6th grade teacher Carter Latendresse reflects on his Fulbright in Turkey

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By Carter Latendresse, 6th grade language arts teacher

I began thinking about the phrase “defining moments” in high school. It was probably in Mr. Boarda’s senior English class, where we middle class suburban teenagers read utopian and dystopian novels, then often found ourselves discussing powerlessness, power structures, and the inchoate future. My friends and I did not feel in control of our lives, so the notion that fate or, more alluringly, our own life choices would land us one day in urgent situations of our own design was quite seductive. We, at any rate, were anxiously sailing toward colleges, some of us sprinting excitedly from our childhood homes, yearning for circumstances that felt like destiny: inevitable, emboldening, unforgettable—circumstances that might usher in the callings we had heard we might soon feel.

A short time later, I, like many others, spent some not very memorable but fairly impassioned moments in college seeking these defining moments. Mostly I was forcing the issue with a lot of heat but not much light, and when periodic lulls arrived when I might reflect, I found myself dizzy with sensation and experiences but without real take-away conclusions that lent more clarity to my future. I was having fun in many new experiences, to be sure, but I wasn’t learning enough about myself to satisfy that gnawing feeling of anxiety within. What I most fervently wanted was to get in step with the great dance of life and to know my place in that dance; but the music was too fast or my steps just behind where they needed to be. I couldn’t really make out the whole melody either; it was only isolated, periodic notes that occasionally became audible. My life’s soundtrack at twenty sounded like Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat”—disarming squawks and sudden wails over exhilarating, pulsing syncopation.

After graduate school, I knew that I loved travel, reading, teaching, and learning, so I applied for the Peace Corps in 1992. I was accepted and was months from departure to teach university English in a Bulgarian university when I met my future wife, who, unfortunately, was not slated to go to Bulgaria. Alas, how many really are? I altered my plan and stayed in San Francisco with her, and we promised each other that we’d live and work together overseas one day. Although I didn’t realize it then, these heady, romantic months were definitely defining in the sense that my future was falling into lines like dominos.

Fast-forward twelve years to Istanbul, Turkey, where my wife, two children, and I were with the Fulbright teacher exchange program. From its website, one can read that the Fulbright program was “established in 1946… [with the aim] to increase mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and other countries, through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills.” The program is “sponsored by the United States Department of State, [and] provides funding for students, scholars, and professionals to undertake graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and teaching in elementary, and secondary schools.” Citizens of the USA go abroad for this experience while citizens of other countries live in the USA for one year. The program is akin to the Peace Corps, although that program is for two years and includes other professionals who are not teachers. The Fulbright program is for a single year and for teachers only.

I was overjoyed to finally be overseas, particularly because I had been lucky enough to land in both the country I had most wanted, Turkey, and in its greatest city, Istanbul. Looking back from today, an immediate and overwhelming feeling of gratitude floods my memory. I have elsewhere described the amazement that an American living in Istanbul might feel (see my article “Talking Turkey,” also on this website). The vast majority of our time in Turkey was enlightening, comfortable, and intellectually rewarding. There were also, of course, days more mundane and frustrating. Chores, after all, need doing, even during a year abroad—the children need bathing, the floor needs sweeping, and the paperwork to two governments needs to be turned in punctually and correctly.

Cutting to the chase: I’m thinking of a chilly February 2005 night in Istanbul that was anything but typical. My wife’s brother was visiting us at our flat in Ortaköy, and after dinner he and she decided to go for a walk. My son, Henry, who was six at the time, and my daughter, Emma, who was three, were going to remain home with me as I did the dishes and cleaned up. Henry was saying he really wanted to go on the walk, but it was a school night, and we had the bath, the homework, and the reading to do, so we redirected him toward his cursive worksheet. I went into the kitchen to clean up, while Emma stayed to draw with Henry at the table in the other room.

