the past few years have been visiting in the fall.
“What was interesting is how excited my student got over even just the little things,” said senior Nora Blok, who is hosting Timéa Kipper. “Friday, the day of the game, and it is cold and rainy and everyone here is complaining about it, and (Timéa) is just so excited about being at the game. It made it kind of fun.”
Homecoming was popular among the French students, who noted that there are not a lot of activities such as sports and dances at their school.
“It was nice because we were able to wear our nicest clothes,” said French student Maud Thomas, who said the dance here ended early. She said parties in France usually go until the early morning hours.
The students often build bonds that last beyond just the two weeks. Elana was part of a group of Central students and staff who traveled to Strasbourg.
Aubrey Hyde said she and Daphné have been building their friendship over the past couple of weeks.
“Hopefully one day, I’ll get to do what she is doing, visit another country,” Aubrey said.