We actually started our travel at 3 a.m. here in Europe — 9 p.m. West Michigan time, the time you were all watching fireworks celebrating our Independence Day.
But we aren’t doing this leg of the travel alone.
These past 12 days, our family has been traveling six countries (Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria) with 70 Spring Lake Lakers — students, parents and chaperones. It’s been the best possible way to transition from our family’s life-changing time in the Netherlands: to be part of a life-changing trip for so many others.
We have toured the final remnants of the Berlin Wall to discuss oppression during Communist regimes. We have seen castles to dream of life in kingdoms long ago. We have spray-painted John Lennon’s Wall to state our own vision of love. Together, we toured the solemn ground at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau to remember the horrors which are possible among the human race.
Every moment of this Eastern Europe tour has been filled with educational opportunity, of learning from the very place where history happened. It doesn’t take long to feel the student impact; I only needed to eavesdrop on their bus conversations pulling away from these places: “I didn’t realize how far West Berlin was inside East Germany until I got here.” “Can you imagine the food you’d get if you lived here back in the day?” “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.” And, “Being here reminds me that I need to be good to all people.”
I tell students all the time, even as an English teacher, that reading is the second best way to learn. The best? By getting out and experiencing the world for what it has to offer. We’ve been doing just that on this epic journey.
Of course, we Theune family of five have been doing the same. For six months, we’ve been in the world of experience: different school structures, different friends, different ways of life. Because of it, we have learned at rapid pace.
As of publication, I will have been on Spring Lake ground for three days and I’ll have a lot to share on educational systems and classroom practicalities, on food and culture, on our family growth.
But this educational tour is the perfect end to our personal trip by giving the gift of travel to so many students.
Additionally, by watching these students engage in their own European experience, I’m reminded that the best way to re-enter the Tri-Cities is to engage in it, to experience it anew for ourselves.
For weeks now, my family has discussed which foods we missed the most, which wooded trails we need to see again. Of course, we can’t wait to check in with our families and friends and colleagues who have supported us so much over the months. Life has continued for all of us. I look forward to bonfires, time on the beach, walks in the woods.
Going home is going to be hard, but these students on this trip have reminded me of where my passion is — with experiencing, with learning, with teaching.
But — as it has done time and time and time again — my hometown stepped up. Through this Eastern European tour, these students, parents, colleagues and friends have unknowingly come to Europe to ease the transition back home, to remind us that everything is going to be just fine.
About the writer: Spring Lake High School teacher David Theune received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Through the grant, Theune and his family spent five months living in the Netherlands and writing about his adventure for the Tribune.