During a writing exercise, students new to America fill in sentences about why they left their homeland. “No food,” writes the Eritrean boy.
FOR the past year, I have been volunteering in classrooms at the Seattle World School in the Central District. The newly refurbished public middle and high school has grown to 350 students from 280 at year’s end. The students come from 40 different countries, and the majority are recent arrivals.
On a recent Tuesday at recess, I’m engulfed by chatter in 35 languages. Moving down the hallway I’m part of a pack of tall and skinny and short and squat boys, girls wrapped up head-to-toe, and those wearing fashionably-torn jeans or short skirts. They all seem to know where they are going while passing a big-lettered sign: “Here you are seen, here you are heard, here you are safe, here you are loved.”
The bantering and flirting in Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali recede as students enter the classroom for intros into the mysteries of the English language, level two. During the next hour, grammar and vocabulary exercises are wrapped around topics of existential and cultural concern.
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Today’s subject is gender identity, and as the teacher, who looks barely older than her students, writes the words gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual and transgender on the whiteboard, giggles resound. “This topic may be a bit embarrassing,” she says, “it’s OK to laugh.” Explaining the terminology, she mentions that there are transgender students right here at the school. Gasps of incredulity.
“Why do we have to know about that?” demands a girl in a hijab and flowing long skirt. The teacher repeats the question. “Well,” ventures a tall boy from Somalia, “when you apply for a job and there are people who are different and they see that you are not comfortable, then you don’t get the job.”
Later, when we turn to a summarizing text in small groups, the Somali student squirms, “I can’t read that,” pointing to the word sex. “You read that,” he motions to the girl across the table. And she, from Thailand, reads without blushing, “At birth we are identified by our biological sex. But gender refers to a person’s feeling about themselves as male, female, both or neither.”
At a level-one class next door, students write with minimal vocabulary about their migration experience. Some of them arrived just a few days or weeks ago and pore over a work sheet with sentences that call for responses. I left my country because (fill in a problem). “No food,” writes the Eritrean boy. “Bad president,” writes the Honduran. Seattle has “fresh air,” writes a boy from China. “Pizza,” says the girl from Gambia. “Good education,” observes the Colombian student.
The work sheet asks for three adjectives to describe their homeland and Seattle. Their countries are “sunny,” Seattle is “rainy” but both are “beautiful.” I help by coaxing fill-ins and correct spelling. A third of her students, the teacher tells me, arrived illiterate or with less than five years of schooling.
Their migration stories get embellished with colorful drawings of their home, the airplane or bus that brought them here, and an outline of Seattle’s cityscape. By the end of the week, the students display their work on the walls of the classroom, a kaleidoscope of immigration sagas that in many cases hide a deep trauma.
Leaving the school at noon, I stop at a display of “My future career” essays. In three paragraphs students state their goals of becoming doctors, engineers, lawyers, designers and architects. “I am a hardworking student at Seattle World School. I will graduate and go to college,” one writes. The future architect imagines building a house with six rooms, and he will live there all by himself.
Perhaps he is one of the 90 homeless students who is couch surfing. He is a dreamer among dreamers, and I am glad once a week to help him and his classmates pursue the American dream.