Originally by Richard Smith, Peoria Today
Imagine high school without sports teams, dances, elective classes or school spirit activities.
Now imagine growing up barely knowing these activities existed. Then, suddenly, you experience all of these things within three months of arriving in the United States. That is where German exchange student Darijo Kramer finds himself still early in his one year at Cactus High School. He is the junior varsity kicker and dresses out for the varsity. He is an honor roll student. And as of last Friday he is the homecoming king for the junior class.
“He is so elated. Like there was the day they ‘stormed the halls.’ The whole school spirit thing blows him away,” his host mother Cindy Bauer said. “The kids there were so welcoming. They would wait outside the gate for him to come in and take him back with him.”
Peoria residents Cindy and Michael Bauer went on to the list of potential host families thanks to their youngest daughter Madison, now a sophomore. An Ayusa representative spoke in her Spanish class last year and she put in the family’s name for hosting without telling her parents.
After some discussion the Bauers were all in. Then the Bauers had to battle for an opportunity to host a student. They were told a foreign exchange student could not play sports on a variance at the high school their daughter attends.
“I really couldn’t get anyone to explain to us why that ruling made sense. But we were down to the wire and another school also has a spot for us, so we said OK it’s fine. We knew sports were important to him,” Ms. Bauer said.
Darijo, 16, said he knew he wanted to play American football after catching on to the sport in the last two years. He lives in a small village near Hamburg and became interested in a year in America after his older sister spent a year here.
Recently, the Hamburg area received access to two NFL games each Sunday. Darijo said he watched as much as he could, and the Seattle Seahawks became his favorite team.
He tried out for football, because it was not an option back home. He played as wide receiver earlier in the year but coaches quickly took note of his natural kicking ability.
“They helped me on the first day of school,” he said. “It’s a very nice adventure. It’s the same (being a teenager) but I think they are more together here than in Germany. There are not big groups there. There’s like three to five people that are very good together but that’s it.”
Most of his cultural shocks have been positive, though he did have a “welcome to Arizona” moment when he arrived July 30th.
Germany has gun laws among the most stringent in Europe, according to the U.S. Library of Congress.
“That was on the way home from the airport. We stopped at the light and there was a motorcyclist – big guy, big honkin’ gun on his hip. I pointed it out and literally jumped when he saw it. Even his father the police officer locks his gun up at the station before he comes home,” Ms. Bauer said.
But nearly everything else that’s new to Darijo makes him smile. Football games, pep rallies, school colors, a wide range and choice of classes.
His high school back home has no electives and no athletic teams. Students take six classes per semester and typically choose only one.
Though his American high school has the smallest enrollment of any in the district, it’s twice as big as his German school for grades 5 – 10, which had between 600 and 700 students.
The Cobra family, he said, has stronger bonds than anything he’s experienced at home.
“The school is bigger and they are standing strong together. The relationship between teachers and students is, I think, better than in Germany,” Darijo said.
Beyond the school spirit activities and extracurricular events, Darijo said he also enjoys some of the classes offered. Criminal justice, which he will take in the spring, tops the list. That is not surprising since his father and brother are policemen back home.
Ms. Bauer said Darijo is easy to get along with, if a bit shy. Having another teen around has been – mostly – good for him and their youngest daughter.
All three of Madison’s siblings are at least 16 years older than her. Darijo, she said, is the youngest of six children and would be the last one at home now.
“These things really resonated. I also did not want to get a girl because I know what happens with two teenage girls together,” Ms. Bauer said. “He’s very easy going and boys, I think, are a little bit less territorial. The school rivalry thing is hilarious because he has taken every opportunity to joke about his high school having the ‘real’ football games.”
While there is no natural rivalry between the schools, the two schools will be playing against each other in soccer.
Darijo intends on being on the varsity team for that one and will try out for the school soccer team. He plays the sport for a small club in Germany.
However, his high school does have a pretty big rivalry with another school – the one that wears green and gold. That week, capped with the varsity’s epic 35-38 win, is Darijo’s favorite moment in Arizona thus far.
The backup varsity kicker witnessed an atmosphere unlike anything at his high school.
“We didn’t have a big crowd watching us play soccer back in Germany. There isn’t that rivalry with the clubs,” Darijo said. “It was very loud. It was very interesting.”
Ms. Bauer said Darijo is adapting to American life very well and even earning a “B” in U.S. history, which is good for a foreign exchange student. He’s taken English classes for six years and is fluent in the language.
His high school has six exchange students, including another German citizen who often bikes to school with him.
The Bauers took him to Las Vegas the week before school started. Soon the family will visit Karchner Caverns and the Biosphere. Darijo said he is most excited to visit the Grand Canyon, and the Bauers are preparing with weekend hikes. They are paying for the trips, which is beyond what is required of a host family.
“We want to take him to see Arizona and not have to pay for it,” Ms. Bauer said.
This year, in essence, does not ‘count’ for Darijo. He will return to 11th grade, which is what he would have taken back home, with three more years of high school – in Germany high school continues through 13th grade for students who maintain academic standing.
He said he will return home with cherished memories of his time in America – and a surprising favorite American food for someone who lives a few miles from Hamburg.
“The burgers are a little better here,” he said.