So after our fun weekend in Dallas, we got to bed at a decent hour in preparation for the week ahead. On Monday after school, Janet went with one of my students, Charlotte, and Blake (my friend Melissa's daughter) to shop and have dinner while I went to a birthday dinner with some of my friends. The girls helped Janet pick out some shoes for our trip to NYC and then took her to eat fajitas, get ice cream and go to the park. Around 6:30, Blake brought Janet to me at the restaurant so all my friends could meet her. When I met Janet downstairs, she excitedly told me about a little girl she had met at the park named Mila. Mila was about the same age as Janet's sister, Leila, who passed away in January and Mila was Leila's middle name! Janet told me she thought meeting Mila at the park was a sign and a hello from her sister, and I told her I agreed.
Janet met my friends, and they loved her, of course. Several of them gave Janet gifts, which she loved, and they all contributed to the cost of sending back an extra suitcase to Fiji. Fiji Air is a great airline, but they are NOT messing around when it comes to charging to check an extra bag! We've gotten Janet so many fun things to take back to Fiji that a second bag is definitely going to be necessary, but worth it. I am so appreciative to these friends for their generosity to Janet and to helping me cover the cost of the extra bag.
After about 45 minutes with my friends, another group of my students came to pick Janet up so they could take her to a Young Life meeting. She got home around 9:00 and said she'd had a great time. AND she won one of the games and got a t-shirt for winning. We started packing for NYC a little and got to bed by 10:30 or so. I told her I trusted her to watch the clock and close the laptop at 10:30. I checked on her at 10:45 and she was asleep.
We had pizza for dinner with Cara and then went home to finish packing. I tried to get her to pack herself, but that concept was easier said than done. I've come to realize that decision making, even about pretty basic things, is something Americans take for granted. We have SO MANY options about everything we do...what we eat, what we wear, what we watch, where we go. We make hundreds of decisions each day without ever realizing what a privilege that is. Janet doesn't get to make decisions like that on a regular basis, so I helped her pack and tried to explain how to plan for/pack for a trip.
Wednesday was a pretty hectic day with me trying to teach and wrap up some things before the trip. My friend, Bobbie, came to school to get Janet around 10:00 and took her to a movie - her first! - and to lunch. She also rode the carousel at the mall, another first! She had a great time with Bobbie. She got back to school around 1:30 or so and went to play volleyball again. I rushed home right after my last class to grab our bags and Janet stayed in my classroom with some other students who were waiting to leave for NYC at 4:00. When I got back to school, Janet was full on, 100% asleep. Even with getting to bed at decent times, she's been tired from going NONstop, not to mention the mental stimulation she's getting every day. I woke her up around 3:45 and by 4:15, we were headed to the airport on a school bus with 45 other students. As soon as we got to the airport, she was hanging out with students, eating dinner with them, etc.. She likes me...but she likes being with my students even more! Totally understandable and what I expected. And that's pretty much how the NY trip went. I saw her, of course, but my sweet students totally took her in, ate with her, asked her to sit with them, walk with them, etc. I keep telling her it's like she's a celebrity and I'm her manager and I just arrange all her social events. I literally have started keeping all her "lunch dates" and after school activities in a separate color on my school calendar because everyone wants to spend time with her. I didn't expect any less of my awesome students, but it's been so impressive to watch how kind they've been to her.
We didn't get to our hotel in NYC until nearly 1:00 am, so everyone was exhausted. Janet was staying in a room with two freshmen girls I teach and she fell asleep quickly, as we all did. On our way to the hotel and throughout the trip, Janet looked at the skyline and the skyscrapers in amazement and said "wow!" or "whoa!" several times. We toured Columbia University and saw the room where the Pulitzers are voted on and announced, toured Madison Square Garden, saw the skyline from the top of the Roc, walked all though Central Park, strolled Fifth Ave, toured the NBC studios and got a wave from Kate McKinnon who was rehearsing an SNL skit, ate a lot of good food, shopped in China Town, rode the subway several times, went to the Today Show, walked WAY more than she or I have ever walked in one day (10.2 miles just on DAY ONE!), visited the WTC site and the 9/11 Museum and saw Kinky Boots on Broadway. I could write for days about specific events on the trip and Janet's reactions, but I'll touch on the highlights.
She got to "perform" on stage with a few of my other students at the Apollo theater. A few nights later, when we were back home, Live at the Apollo was on TV and I showed it to her, and she immediately recognized the stage.
She LOVED Kinky Boots. She said that was the best part of the trip. I tried to explain to her what a musical was before the show, but I don't think she really understood until it started. She sat next to me and I watched her more than I watched the show. She was enthralled. I am having trouble uploading video to the blog for some reason, but will try to post a video of her at the end of the musical on my Facebook page.
She also loved visiting St Patrick's Cathedral. She and I spent about 45 minutes there and she looked at every memorial area, every sculpture and statue, prayed several times and lit a candle in honor of Leila. She read most of the information placards and asked lots of questions and took a ton of pictures.