Five minutes later, I dried my hands, clicked off my iPod, and went to join the kids. Emma was there, but Henry wasn’t. He had gotten through not even two of his five lines on the paper. The upper case “I” line was done, but the lower case “i" line was abandoned midway. I checked his bedroom, then the bathroom. Empty. My pulse beginning to race, I went back to the table and asked Emma where Henry was.“He left,” was her reply.This was the first and only time he’d left our flat without an adult chaperone. Parents know that most kids fall somewhere between rule-follower and boundary-pusher. Henry was definitely rooted in the first camp, so this was an unexpected development. I dashed into the fluorescent-lit hallway, scanning the first-floor apartment building left and right. No sign of him. Quickly, I descended the nearby stairs into the basement rec-room where we often played pool or ping pong. Not there either. I ran back upstairs, grabbed my cell phone and called Kate, an English woman who lived upstairs on the fifth floor with her Turkish husband, Egemen, and their son, Oliver. Our families had become fast friends that year, and we had shared many meals and play dates together. I hurriedly asked Kate if Henry had taken the elevator up to their place, as we had done many times together. Sensing the panic in my voice, I could hear her gasp and then the quickening sounds of jostling as she made her way to her door to check the fifth floor landing. He wasn’t there either, she reported.I grabbed Emma and left the door open, on the off chance that Henry was somewhere else in the building and would return soon.

Parents who have lost their children in public places—supermarkets, fairs, ball games—know that terrifying thump that begins in the belly, rises quickly up the throat, and engulfs the head. A Blazer game would be bad enough, but here was my boy scampering loose in a foreign city of fifteen million where he didn’t speak the language. I felt myself carried by adrenaline, a sickening heart thud without a body, as though I were floating above and watching myself. I found myself jogging down the hallway with my young daughter bobbing in the crook of my right forearm, locked above my hip.
I was out the heavy iron-wrought building door, past the pool—which my rising paranoia insisted I check—and then out to the guard box by the entrance to the building. There, the apartment complex guard, Uğur, greeted me with his customary nod. He  must have seen the urgency smeared across my face, for he abruptly stood up from his stool in his 5’ x 5’ roofed shed, holding his walkie-talkie.
“Merhaba. Nerede oğlum? [Hello, where’s my son?]” I blurted in broken Turkish, imploring him for directions to my son. I was almost sorry for Uğur, because he threw himself quickly from his shed and stumbled before Emma and me, clearly alarmed. “Yellow baby up hill,” he said, pointing up our street, Dereboyu Caddesi. We knew what the other meant: I had lost my blond haired boy, who let himself out of the apartment complex gate alone and walked up the hill. Uğur had let Henry walk on by without question. Language barriers kept us both from seeking understanding, and we both felt at fault here.

I knew that Uğur probably felt this moment as not only a professional lapse, but a personal one also, as Turks are very family-based. Many adult children still live with parents, and, at times, even with grandparents. Young children are cherished there. We often had cooing grandmothers who spoke no English take my daughter from my arms on public buses and pass her down the aisle. “Oy, oy, oy,” I could hear the women dote as they pinched her cheeks or kissed her forehead somewhere at the back of the bus where I couldn’t see. My son, being taller and heavier, was not often hoisted up, but he also received many pinches, pieces of candy, and requests for photos from strangers like the ones below.

I could hear Uğur on his walkie-talkie as I began tearing up the pothole-lined sidewalk. He was calling his colleagues, the other guard men who worked in the apartment complexes lining our street. It did not even occur to me that I wasn’t wearing shoes until I was half-up the half-mile long street and stubbed my toe badly on some stone. Not wearing shoes on city streets is unwise in Istanbul, as the rubble, rebar, and broken glass are in constant competition with the daily labors of men and women who hose and sweep those streets twice daily. Bending down suddenly to look at the blood dripping down my big toe, I also first noticed the 45-degree temperature and the fact that I had forgotten a jacket.

Lifting Emma again, I squinted frantically into the falling twilight, bellowing for my boy, “Henry! Henry!” I continued my run up the hill, my daughter oddly silent, bouncing wildly in my right arm. A half-mile away, at the top of the hill by Ulus Park we breathlessly came upon the familiar face of the roasted chestnut vendor, Hakan. He stood to greet me as he always did. He loved my children, ever since they had presented him with hand-drawn pictures of Santa Claus standing next to the Ortaköy mosque at Christmas time. We often would visit Hakan on winter nights, especially after dinner, so our arrival was not uncommon. Normally, he and I would given each other the traditional Turkish double cheek kiss, and he would raise each of my children up to pinch their cheeks and give them free freshly roasted chestnuts. Despite the fact that my Turkish was nearly as limited as his English, he knew by my body language and facial expression that something was wrong.

“Problem, arkadaş [friends]?” he asked. As soon as I began explaining in English, I could not hold my tears back. “Henry! Have you seen Henry?” I blubbered. His eyes went wide in terror as he recognized my son’s name, and he began berating himself in Turkish as he quickly scurried around the corner behind him to the right down Ahmet Adnan Saygun Street that led down to the bridge and freeway. He returned after a minute, striking his own forehead with two balled up fists. His eyes were misty with tears, his face screwed up, the picture of anguish.

