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PAXTON — Wolf Burkhardt now knows why so many American kids go to bed around 10 p.m.
“It’s very different in Germany,” said Burkhardt, a foreign-exchange student staying with Deane and Cordelia Geiken in Paxton, “because in Germany we go to school from maybe 8 or 8:30 and we’re done by 3. And we don’t have as much homework or any extracurricular activities. But here, after school you still keep running — you’re at football or basketball practice, and then you have to do chores, and then homework.
“It makes me very tired.”
Burkhardt, a 16-year-old from Jena, Germany, is a junior at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School this year — and a busy one at that. He has joined PBL’s football team, despite never having played the game, and is registered to be a part of PBL’s chorus and band. An avid jazz fan, he hopes to learn the saxophone and try out for the school’s jazz band.
Outside of school, Burkhardt has a busy schedule lined up, as well. The Geikens, his host family, plan to take Burkhardt on various trips to events and national monuments, as well as keep him active with outdoors activities like shooting sports and camping — interests he shares with the Geikens.
It’s all part of the experience Burkhardt signed up for as a student in the Youth for Understanding program, which sends foreign students to America for a year of cultural immersion.
So for the next year, Burkhardt will be learning about everything from American history to American sports to American food — Just Hamburgers included.
“He’s trying everything,” Cordelia Geiken said.
Learning about American history and its wars particularly interests Burkhardt, who is a military and history enthusiast. Deane and Cordelia Geiken, who share the same interests, have already had discussions with their new house mate about important events in America’s past. Burkhardt has helped teach the Geikens about Germany’s history, too.
“We’ve had a few talks about stuff — about the German culture after World War II — and he’s taught me some things I didn’t know, and I think I’ve taught him a few things,” Deane Geiken said.
Burkhardt said he is excited to start learning about the Civil War and Vietnam War, in particular. He said that in Germany he was only taught about the colonizing of America by the British.
“The Civil War I’m interested in because I don’t learn so much at school about it. It was not the biggest topic at our school,” Burkhardt said. “The Vietnam War I’m interested in because I’m interested in the time, the ‘60s. I like the music. I see a lot of movies about it. And I’m interested in the Cold War, and this conflict was part of it.”
“I think part of (his interest in the Cold War era) comes from his parents growing up in Eastern Germany,” Deane Geiken said. “I think that his parents having grown up as Eastern Germans, being subjugated and growing up without many freedoms, I think they’ve probably brought that interest to him. And Vietnam was the one big hot war during the Cold War.”
“The fact that his parents grew up in East Germany and now their son is able to travel freely to America for a year, that’s pretty amazing, if you really think about it,” added Cordelia Geiken.
The Geikens plan to give Burkhardt a more in-depth look at American history throughout the year. They plan to take Burkhardt to Washington, D.C., during spring break next year, then stop by Gettysburg. A trip to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield is also on the agenda.
Burkhardt also will get a chance to go to a Revolutionary War re-enactment with the Geikens, who are Revolutionary War re-enactors. He also will attend events on Sept. 11, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, as well as possibly participate in the annual Salute to Veterans Concert at PBL High School as a member of PBL’s band.
Already, Burkhardt has noticed differences in the respect paid to soldiers in the U.S. and in Germany.
“Our German soldiers today are not so respected like the American soldiers,” Burkhardt said, noting he sees American flags being flown outside homes throughout Paxton, whereas in Germany, he said, people do not fly the German flag like that.
“I think he’ll get a real good sense (of America’s pride in its military while here),” Deane Geiken said.
In Burkhardt’s brief time here — he arrived in the U.S. on Aug. 2 — he got a chance to shoot a gun for the first time. The Geikens took Burkhardt to shoot at Deane’s mother’s home in Claytonville in southern Iroquois County.
“It’s awesome,” Burkhardt said. “I love it.”
Burkhardt said that in Germany, guns are not allowed to be owned by private citizens unless they have special permits for hunting or participate in competitive shooting events. Guns cannot be kept in one’s house, either.
Another first for Burkhardt will come later this month, when he will attend a national gaming convention with the Geikens — an event that should be a real eye-opener for Burkhardt, a fan of such games as Halo and Call of Duty.
Burkhardt won’t be leaving Paxton without acquiring a new love of American food and beverages, of course. Burkhardt’s first American meal was a hamburger at Just Hamburgers.
“I love it. Much better than the fast food in Germany,” he said.
Burkhardt also “fell in love with Mountain Dew” and other soda pops in the past couple of weeks. He had never had Mountain Dew before.
“His first day here, I think he drank 10 cases of Mountain Dew,” Cordelia Geiken said.
Burkhardt said he cannot wait to start playing football — a sport he is quite unfamiliar with. In Germany, he was involved in a kung fu club, but no other sport.
“I know nothing about football,” Burkhardt said. “I watched the Super Bowl only one time, and the only position I know is running back. Some people say to me that the running back is the guy who has to run to the goal. I’m a good runner; I can run fast, so that’s why I know the position of running back.”
Burkhardt, who is from a city of about 100,000 people, said the small-town atmosphere has taken some getting used to. But he loves it.
“It’s new to me, but I like it a lot, because the community is so close here,” he said.
“I think he’s come to realize that there’s nowhere in this town you can go without stopping and talking (to someone),” Cordelia Geiken said. “Every place we’ve gone, he’s like, ‘You know everyone!’”
Deane Geiken said Burkhardt’s enthusiasm for everything he sees in America has opened Deane’s eyes.
“Everything he’s doing is stuff we do normally, whether it be going to the drive-in movie theater (in Gibson City) or having a hamburger at Just Hamburgers,” Deane Geiken said. “All those things he’s seeing, seeing them through his expression and his eyes makes me appreciate all those things we normally do here. You hear a lot of people complain about small towns and that there’s nothing to do ... but there really is.”
The Geikens decided to host a foreign exchange student earlier this spring and signed up through the Youth for Understanding website. They had never hosted a foreign exchange student.
Burkhardt is among about 50 foreign exchange students staying in the U.S. this year through the Youth for Understanding program. PBL had for YFU students last school year, three from Germany.
The Geikens hope to visit Germany — for the first time — and visit Burkhardt upon his return there next summer.