On Saturday morning, the group visited the 9/11 museum. The night before, I brought Janet to my room to ask her what she already knew about the event. Nothing. So I spent a little time trying to explain what happened and showed her some pictures. I didn't want her to go to the museum with no background at all. I checked with her mom to make sure it was okay for her to tour the museum, as I didn't want it to upset her so badly that she would then be scared to fly home. Illy assured me it would be okay and Janet said she wanted to see everything. I took her through the museum and explained everything we were seeing, although she seemed to understand it just fine on her own. I kept telling her that we could leave the exhibit any time she wanted to if/when she'd seen enough. After about 45 minutes, we got to a video that showed the towers collapsing. I watched her watch the video and knew she was done. I asked her again if she wanted to leave and she said she did. We went to the lobby and talked a little more. I saw her get tears in her eyes a few times in the exhibit, but I think overall, she handled it and took it all in very well.
After finishing at the museum, the group visited Chinatown, Soho and Little Italy. Janet ate pizza and gelato in Little Italy and got quite the eye-opening exposure to the city as she walked through ChinaTown. She told me she didn't like ChinaTown and that it "was scary." I'm sure there are plenty of people who would agree, but I was proud of her for navigating the city so well throughout the trip. I don't think she LOVED NYC overall, as it was just too much to take in, but I know she LOVED some of the specific experiences she had. I think there are plenty of Americans who would say the same about NYC.
We got back to Houston late Saturday night and went straight to bed. No request for the laptop at bedtime that night. We slept in on Sunday and then got up to go to lunch to meet Janet's namesake, Janet Pierson, and her daughter, Georgia. Janet and Georgia (along with Janet's husband, John and their son, Wyatt) lived in Fiji in the early 2000s and ran a free movie theater on Taveuni, where Janet lives. Janet Pierson and Janet's mom, Illy, became friends and Janet was named after Janet Pierson. Janet now runs the SXSW film festival in Austin, so she and Georgia drove over from Austin to see Janet. We had a great lunch and great conversation, and I know Janet was happy to see them again. She'd only met them one other time, last year, when the Pierson's went back to the village to visit. A documentary was made about the Pierson's experience in Fiji and Janet gave us a copy for Janet to take back to Fiji. The documentary, Reel Paradise, gives a good glimpse into what life is like in Janet's village, and her mom and dad and even Janet herself at six months old, are in the movie!
Janet's last week of school was pretty routine, but still busy! More students wanted to spend time with her after school, so we arranged all her lunch dates for the week. On Monday, my good friend and former photography teacher, Cathy, took Janet on a photo shoot and to dinner and swimming with some of her friends and their daughters. Janet had a great time and came home telling me how nice Cathy was to her. She took another 14,739 pictures. She's actually a pretty good photographer.
That night was the annual end-of-year yearbook banquet, which is always my favorite event of the year with my yearbook staff. Janet and I changed clothes and headed down to the banquet around 6:00. There were about 85 people at the banquet, and during my speech, I introduced Janet to the parents and thanked my staff for taking such an interest in Janet and taking her in as they did. She's told me several times that the best part of her visit overall is going to school and spending time with my students. I also mentioned in my speech that Janet has remarked that the clock "moves much faster" in the US than in Fiji and told them that we should all take a lesson from the Fijians and slow down a little. I've found myself telling Janet way too often that we have to hurry or we're running late or we don't have time to do something, and I can see the frustration on her face of always being in a hurry. I'd love for her to come back sometime when we could slow down the pace...but honestly, I'm not sure when that would ever be. Maybe when I retire??
Janet has mentioned a few times that she wants to stay here. I don't think she understands what that would truly involve and how much she would miss her family and her life at home. I've explained to her that it would not only be illegal for her to stay here past her visa expiration date but that I also couldn't take care of her the way I would need to with my crazy work schedule. She understands, but it still makes me sad to see her sad about leaving. I also know that she's homesick and misses her family and will be thrilled to see them.
Wednesday was Janet's last full day at school, as we were leaving to fly to LA on Thursday afternoon. I could see she was as little more somber than usual, realizing her trip was coming to an end. She went to Mary Reed's geography class for several periods and gave a short presentation about Fiji to the students. She ate lunch with girls from the soccer team, all of whom she adores. After school, we shopped for a while and got her a dress for her confirmation in July, a new backpack, several DVDs to take home and a few other gifts for her family. When we got home, we began the process of packing. And by "we," I mean I packed while Janet supervised. Ha! We've had so many clothes donated by students and have shopped so much that we had to pick and choose items to send to Fiji and items to leave here "until next time." We've tentatively agreed that Janet will return for Christmas in 2019, so she made the decision to leave some warm weather clothes here with me for that trip. Smart girl! We got her packed and then Janet cooked curry potatoes and pork and rice. It was delicious! She's a really good cook and has mentioned that she might like to go to culinary school after high school.
