It’s not uncommon for children to go to the same school that their parents attended.
But not many fly by themselves at age 5 from Paris to Fredericksburg to do so—if only for a couple of weeks.
Thanks to an amazing set of coincidences, that’s just what happened for a little girl with long dark hair named Sasha Muirheid.
Sasha is the daughter of Ben Muirheid, who grew up in Fredericksburg and graduated from James Monroe High School in 1990. He and his wife, Sania, live in Paris and have been sending Sasha’s older brother Gabriel, 9, to spend summers with his aunt and uncle, Liz and Chip Sudduth of Fredericksburg, since Gabriel was 6 so he could improve his English and absorb American culture.
They were interested in giving Sasha a similar experience.
“Personally, we want our kids to have both cultures,” Ben Muirheid said from Paris. “It’s very advantageous for them to see the mindset over there. They get the best of both worlds.”
As fate would have it, Hugh Mercer Elementary Principal Marjorie Tankersley, who was Liz Sudduth’s roommate at Mary Washington College, took a trip to Paris last October and stayed at the Paris pied-à-terre of Aude Mann, who teaches French at the school. Tankersley wanted to see Muirheid, whom she’s known since he was little, and his family, and called Sudduth to get their new address. It turned out to be just a few blocks away.
“Paris is a big city,” Sudduth said. “What are the chances it would be that close?”
Over dinner, Tankersley asked if there was any way that Sasha could come to Fredericksburg for a few weeks. She thought it would not only be helpful for Sasha, but also students at Hugh Mercer. The elementary school introduces students to French beginning in kindergarten as one of its requirements as an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program candidate school, and it has labels in both French and English posted on windows, doors and other items around the building.
Tankersley said that she also thought it would be helpful for students to get to know someone their age from another country, and see how similar they are.
The Muirheids checked their calendar, and decided to send her over spring break. École Maternelle Faid’herbe, where Sasha is in “grande section maternelle” as kindergarten is called there, gives students two weeks off. Sasha’s school gave her additional time off so she could stay with the Sudduths for a total of three weeks. That gave her a week to get over jet lag, and get used to living in a new country before going to a strange school part time as a visitor for two weeks.
As everything fell into place, Sudduth decided to send Tankersley a photo of Sasha, so she could give it to the teacher of the kindergarten class her great-niece would be attending.
“An hour later, the phone rings and I hear Margie say, ‘You won’t believe what’s happened,’ and I hear laughter,” Sudduth said. “She says, ‘You know I have 16 kindergarten teachers. Out of those 16, it’s Megan Beaulieu.”
“Oh, don’t tell me!” Sudduth replied. “I taught her in the third grade. This is like all these things were out there in the universe and coming together.”
Sudduth, who taught at Grafton Elementary School in Stafford County for 35 years, had kept in touch with Beaulieu over the years. She offered to volunteer in her former student’s classroom so the kindergartners would be used to her before Sasha arrived. Beaulieu and her students also FaceTimed with Sasha so they’d get to know each other in advance, and Sasha got all her future classmates’ photos so she’d know their names.
“We wanted this to be a meaningful experience, and constructive for her,” said Sudduth.
Sasha wanted to visit Fredericksburg because her brother had, and she’d gotten to know their great-aunt and great-uncle through conversations using FaceTime, and their visits to Paris. That gave her the courage to fly across the Atlantic by herself on Air France, which has a Kids Solo service, said Sudduth.
Mann, whose mother was French just like Muirheid’s, and knew him when he lived in Fredericksburg, also helped pave the way for Sasha by visiting the Muirheids in Paris a few weeks before the trip. She gave Sasha a Washington Capitals cap and a Final Four T-shirt, since Muirheid’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, recently clinched the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Championship.
When Sasha got off her flight at Dulles Airport, she came running to the Sudduths with outstretched arms. They provided her first taste of America—pizza and a Coke, and arranged play dates for her with neighbors’ children, said Sudduth.
Sasha told everyone that she wanted to visit Fredericksburg so she could learn to speak English better. Sudduth said that she had trouble at first coaxing her grandniece to speak it, but she switched to just using English last weekend.
“In my opinion, she has been making great progress in English over the last few weeks (leaps and bounds actually)—thanks to the intensive learning experience at home with Liz and Chip, and her time at Hugh Mercer, Muirheid wrote in an email. “She’s been having a ball, and loves the challenge of making herself understood in English despite her accent! The ‘can-do’ mentality she’s learning there is also precious above and beyond the language skills.”
Beaulieu said it was easy to include Sasha in her classroom because she already has four students from other countries who are learning English as a second language.
“She’s learning like other students with limited English,” she said. “We use lots of visuals.”
Beaulieu was reading “Diary of a Spider” to the class last Thursday when she seamlessly incorporated French into the lesson by asking Sasha to pronounce the Latin name for spiders, arachnids, in her native language.
“Araignée,” Sasha said.
“I can’t say it as beautifully as you,” the teacher replied.
Sasha, who said she’s liked the class, flies home Monday, but her connection to Hugh Mercer is likely to continue. Beaulieu said that she’ll be teaching the same students next year when they’re in first grade, and would like for them to become pen pals with her. And Muirheid said that his daughter, who turns 6 later this month, will definitely share her experience when she returns to École Maternelle Faid’herbe.
“Parisian schools,” he said, “are increasingly looking to new types of exchange programs abroad for younger children.”