It is an uncommon event in the USA to have men show public displays of affection, dismay, or joy. Not so in many other countries—one of the things that I love about Turkey. Still, this was different. This was the fear I was feeling made manifest, as though I were looking in a mirror. I managed to make out over the next few minutes that Henry had indeed passed by Hakan ten or so minutes before, but Hakan had not stopped him, as he thought he was with my wife and brother-in-law, who has apparently passed just that way the minute before that. Hakan held up two fingers, motioning me to sit on his stool and wait. He again tore off down the road.

I couldn’t look at my daughter’s face. I hugged her too tightly, probably, and kissed her over and over on top of her head.
Then it occurred to me to call my Fulbright mentor, Selim Tokul, the teacher at my Turkish home school, MEF Okullari, who had volunteered to help my family and me with whatever we needed during our year in Turkey. He had already taken us shopping, on the ferry, to the movies, to the befuddling downtown post office. He had helped me set up internet service in our apartment and had arranged a cheap stay for us in Cappadocia. Emma adored Selim and he, her. A photo of them plus two other Turkish friends follows:

Allah smiled on me that night, as Selim was working late just down the road at school. He got my phone call just as he was pulling off campus. Emma and I saw his white Volkswagen roar up to us two minutes later.

Emma leapt out of my arms and ran to him, hugging him tightly as he stepped out of his car, expecting him to make everything all right. From that moment on, the events of the evening seemed to be in hyper drive, bearing down on me too quickly to process. We were terrified and the future was stampeding us.

Hakan huffed up to us just then from down the street and explained rapidly in Turkish to Selim the situation. Selim took out his phone and called the Turkish police station in that area. Once off the phone, he advised me to call the American Consulate in Istanbul for help, which I did. They in turn alerted the Ortaköy police for a second time of the missing boy. Hakan asked to use Selim’s phone, and he called a cousin of his who drove a cab down the street at one of the stands.

Then another guard from a nearby apartment complex arrived running, explaining that Uğur from down the hill had radioed him (were they all on the same frequency? I wondered) to report Henry missing. I remember noting how all the Turks were running—not walking—and how a vast network of manpower seemed to be expanding with each passing moment. Each man jolted upright when spoken to; they quickly went to their walkie-talkies; they were not afraid to ask for help, and they seemed to know immediately whom to call. I felt rather like a lost child myself, watching this team of firmly gesticulating Turks in action. I was struck with how urgent the manner of all these people were—as though it were truly their own sons in jeopardy. I was reminded again that this country really does love its kids, that family is at the heart of who they are, and that the Golden Rule was first articulated on the planet very near there.

The new guard pointed down the hill, telling Selim that he had just spoken to Uğur, and that he had learned something about a man, a dog, and a blond haired boy just down around the corner. We all thrilled with this new discovery.

Hakan abandoned his modest livelihood—his stool, his sterno burner, and his tin of nuts—and he jumped into Selim’s passenger’s side front seat as Emma and I fell into the back. We sped past Ulus Park and down Ahmet Adnan Saygun Street, heading toward one of the modern suspension bridges spanning the Bosphorus, a dark no man’s land down there.

Selim gunned his motor over the crest, accelerating as he rolled up on each pedestrian out for a nightly walk. Night was now falling around our headlights, and I wished there were more than just a few street lamps to illuminate the sidewalks. Despite the relief I felt to be armed with new reconnaissance and to be moving now with a direction, I also remember feeling this was now at least a mile from our apartment, that my six-year-old couldn’t have come this far in so short a time.

Just then a taxi veered into our lane, threatening a head-on collision with Selim, its lights flashing high-beam to low-beam. Selim cursed loudly in Turkish and braked quickly to the right curbside. Then Hakan shouted and Selim shouted and the taxi driver over to us as Hakan recognized his cousin, who was pointing down the hill. Then all ten eyes flew downhill where we saw fifty yards ahead by a glass bus stop our young boy ahead, holding the hand of a middle-aged Turk walking slowly down the sidewalk.

Emma squealed excitedly, and when we screeched to a stop, my daughter and I both exploded in a teary relief, bolting from the car to kneel at Henry, to examine him for signs of trauma. After our hour of horror, Henry had happily greeted me with “Hi, Daddy!” He was the picture of health and happiness, unphased by the emergency that had swallowed several others in our community.

