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Student gets new outlook on America

I've grown so fond of Mireia Agelet Cusine that it will be hard to say goodbye when she returns to Spain next week. It's almost a year since she came to Florida as an exchange student to finish her senior year at Springstead High School. Her host family is our son, Steve, his wife, Barbara, and their four children, age 8 to 13. I was amazed at how quickly Mireia adapted to such a busy household in a foreign country where everything was new to her. In no time at all, Steve and Barbara became "Mom" and "Dad," and Bill and I were "Grandpa" and "Grandma." She was part of the family, and celebrated all the holidays and birthdays with us.

I have waited all this time to write about her because I wanted to hear Mireia's impressions of education in America after she graduated. I knew she would give me an honest answer, because early on I realized this youngster has an integrity about her that is unusual in a 17-year-old.

To be honest, I hoped she would arrive at a different conclusion than other exchange students. It was not to be.

"American schools are so easy," she said. "I think the reflection of how good a school is in America comes from how many football games they win. Straight A's don't seem to count as much."

It hurt. I'm of the generation that was used to hearing America had the best of everything. Still, I had to admit there was a lot of truth to what Mireia was saying.

I think of all the budget cuts chopping away at English, history, math and language courses, and all the reminders of less money for teachers and smaller classes.

A picture flashed through my mind of American kids having a great old time, whooping it up at basketball and football games while the rest of the world directs students' energies toward the serious business of education.

I think the great American need to win is being satisfied in the sports arena, not in the classroom. I wonder how long we can compete and win in the world market when our schools turn out under-educated students.

This is not to say that Mireia hasn't loved sports, the high school prom, and all the parties and dances. She's still a kid. She also is a terrific swimmer, and won her letter in competition with others on the swimming teams. When Barbara and Steve gave her the Springstead High School jacket for Christmas, Mireia was as proud as any youngster on campus.

Mireia thinks Americans are open and warm compared to people she has met in her travels to France and England. She wishes, however, that more of us were familiar with lifestyles in other countries.

She tells the story of her friend who came from Spain to a host family in Florida. "Now, this is a VCR, dear," the mother explained as she showed the student around the house. Mireia's friend said the mother must have thought Spain was a backward country.

"We have VCRs everywhere in Barcelona," Mireia said. She has strong feelings about not judging people in other countries until you have learned more about them, and she's glad she came to the United States. "When people talk about America now, I will know something about it myself."

When her parents and two brothers greet her at the airport, I think they will notice a change in Mireia. She was outgoing and friendly when she came, but I think she is more confident than before. It's easier for her to hug her American mom and dad, grandma and grandpa.

Our grandchildren also have been changed. They never will think of Spain without thinking of Mireia and the joy she brought into our lives.