SPRING HILL — During her last lunch at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, seventh-grader Xin Ling Zhang was a changed girl.
She ate her school lunch with a fork and knife instead of the usual chopsticks. She went by a name her American classmates could pronounce — Linda. She spoke with an expanded English vocabulary, now including the word "redneck."
"They're country people!" she said proudly.
Today, Linda, 12, will fly back to China with the other 53 Bejing New Talent Academy students who have spent the last two months at Challenger as part of a middle school exchange program. The students and a handful of their teachers stayed with host families, immersing themselves in American culture. And on Wednesday, they said their goodbyes.
In Jen Keane's social studies class, students huddled over their world history textbooks, flipping through pages from the China history section for a last chance to ask questions. Sixth-grader Max O'Rourke pointed at a chart of Chinese characters.
"How do you say that?" Max, 12, asked his friend, seventh-grader Han Wang, while pointing at the character for "field."
Han Wang, 13, who goes by Owen, answered in Chinese, another word Max could add to his growing Chinese vocabulary.
The pair had become close friends during the program and planned, like many, to keep in touch via WeChat, which many residents of China use because of government restrictions on social media websites.
Challenger hopes to continue the program in the future but with some modifications, said principal Michael Maine. The group size was hard to manage at times, and two months was too long of a stay, he said, especially around standardized testing season. He hopes next year, the school can take on groups of 10 to 12 students a month at a time and wrap up before testing begins.
The long-term goal, Maine said, is to send Challenger students to China. He and several teachers are headed there this fall to spend time with principals and teachers.
"We need more experiences engulfed in other cultures," he said.
Like the students, teachers and administrators over the past two months educated each other about the different cultures.
Maine said he noticed how far ahead academically the Chinese students were. Many already knew subjects such as physics, calculus and chemistry.
At the same time, Peter Qin, one of the teachers who came to the states, said he was surprised at the relaxed environment in American classrooms. In China, students are squeezing in as much class time as possible to prepare for high school, then college, entrance exams.
"The students here have more time to do what they like to do," he said.
Qin lived with the other Chinese teachers in a home owned by Challenger social studies teacher Chris King. The group became like a family, King said, including the student he took in named Heng Fu.
One of their last days together, his son, also named Chris, and a sixth-grader at Challenger, wrote a letter to Heng Fu.
At the end, he signed it, "Your brother, Chris."