The man with Henry, Mustafa by name (Ataturk’s first name, appropriately enough), explained in Turkish to Selim and Hakan that Henry had walked into his yard up by the park and that his dog had made toward Henry. Selim translated all this quickly as Emma and I held Henry. At the last moment, Mustafa had grabbed the protecting hound, and then began trying to walk my son home. Henry was turned around and lost and was directing Mustafa the wrong way, down the wrong street.

Then Hakan did something I will never forget: he let me stand from my son, then quickly approached me, grabbed me gruffly by the head near the ears, drew me to him, and kissed me roughly on the left cheek. Tears were in his eyes as he looked deeply into mine. I left my hands on his shoulders as acceptance of the apology he felt he needed to make, even though the fault was all mine.

“Thank you,” I told him, then Mustafa, then Selim. I shook all their hands, not knowing how to thank them, knowing that no words—whether in English or Turkish—were enough, only that I wanted the simple touch of my hand in theirs to show them that sometimes what we cherish most in life is that touch of hands, no matter the color of the skin or homeland that shapes them. My hands were shaking, I remember, and each steadied me.

Those men became my Turkish brothers, the countrymen of my heart, that night. Here I was, half a world away from the U.S., feeling more at home and more nurtured than I ever felt out in public while back in San Francisco. I remember thinking later that night how lucky we were that Henry got lost in Istanbul, not in Los Angeles or New York. I was surprised by this feeling that the citizens of the great cities in my home country truly seemed foreign to me.

My memory of that night ends there, but that moment when Hakan kissed me—my relief and my joy being his own—has returned to me now that I have the opportunity to act as mentor to Nagme Karamustafaoglu, a Fulbright Turkish mathematics teacher here for one year. Since she arrived in Portland two weeks ago, not a day has gone by when I don’t note that the Turks gave me back the son I had thought I’d lost, and for that my debt to them cannot be completely repaid.

That night in February four years ago also did something else for me, I realized only months later. That horrifying hour in Istanbul was, in fact, a defining moment in my life in that it helped to redefine me as a father, an American, a man, and as a human being. Because of that night, I am now more eager to pitch in and give back than I was before I went to Turkey. The Turks changed me, made me a better person, clearer in my priorities, less selfish, less cynical and less shy, and, ironically, less fearful. I now also often note that the people passing me on Northwest sidewalks may have just lost their most cherished someone or something. Today I assume that someone near me might need my help as I needed the help of those five men years ago.

Time and habit had convinced me, erroneously, in the nineteen intervening years between high school and the Fulbright year abroad that I was more in control of my life than I was when I first heard the term “defining moment.” I had fallen into predictable patterns and known rituals. That night I saw that if I could lose my son to a nightmare in five minutes, that the illusion of control is just that: a false buttress against the worst fear that we all faced that night.

Hakan, Selim, Uğur, Mustafa, and Hakan’s cousin the taxi driver taught me that control is not what matters—even if it were truly possible—but those magic moments when one’s heart is enlarged enough to feel the pleasures and pains of one’s countrymen and women. I learned that horrible, lovely night that the world is our country; and that it is our relationships that define us, not our lonely pursuits after trophies or memories. Fame and fortune don’t stack up to the clasp of loved ones. Fear, I also saw, can be banished when we truly give ourselves to those who need our help.

I now embrace this wonderful opportunity to be Nagme’s Fulbright mentor—in part to say thank you for my son and in part to keep allowing myself to grow in the ways that began in Turkey. It occurs to me occasionally these days that I was reborn, fittingly, in what some call the cradle of civilization. I also see that global education and international service are invaluable means to reexamine oneself and to realign oneself to one’s ethical compass. Fundamental questions arise when joining hands with foreigners: who am I and whom am I for? what am I and what am I for? We find that most of us love our children and that we all need help at times. It’s really not that complicated; politics and fear obfuscate the fact that our hearts are all usually attuned to the same nearly inaudible song that fills our hearts and spins the planets. I finally heard the song when Turkey gave me what I most value, what I most love. Giving back as a Fulbright mentor will be all my pleasure, the dance for which I’ve been waiting decades.

Here is a photograph of Henry on the lap of a woman I did not know at Topkapi Palace. I can’t use the word “stranger,” as our roots are common now, and it does not apply.