I spent several hours trying to do a factory reset on a first generation ipad that I wanted to give to Janet. I was finally able to get it all working, but it's so old that it won't really load any apps. Nevertheless, she was happy to have it and will use it for surfing the web and storing pictures. She watched some more Netflix and we were both asleep by 10:00. I realize it probably sounds like Janet is watching WAY too much TV/Netflix, but she loves seeing American movies...basically squeezing in as many as she can in her time here. She sees movies on DVD in Fiji, but to have access to so many options while she's been here has been one of her favorite things.
Thursday morning, we loaded up the car with Janet's two HUGE suitcases and my one backpack and headed to school. Lots of hugs and goodbyes and even some tears as she told all my students goodbye throughout the day. Several of my students gave her goodbye letters or small gifts. They are going to miss her as much as she will miss them. We left school and Ubered to the airport to head to LA...Janet finally seems to grasp the Uber concept, although I think she still finds it odd!
When we were boarding our flight, the flight attendant noticed Janet looking back into the cockpit and offered to let her look in. The pilot showed her the controls and let her sit in the captain's seat. She thought that was "super cool!" We landed in LA and arrived to our hotel in Venice around 5:00. The hotel was right on the beach, so we immediately hit the sand for a little while, walked and shopped and people watched (which is very entertaining and maybe a little bit frightening in Venice!) and then went to dinner with my former Editor in Chief, Holly Hepper, who lives and works in LA now. Janet ate...wait for it...pizza. Shocking! We went to get ice cream and Holly dropped us off at the hotel around 9:00. Janet laid down the second we walked in the door, fully dressed and was asleep in less than two minutes. I tried to wake her up to put on her pajamas, but she wasn't having it.
Janet slept in her clothes all night. Well, until 5:00 am when she popped up, turned on the bright overhead light and announced she needed to take a shower. So she did just that. At 5:15. A.M. As in, 5:00 in the morning. I was so pumped to be awake at 5:00 on a day I could've slept in! I convinced her to lay down for a little while longer after her shower, but by 9:00, we'd already been to CVS, walked the boardwalk, seen the canals and cool houses along the canals and returned to the hotel to pack up. We stored our bags at the hotel, had lunch and Ubered to Santa Monica where got a manicure and a 30 minute massage (again, her first!), ate fro-yo and shopped. As we were walking around Santa Monica, I dropped a letter I needed to mail in mailbox on the street. Janet asked me what it was and I told her it was a card I was sending to my nephew for his high school graduation.
She said, "and then?"
I said, "and then he's going to the Army."
She looked confused and again said,"and then?"
I said, "Well, then he'll be in the Army for a few years and..."
"NO!" she said. Pointing to the mailbox, she said "and then what happens to the letter?!"
I died laughing when I realized she was asking how that letter I'd just dropped into a random metal box on the street in California ended up at my nephew's house in Texas. As I explained it and told her it cost less than 50 cents for the service, she looked amazed. I just shook my head at yet another thing we take for granted.
At 4:00, we met my brother Rob and my niece and nephew, Bee and Henry, at the Santa Monica pier. To say Janet "liked" the pier would be equivalent to me saying I kinda like George Clooney. She basically spent all the spending money I'd give her for the day on arcade games. It took her about four tries to be fully convinced that the "Claw Machine" is a rip-off, she loved skee-ball as much as I do, and apparently, she should be playing softball. She started playing the game that involves getting points by throwing balls at the clown shaped bean bags to knock them over and accumulated 187 tickets in about 15 minutes. She was REALLY good at this game and kept saying "just one more time" at the end of every game. Mom, does that remind you of anyone??
After she'd spent all her money on arcade games, she cashed in $20 dollars worth of tickets for 87 cents worth of plastic prizes. But she was thrilled! We then moved on to riding rides, which was equally thrilling. She loved the roller coaster and the Green Dragon. My niece, Bee, looked green herself after the first round on the Green Dragon, but Janet somehow convinced her to ride it a second time. Janet didn't really like the ferris wheel after too long because it "didn't go fast enough." We left the pier by 5:30 or so and went to dinner. Janet ordered a caesar salad, chicken parm and fettuccine alfredo. Juuuusst kidding!! She ate pizza. And some of Bee's spaghetti. And plenty of lava cake and vanillas ice cream. After dinner, Rob and Bee and Henry dropped us at the airport for Janet's 11:30 pm flight.
What an incredible three weeks it's been - for Janet, for me, for my family and friends and students who have met her. Janet brings so much joy to everyone she meets and teaches all of us what's really important with her pure, innocent happiness. She's very intuitive - it's almost scary sometimes - and intelligent and quick-witted. I love how genuine and honest she is. If I ever REALLY want to know how I look in a certain outfit, I'm Facetiming Janet - she WILL tell me the truth! And I can't wait to see her again.
I am so appreciative to the many people who were so supportive and kind to Janet while she was here. And a huge thank you to my awesome principal, Lisa Weir, for allowing Janet to come to school with me and my always amazing mom for her financial help with this trip and for all she did for Janet.
Thank you to all of you of who kept up with our story and sent well wishes. "Bye! See you next Christmas!"