Nanibah Showa and Erica Murphy stood next to each other in theater class at Glenelg Country School yesterday and giggled with a comfort that usually takes friends years to build.
A week ago, the 14-year-olds were strangers. But a new exchange program brought Nanibah to the private school in Howard County from her home school in Arizona, and the two girls now say they will stay in touch after the program ends Saturday.
"It's nice to have someone here ... I can hang out with," said Erica, a ninth-grader from Ellicott City, who in April will join 11 other students from Glenelg Country School at St. Michael Indian School in St. Michaels, Ariz.
Such connections are what Ryland Chapman, headmaster at Glenelg Country School, envisioned when he established the exchange program with St. Michael Indian School, a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school that serves about 500 students from Native American communities in Arizona.
"We're hoping that relationships will strengthen," Chapman said. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if these kids clicked, remained pen pals and remained in contact with each other?"
The exchange blossomed from a computer donation that Glenelg Country School made to St. Michael Indian School this summer. Chapman heard about the school from a parent whose brother is a doctor on the Navajo reservation where the school is.
"I knew that we are fortunate, that we turn over our computers every three or four years," Chapman explained.
Within a few weeks of hearing about the school's needs, Chapman and his wife, Lynn, headed to Arizona to oversee the installation of the computers at the school. A Glenelg Country parent donated the $5,000 needed to ship the 50 computers.
"We are trying to close the gap a little bit so that it will make it possible for them to move forward with the use of technology," Chapman said.
The exchange was started as a way to continue a relationship between the two schools during the academic year.
"If it works, these kids can be in touch with each other for years to come," said Chapman, who said the program could be expanded to include more students and, possibly, to last for an entire semester.
Chapman also sees the cultural benefits for students at both schools.
"It's just such a wonderful historical, cultural spot that an American can visit," Chapman said about the Southwest. "We get to show off the Chesapeake Bay, Washington, and Baltimore."
Caroline Hyde, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Glenelg Country School, said she plans to keep in touch with her new friend, Valyncia Rae Christian.
"It's cool," Caroline said. "It's like having a person who is shadowing."
Valyncia and Caroline have spent their free time taking about clothes, school and playing with Caroline's two cats. The duo even joined efforts and baby-sat three young boys, ages, 2, 4 and 5, on Sunday.
"It was pretty fun," Caroline said. "We were quite a tag-team."
Ben Koffel, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Marriottsville, has had a great time bonding with 14-year-old David Buffalo for the past couple of days.
"We both play sports," said Ben, a soccer player. "I play defense, he plays goalie. His team won their championship."
David, who is also in eighth grade, said that he has enjoyed the different teaching style at Glenelg Country School.
"My school is smaller, and we don't switch classes like [Ben] does," David said. "We usually stay in the same room."
Nanibah said she was expecting Glenelg to be a more disciplined school, but welcomed what she found to be a laid-back learning environment.
"Our teachers would get mad if we had fun," she explained.
Nanibah had never been to Maryland, and said she has enjoyed her visit, which already has included a trip to Washington and will include a tour of Baltimore this week.
"It's been fun and wild," she said.
Valyncia, 13, and her twin sister Adriana, agreed that the biggest difference they noticed about the two schools was the uniforms.
"It's pretty," said Adriana of the Glenelg outfit, which includes a variety of choices, the most popular of them blue, plaid-patterned skirts.
Caroline said she is looking forward to visiting her new friends in Arizona.
"It's going to be great being around different people and being able to see different stuff," she said.