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Portraits of Passage

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Parents who've come to the United States legally may be wary of asking immigration-related questions for fear of jeopardizing their legal status.

While Principal Burrows is fond of saying her school is "democracy in action," it clearly does not always come easy. When Burke and the other teachers ask for volunteers to run as PTA officers, there are no takers. Democracy temporarily gives way to oligarchy as the teachers "recruit" parents.

Burrows hopes that more will follow the example of one parent whose child attended Newcomers High last year. That parent now serves on the PTA at neighboring William Cullen Bryant High School--a measure of empowerment she wants to build in immigrant parents who often are left off the parent-involvement bandwagon.

The school waits until the spring to bring in community-service agencies to talk about immigration law and citizenship. By then, Burrows says, staff members have had a better chance of gaining parents' trust on what can be a highly charged issue. Parents who've come to the United States legally may be wary of asking immigration-related questions for fear of jeopardizing their legal status. For those here illegally, the word immigration is often synonymous with deportation.

Role reversal—where child becomes parent and parent becomes child—is common among immigrant families.

To make learning English easier, the school offers parents a free ESL class once a week. At 8:30 Wednesday morning, half a dozen parents squeeze into metal and wooden desks to hear from Burke and volunteer Vita Rosenberg, a retired teacher who started her teaching career in this building in the 1940s when many of the students were recent Greek and Italian immigrants. The image of the parents tucked into too-small desks is telling. Role reversal--where child becomes parent and parent becomes child--is common among immigrant families. The teens often learn English more quickly than their parents, sometimes using their newfound clout to manipulate situations, as Burke explains.

She hands out copies of a prototype report card from Newcomers High to show parents how to read it and then notes the upcoming school holidays. "Sometimes, our children don't tell us the whole story, as you well know," she says, as a few of the parents nod knowingly. "Students love November because we have three holidays. Now you know, in case your children all of a sudden tell you it's five."

The cafeteria at Newcomers High, as in most schools, is deafeningly loud. Students group themselves by language for the most part: Chinese in one corner, Spanish in another, Bengali across the room. The so-called pocket languages, which only a handful of students share, are scattered throughout.

But cultural exchanges do take place.

Maciek Wojewoda trades his tape by Polish rock group Maanam for one by Seotaiji & Boys from a Korean classmate sitting next to him munching pizza.

Natalia Cela from Ecuador comforts her friend Angela Gouede from the Ivory Coast, who's lost her subway pass. Natalia says she's starting to learn Bengali from friends at Newcomers High.

Moin Hassan from Bangladesh, Artem Zoubtsov from the Ural region of Russia, and Ngawang Phuntsok from Tibet hang out at school, but they don't feel comfortable enough with English to talk on the phone at home. So they fax each other instead from their parents' businesses.

Dating can pose challenges, too. Physical education teacher Diana Cabot recalls a particular couple, one of whom spoke Russian, the other Spanish. Both were in a beginners-level ESL class. Cabot says when she asked how they communicated, they simply shrugged their shoulders and smiled.

"When I came to this school, I thought, my God, with all these ethnicities, it's going to be international conflict all over the place."

Daniel Sheehan
Teacher

Not all the intercultural connections have gone smoothly here, though most teachers say they are amazed by the relative lack of conflict among students of startlingly distinct languages, cultures, and religions. Tensions have surfaced at times among some Bengali and Pakistani students, whose countries split after a bitter civil war that left an independent state of Bangladesh in 1972. And some coaching has been needed when Spanish-speaking students unwittingly insult their South Asian classmates by grouping them together as "Hindus," when in fact many are Muslim.

"When I came to this school, I thought, my God, with all these ethnicities, it's going to be international conflict all over the place," Sheehan says.

He also assumed that many of his students would be politically attuned, like the Romanian girl in his class who had grown up in the era of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. But he was wrong. "She's not that interested," he says with a chuckle. "She's a teenager. She wants roller blades and a boyfriend."

At times, it is easy to forget that this school is different. Posters in the hall announce a senior ski trip and an upcoming school dance where the Macarena reigns supreme. Cell models fill a glass case near the science rooms, albeit labeled with such terms as "endoplasmic reticulum" in Chinese.

On a gray morning, 15 students start a two-hour trek from Long Island City to their sister school in Sag Harbor, a tourist community whose population swells in the summer with visitors flocking to the Hamptons beaches. A group from Sag Harbor's Pierson High visited Newcomers High in September.

The exchange is a chance for students from Newcomers High to practice their English and meet real "American" teens. But it's also a chance for the rather homogeneous Pierson students to mix with an international crowd.

A one-day exchange program is a chance for students from Newcomers High to practice their English and meet real "American" teens.

Su Jin Chen, 15, settles into a vinyl seat by the window on the Long Island Railroad train and, as his teacher suggested, observes the changes in scenery from town to town. Once in awhile, he jots down a few notes. The urban landscape fades into brown rustling grasses that partly obscure the grand, weathered gray shingle homes typical of the area.

When Su Jin and his classmates get to Pierson, their Sag Harbor counterparts will ask them about their favorite foods, their brothers and sisters, the professional sports teams in their home countries, and popular CDs. Some of the girls will entertain questions about when they were allowed to start wearing makeup or whether they have shopping malls near their homes in their countries.

But at this moment, as the houses pass in a blur, Su Jin speaks of home. He now lives with his mother in the basement of his uncle's house. His mother works in a garment factory. His father has returned to China, where Su Jin's younger brother has remained. Su Jin plays basketball after school from time to time with a couple of Taiwanese friends. Or watches TV. But much of the time, his thoughts are elsewhere.

"The only thing I miss in China is my friends," Su Jin says. "I make friends here, but not the same relationship as in China. We did everything together: study, play, and live. Mom says maybe we will go back to visit in 1998."

He bites his lip gently and stares out the train window. "For now, we are so far away. Just so far ..." he trails off as the train starts to slow.




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