We Choose Cheverly: Meet Your Neighbor: Claire Flintoff

Claire

So excited for you all to read this lovely article about a 23 year old who has grown up in Cheverly. Heather Morton is our guest blogger for We Choose Cheverly and I’ve included a bio of her below. I know you all will enjoy this well written piece. Thanks to both Heather and Claire for sharing with us! Lisa 

When my neighbor Claire comes over to babysit, we only speak German in front of my kids. This is not a problem for Claire who, at the tender age of 23, has mastered three foreign languages. (She might take issue with the word “mastered,” but only because she’s modest).

By contrast, I—at the ripe old age of 40, having recently returned from living in Berlin—stumble and stammer and slaughter the not-so-romantic language of Romantic poets and philosophers. Chalk it up to old age or Mommy Brain or sheer lack of will.

Luckily Claire is patient. We persevere auf Deutsch. We agree this little charade is helpful for my kids, who, despite having spent most of their short lives in Germany, will revert to English if permitted. They must think their neighbor, who grew up in the house across the street, can’t speak any English.

We may just have them fooled; two out of the three, at least.

Claire grew up in Cheverly and attended the Robert Goddard French Immersion School in Greenbelt, graduating eighth grade with fluent French and pretty decent Russian as well (she was required to take it in middle school).

Following her freshman year at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt (2007-08), she received a prestigious AFS Congress-Bundestag Scholarship to study in Brandenburg, a small town in former East Germany. (Our paths briefly crossed there when I moved to Berlin with my husband and children in 2008).

The problem was that Claire didn’t speak a lick of German. And all her classes in her public school were in that glorious and troublesome language. Still, she managed. She told me she had no choice: the director of the science and tech program at Roosevelt, evidently not such a fan of foreign exchange programs, threatened that if she did not maintain a 3.0 GPA Claire would not be permitted to return for her junior year.

By June of her sophomore year, she’d learned German, and passed the following subjects besides: chemistry, biology, physics, French, English, Russian, German, computer, music, history, politics, religion, math, and PE.

I did not ask her about her GPA—but I know she returned to Roosevelt, graduated in 2010, and went on to Harvard.

I can only assume Madam Director was grudgingly satisfied.

Though her father Corey Flintoff’s career at NPR has afforded the family unusual opportunities for travel, Claire credits her nine years in the French immersion program with initially sparking her interest in exploring the world.  Her teachers, strict disciplinarians who were passionate about language, came from all over the Francophone world. They instilled in her the value of mastering a foreign language as a means of connecting with other cultures.

“You can hear other people’s stories in their own words,” she told me. “You get to hear them say what they want to say the way they want to say it.”

In 2001, when her father won a James L. Knight Foundation Award to teach journalism in Mongolia, Claire, a fourth-grader, spent six months with her parents in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Cows grazed out of dumpsters and townsfolk rode horseback just outside the city center, and Claire became smitten with Central Asia. (More on that to come.)

She remembers the Mongolians’ pragmatic and optimistic nature as well as their goodwill toward Americans, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

She was riding horseback with her parents in the Gobi desert when the attacks occurred. The family learned the news from some energetic, concerned Mongolians who spoke no English whatsoever. Needless to say it took some time to grasp the scope of the tragedy.

Claire says this semester in Mongolia “sealed the deal on international travel, living abroad, and Central Asia in particular.”

As a babysitter, she is cheerful, vigilant, energetic, engaged. But as I sat in her dining room, talking to her at length for this story, I was reminded that Claire is also fiercely smart (not that I ever really forgot) and relentlessly curious, with an outsized thirst for adventure and the chutzpah to try almost anything.

Case in point:

She’s told me about learning French, living in Mongolia, studying in Germany. She’s wrapping up the story about her internship senior year of high school at NASA Goddard, researching bioretention and stormwater management—fascinating work, she says, and highly satisfying.

Then she launches into something entirely Other.

