Publisher: Free Press (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: Sept. 2011
“24 Hours in a Suitcase” was the title of Ngawang’s college essay, in which he describes the time he spent escaping from Tibet to the border of Nepal, zipped inside of a suitcase for 24 hours. It’s easy to forget that Ngawang experienced such trauma. His teachers at International High see him as a 17-year-old “punky kid” who wears Converse sneakers and occasionally hands in late assignments.
Ngawang’s story, along with the stories of several other recent immigrant students (their last names have been left out for privacy purposes), were compiled by journalist Brooke Hauser in her new book, “The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.” Hauser spent the 2008-2009 school year immersing herself in the International High School at Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, where the students hail from 45 different countries and speak more than 28 different languages. Many had never left their villages before coming to New York.
In the stories Hauser chronicles, the students struggle not only with learning English and navigating the subway, but also with the same issues that dominate every teen’s mind — gossip and the prom.
Hauser documented her time at International High not just in words, but also in photographs. MetroFocus talked with Hauser about the significance of some of her photos.
Q: High school in New York is hard even if you speak fluent English. You spent a year with the students in this photo (left), all of whom spoke English as a second or even third language. How did that affect their high school experience?
A: The students are required to take an English-language assessment test before they can enroll. The joke is, “They have to fail the test in order to get into the school.”
Every summer, the school hosts an orientation for its new students. They learn skills like how to read a subway map and where to find a bathroom at school. I remember one boy didn’t eat lunch for an entire month because he couldn’t find the cafeteria.
But the hallways are full of chatter; it’s amazing to hear so many different languages spoken all at once.
Q: Do all of the students take classes together, regardless of their language proficiency?
A: They’re all mixed into the same classes and learning English together. It’s possible to have the product of a Chinese boarding school, who’s had a very intensive educational experience, in the same room as someone from Sierra Leone, who’s never been in a classroom. The students sit in clusters of four or five. They call it “group work.” That allows for the kids to really teach each other. They aren’t discouraged from explaining things in their native tongues, but every day they learn a new vocabulary word.
Q: You took a photograph of this young couple (left), who were from different countries. What are romantic relationships like among students from starkly disparate backgrounds?
A: There was certainly a lot of intercultural dating over the years. I remember one cute couple was a Polish girl and Yemeni boy.
There was a group of boys who were known as the “The Arabic Family.” There was this trend among Yemeni boys to leave school and get married. Even though marriage was in their immediate future, at school you would see them flirt and play. It was an interesting clash of cultural traditions and high school norms.
Q: You said the student in this picture (right) had a nickname. What was it? Who gave it to him?
A: This is a West African boy named Freeman, but the kids called him “Pollo Frito” because he was friends with Dominican boys and discovered a love for fried chicken and beans. He was really charismatic and cross pollinated with everyone. He was also very good with languages; in addition to Mina, his native language, Freeman spoke Spanish, Arabic, French and English — and he used them all to hit on all the girls in school.
Q: Are there ever any conflicts among students from different backgrounds?
A: Sometimes there are tensions between students who come from different countries where conflicts have existed for generations. For example, one day Ngawang passed out a flyer for the Tibetan club. Another boy defaced it and told the kids to go to the Chinese club instead, “Because Tibet was inside of China,” he said.
Q: This is a photo (left) of Bilguissa, a young mother from Guinea. Are many of the students, like Bilguissa, dealing with other challenges outside of the classroom?
A: During high school Bilguissa married an West African Taxi driver and had a baby. I spent one morning with her in her apartment and I watched as she packed her own bag for school and then her daughter’s. I think Bilguissa challenged most people’s ideas of a “teen mom;” she pulled off being a mother and a top student. In West Africa, where she is from, girls do become mothers at her age. It was certainly hard, but she managed with the help of the school and her teachers.
A majority of the students at the school are poor, so in addition to doing homework, many of them spend their time after school at work. I met kids who were store managers, cooks, maids, burrito makers, pizza delivery boys, nannies, you name it! Many of them would go straight from school to jobs that would keep them working until 11 p.m.
About 15 percent of the senior class was without papers. They get their diplomas with everyone else, but they face a whole different set of challenges after graduation, in part because they’re ineligible for federal financial aid.
Q: Some of the students have had traumatic experiences either in their country of origin or in their first few weeks in New York. Tell me about the experience of Chit Su, the student who showed you this photo (right) from her family album.
A: This photo is an image Chit Su’s family. They had just come from a refugee camp in Thailand, after leaving Burma. Tragically, her brother died outside of the refugee camp after a tree branch struck him in the head. Her family’s life here felt very interrupted and transient. They eventually left New York for another state.
The teachers at International High also serve as student advisors. In that capacity, teachers regularly check in with their students and monitor their emotional and academic needs. In addition, the school has counselors to help the students cope specifically with trauma.
Q: The International High School at Prospect Heights is part of a network of high schools in New York City that are committed to teaching recent immigrants in small settings. Do you think this is an effective academic model?
A: There is a lot of debate around that question because the students are grouped together in the same classroom, regardless of their academic level. I come from Miami, so I went to school with a lot of Cuban and Haitian immigrants. And I remember the ESL (English as Second Language) kids were really separated out, even though we were all in the same school.
At International High, the students vary academically, but they’re really all in the same boat. It works. You’d rarely hear students making fun of someone else for being different. There is a sense of comfort and ease and comradery that is conducive for learning.
MetroFocus Multimedia Editor Sam Lewis conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.