LINDEN, NJ — Speak with some of the Linden High School students who are set to travel to France next spring, as part of a two-way foreign exchange program, and you’ll find a common thread beyond a desire to climb the Eiffel Tower or appreciate a different way of life: They all remember what they were doing when terrorist attacks struck the heart of Paris on Friday, Nov. 13.
The shocking events came only a month after Linden students had hosted their French counterparts, or “Frenchies,” guiding them through the hallways of Linden High School and taking a group road trip to Washington, D.C.
“When it happened I was lying on the couch, half asleep, and I heard something on the TV — ‘something something France,’ and I immediately thought about my Frenchies. Then I saw the headlines: ‘attack,’ ‘terrorist attack in Paris.’ My heart just dropped to the ground,” said sophomore Karolina Budkiewicz, one of 28 Linden High School students slated to visit France. “The first thing I did was message in our group chat: ‘Frenchies, are you OK?’ They were all OK, but someone’s friend was somewhere and reality really hit you, this stuff really does happen. It doesn’t just affect people on TV.”
Many of Budkiewicz’s classmates had a similar reaction. After they gathered for an emergency meeting, keeping an eye on their phones for messages from their French friends, the Linden students were able to figure out that no one they knew was a victim of the attacks. They had been the deadliest acts of terrorism in Europe since 2004, with the death toll at 130 people.
But one French student’s father had been at the Bataclan concert hall on the night of the attacks, said Budkiewicz, when three heavily armed terrorists stormed the theater and arbitrarily killed 89 people and critically wounding another 99. The French student’s father did not get hurt, but the violence struck a personal chord with Linden students who, during an impromptu photo shoot just a month previously, watched as the “Frenchies” pretended to hold the Washington Monument in their hands.
“The bond that you form with them, you have to go through it to understand it. You can get so close with someone who lives thousands of miles away in two weeks. You have this feeling where this person is leaving and you don’t want to leave, and it breaks your heart, but at the same time you’re going to see them soon,” said senior Valentina Perdomo.
That’s why, she added, these attacks won’t deter the students from visiting France.
“We can’t let this hold us back,” she said. “That bond — we’re still waiting to go back there and reunite with them.”
That was a theme all of the students could agree on, including senior Danaika Desir, who’s previously taken trips to France that put her in the Bataclan, another site targeted in November. The actions of terrorists, the students said, shouldn’t stop them from staying with families in an another country, learning at a French high school, seeing the European Parliament and taking advantage of other opportunities they may never have again.
“When that happened I was really scared, but at the same time I was thinking ‘I’m still going to France,’” said Desir. “I will have the opportunity to go to France again in my life, but I won’t have the opportunity to do the exchange. I’m a senior, this is the last year I can do it and have that experience, of going to a high school in another country and have that connection with the people, like we did here.”
The students had already welcomed the “Frenchies” into Linden for the same reasons, and saw how fascinating their own day-to-day lives might be to people from other cultures. When the French students weren’t sprinting up the stairs at the Statue of Liberty, they found themselves enjoying the quirks of American life in comparison to their own.
“Walking through the school, my friend’s partner was saying it was like something out of a movie. It was all coming together, it was exactly what she thought American schools would be like,” said Budkiewicz. “I thought it was really funny, because I live in the high school life every day.”
At one point, Linden High School students invited the French students to play a game of basketball, and they were astounded by the size of the gymnasium.
On another occasion, the French students enthusiastically joined in with Linden cheerleaders. When they saw the cheerleaders at a football game “they acted like they were celebrities, they wanted to take their pictures and hold their pom poms,” said junior Leonard Torrijo.
Those are the kinds of experiences that Linden High School students hope to have in France, they said, albeit by looking at France from an American point of view rather than the other way around. They all felt an impact from the attacks in Paris, as did people from across the globe, they said, but don’t want to let the hateful actions of a few people shape their futures.
“This attack brought fear to everyone, but it happened. You can’t let that fear control your life, and stop you from doing what you want. Going to France has been my dream, or even going to Europe,” said Torrijo. “I’m not going to let this stop my dream.”