She tells me that in high school she spent two summers in Bethel, Alaska, working as a sled dog handler, a job her father—a sled dog musher in his day—introduced her to (this, while interesting in its own right, is mere prologue.)

So she’s standing there at age 17, feeding those sled dogs on the tundra, “covered in fish guts, gross and smelly,” as she describes it, when the idea comes to her.

She thinks it might be fun to run for Miss Greenbelt….just, you know, to see what that might be like.

Her parents are stunned, a shade uncomprehending, because their daughter is not a pageant kinda gal. Nevertheless.

It was “a crash course in being a girly girl.”  She learned to apply make up and walk in heels. In the course of things, though, she realized that winning the title was, for her, undesirable—she hadn’t ever wanted to actually be Miss Greenbelt. On the other hand, she objected to the getup the pageant’s losers would be required to wear in the Greenbelt Festival, a suspenders-and-fishnet-stockings ensemble.

“It quickly became clear that while I couldn’t lose,” she said, “neither could I win.”

There was only one viable solution. And this—despite being selected to answer the judges’ single worst question on stage in front of the audience, “What would you do if your friend came to you and said she was going to commit suicide?”—she ably achieved.

No onerous pageant responsibilities, no festival/fishnet ignominy.

Claire won runner-up.

When she started at Harvard in 2010, her dad’s work took her parents first to New Dehli for a year and a half, and then, in 2012, to Moscow, where Corey is NPR Moscow Bureau Chief. (Her mother, artist Diana Derby, has continued to paint wherever they’ve lived and to incorporate themes from their travels in her art).

At Harvard Claire continued studying Russian and also discovered a passion for documentary film-making. She’s taken time off from her studies to live with her parents in Moscow and au pair in Hamburg, Germany, for a year.

Currently she’s living at her parents’ house in Cheverly and working at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville. She likes the physicality of the work, and all that she’s learned about gardening and pollination from her fantastic co-workers.

She’s also saving, scheming, and looking forward to the next thing: combining her passions for Central Asia and documentary film-making in one ambitious project.

Here’s how she explained it to me:

The Aral Sea, which spans the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was once a gigantic body of water, filled with sea life and sustaining a thriving fishing industry. When the Soviets built a massive and inefficient irrigation system to water Uzbekistan’s cotton crops, over several decades they drained what was once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. It’s now largely just puddles, Claire said.

But this isn’t merely an environmental tragedy; it’s far more sinister than that. In the 1920s the Soviets opened a top-secret chemical and biological weapons testing facility on an island in the sea (called “Rebirth Island” in Russian), the research and contents of which were simply left after the fall of the Soviet Union.  There are documented outbreaks of cancer and smallpox owing to the tests run at this facility. Despite the urging of the nonproliferation lobby to clean up the mess (and some government efforts toward this end), there is still massive chemical and biological residue infesting the sand that was once a sea. When the wind blows across the steppe, it carries salt, sand, and virulent germs—“literally salting the earth,” Claire explained.

“This is not just an instance of man-made decisions causing climate change,” she told me. “This is a worst-case scenario. This area is uninhabitable in truth, but people live there anyway because they have no choice.”

Nomads who, seventy years ago, were forcibly displaced and made to become communal farmers—“There they are in this horrible desert with nothing to do, no way to leave.”

She’s saving money for a camera, and considering how she might build a body of work to show in order to secure funding for her project. Alaskan (or Canadian) sled dogs figure into her near-term plans.

Until then, we’ll continue with the German language act for the sake of meine kleine Kinder.

I think, though, I learn much more from my thoroughly over-qualified babysitter when we’re sitting tête-à-tête across her kitchen table, speaking plain English.

Best,

Heather

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Heather Morton moved to Cheverly with her husband Mark in 2005, just before the birth of their first child. Mark’s job took them to Berlin, Germany, in 2008, and they returned to their home in Cheverly in August 2014 — now with three school-age children, Claire (9), Lilah (7), and Cole (6) who all attend St. Jerome’s Academy. The Mortons love the many friends and wonderful community they’ve found in Cheverly.

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