Haley Brown arrives at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls

There are times when I enjoy being the only one awake. When I sit alone, the wind wrapping its icy finger around my wrist and tugging me towards the faintly glistening stars. When I spontaneously shove some frozen food in the oven at two in the morning. Even when a mischievous pair of claws dig into my elbow and awaken me from what I’m sure would have been an extremely rewarding slumber. Now is not one of those times. I am surrounded by zombies; mouths agape and heads tilted backwards. I am much too excited to become one of them. I hurtle through the air at breakneck speeds.  I’m on a plane headed for the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. Well, actually, I’m headed to New York and then Johannesburg. I know that I should shut my eyes before I am at my destination and cursing myself for insufficient eyelid resting, but decide I may as well try and follow South Africa time. I really hope to make the most of my time there. No matter what.

I once read that nervousness and excitement can be treated as the same thing. Each one grips your insides until your gut crumbles to dust and blows away in the wind. Even as I sit in a school-driven car, engrossed in a completely different book, I can feel a calloused hand wrap its knobbed fingers around my insides, its thumb pressing tightly against my chest. My mind pretends to pay no notice, but I can tell that I am lying to myself. I choose to be exited, I tell myself. My palms grow damp in anticipation. I turn another page.

As we arrive, I am greeted by many unfamiliar faces, some of which I would come to recognize. With my mother there (as we had spent the week before travelling throughout South Africa), I feel as though I am forced to take the back seat. I am making the most of my time here, no matter what. I recognize some of the names from before-trip coordination, but most remain clouded in obscurity. The students are in class; these smiling faces are all adults. As we pull the silver tusks toward us, the geometrically-textured wooden door swings open to reveal cylindrical lamps adding a comfortable yellow tone to the open area. There are lightly-tinted brown couches on wooden floors and windows lined with woven and beaded basketry. Welcome to the reception hall. Welcome to OWLAG.

I want to do everything I can to make this place my home for the weeks to follow. This is what I think as I empty my bags and arrange the books on the shelf at the foot of my bed. I believe that a proper living area should start out organized and become more disorganized as time passes. “Can I borrow some tape?” I ask my roommate. Although Xu is an exchange student from King’s Academy in Jordan, she was born and spent her childhood in China. Her quiet and introverted manner overshadow her more social aspects. Like me, she speaks more as she grows more comfortable. Due to the time difference, she can talk to her friends and family during the day, and often does. Despite her distinct lack of interest in sports, she partakes in regular exercise. It is not an uncommon sight to see her go to the gym or on a run. The sentiment must have spread, like a spot of mold growing in a basket of fruit, as I, too, have engaged in more regular exercise. She hands me a roll of tape adorned with cute animals and objects; thin and delicate, it could be mistaken for paper, were it not purposed for sticking. I use it to attach a note from Mbali to the top shelf.

Although OWLAG (Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls) does not send students out for exchange, Mbali has been assigned as my exchange partner to help me feel more comfortable during my adjustment period. Mbali is organized and professional, so much so that she is often mistaken for a business student. However, she is also comfortable and casual, and easily helped me feel at home. She hopes to become a student of architecture. One glance into her living area highlights her otherwise hidden artistic ability. Various pictures and posters hang beside her bed, some printed and some hand-drawn. She is a social person and seems to know everybody. As she walks down the pathway to the dining hall, she will often briefly join conversations of the people passing by–and not in an awkward or uncomfortable manner.

Most students at OWLAG feel comfortable with one another, and will greet each other as they pass. The social atmosphere between the students is incredible, likely due to the residential aspect of the school. Even Khensani, who started out as quiet and withdrawn, has come out of her shell due to the social atmosphere. Khensani, or George, is Mbali’s roommate and Xu’s exchange partner. Although she retains her quiet demeanor, it seems to be an intentional quiet, as though she does not thirst for social interaction, but rather accepts it. She is kind, thoughtful, and intelligent. Despite the ongoing exams, she still found the time to bring over a few board games for Xu and me.

For some reason, I had always appreciated Thursdays. In middle school, Thursdays were the days where I had school, but little homework that I had to complete immediately. Bad things didn’t seem to infect Thursdays and liking that day became a habit for me. It was of no surprise to me, then, that my first Thursday at OWLAG was filled with likable classes such as Math and Zulu, as well as Physics (which includes Chemistry) and English. Although I spent most of Math trying to receive printing capabilities and ended up walking into the wrong classroom twice, my optimism knew no bounds. I spent my time in Zulu making a Quizlet set of random vocabulary words, and drastically failing to remember them. But I continued my unfettered excitement. During lunch, the students ate outside, playing active games and enjoying themselves. I was a little too busy eating lunch to join in, even though I felt like I should. As I pensively sipped my bagged guava juice, I shared a spot of conversation with Xu. And all was good with the world.

In English that afternoon, we took a brief assessment on listening comprehension. As I was completely unaccustomed to this sort of quiz, I ended up the only student who didn’t actually take notes. Oops. Before you say anything, I will have you know that I usually learn better without notes, and I believe I did better than I would have if I had taken notes. It was truly a lovely experience.

As the evening arrived, I felt a pang in my chest. But it was fine. I recognized the beginning of the second conflict, mental isolation. I was supposed to be well equipped for this. I wasn’t supposed to be missing home so soon. My friends would contact me exactly the same amount if I were home, I rationalized to myself. I probably feel better here than I would if I were in America. Even still, I went to bed with an unsatisfied feeling in my bones. I now realize that Thursday was just like any other day. When I approach the day with optimism, it became a “good” day. I didn’t allow myself to face any negative feelings I may have had. I let them settle restlessly in the back of my mind, instead of facing them and inevitably letting them go.

In the days before Friday, the entire school bustled with excitement, and a certain amount of disdain. This is because the school board was visiting–on the day before exams started. This meant that the students were required to wear their summer skirts instead of their usual winter khaki pants, sweater, and jacket. It also meant that the teachers had to teach a lesson instead of giving the students time to study for exams. A member of the board looked on as the Physics teacher performed an experiment where she asked the students about intermolecular forces. Afterwards, she blew something up. It was informative and helped keep the students engaged, but the part I will remember is the blowing-stuff-up bit. Despite my initial concern, I cannot say whether the arrival of the board was a help or a hindrance to the students. After all, the lessons were lovely. We spent a large part of the afternoon in a school-wide meeting with the board. This was mostly fascinating. Considering the upcoming exams, it was also a source of stress for the students.

Near the end of the meeting with the board, one of the students brought up a concern about balance in the life of the students. Mbali mentioned later that she felt this girl spoke what everyone else was thinking. It is only now that I grow to appreciate the ample breaks and study hours we are given as Athenian students. Although my exchange student, Hayley, from Australia had much less homework than we do, I am starting to explore a different story, where the students have the same amount of homework (or maybe a little less), but less time during the day to complete it. Xu’s school in Jordan has seven classes every day, with fifteen minutes for lunch, and she does extracurriculars until about seven, leaving little to no time for herself. Maybe our school is much more proficient at achieving balance than I previously thought.