Excerpt: Home Away From Home

April 01, 2002 9 min read
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Mary Pipher is a renowned psychologist perhaps best known for Reviving Ophelia, her book about the complex world of teenage girls. With The Middle of Everywhere: The World’s Refugees Come to Our Town, she takes on another complicated subject, this one inspired by the influx of immigrants to her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. As tough as it is for any foreigner, let alone those fleeing persecution, to make a new home on alien soil, Pipher writes that “it is school that will enable [refugee] children to make it in America.” And, in fact, “refugees have lower dropout rates and better grades than native-born kids,” she adds. In attempting to figure out why, Pipher spent time with an English as a Learned Language class in a local public school.

Sycamore Elementary School is a three-story redbrick building just off a busy street that is lined with a McDonald’s, Arab and Mexican markets, liquor stores, pawnshops, and a Vietnamese karaoke bar. The houses around the school are small, close together, and dilapidated. Police cars cruise the area. Unemployed men stand on the corners and in the alleys. The school was built for the children of Czechs and Germans, but it now welcomes students of all colors and ethnic groups.

Walking in the first day, I admired a sycamore tree with its sheltering white branches and big greeny-gold leaves. There is something about the shape of a sycamore that reminds me of embracing arms. On the playground, a Latino boy scored in a vigorous soccer game, and his team shouted and high-fived each other. Soccer is the universal solvent in Lincoln—Vietnamese, Mexican, Haitian, Romanian, and Serbian kids all like the sport.

Inside the school, a boy who looked like a biker’s kid, wearing black jeans and T-shirt, watched a girl with dreadlocks twirl in circles, singing to herself. A teacher listened to an Arabic-speaking mother in a hijab. The mother was surrounded by her four wide-eyed kids, the youngest of whom clung to her skirt. The teacher imitated talking on a phone; then she wrote down a phone number and handed it to the mother.

I walked past a sign that read, “You have only one chance to have a childhood.” I examined pictures of residences from all over the world—a Thai houseboat, Panamanian hutches, a Somalian camp—and a display of macaroni-and-cereal necklaces, some of which had been nibbled on.

I signed in at the front office, and a 3rd grader named Judy Running Wolf escorted me to a portable classroom, a trailer outside the main building beside the clothing and food distribution center. The class was a ragtag group, dressed in Salvation Army clothes, with an amazing array of bad haircuts. Most of them looked between 8 and 11, though some might have been small 12-year-olds.

They were holding Village Inn menus and practicing how to order. The kids giggled and pointed at the glossy pictures of cheeseburgers and blueberry pie. In a dozen languages they discussed the pictures as if they were rare objets d’art. These kids came from many religious traditions and had food taboos and preferences. Some kids didn’t eat lettuce. Others didn’t like milk. But that day, several ordered pretend hamburgers and boasted that they had eaten before at McDonald’s. Others ordered the most expensive dishes on the menu and bragged about how much it cost.

Their teacher, Grace, was a pretty woman in her late 30s. She didn’t miss much, and nothing rattled her. She spoke softly, laughed easily, and kept the room reasonably calm without making threats. As the kids ordered pretend meals, she told me about them.

Grace’s biggest worry was Abdul, a beautiful kid with nut-colored skin and deep dimples. He was an Iraqi boy who had watched his younger brother freeze to death in the snow when his family walked barefoot across mountains into Turkey. Possibly he was brain damaged from gas attacks during the Gulf War. Abdul rarely did his work, and he didn’t seem to connect with anyone. Other teachers thought he should be in special education classes, but Grace wanted to give him a chance to adjust. She said many ELL kids look like special ed students at first, but then they adapt.

Pavel sat beside Abdul. He was a big, awkward kid from the former Soviet Union with tangled blond hair and his shirt half tucked in.

Grace said he was indulged by his parents. Pavel was good-natured, but restless and lazy. He preferred playing with Nibbles, the rat, to doing his studies.

Ignazio was a good-hearted Mexican boy whose parents worked long hours at a sugar beet refinery. Nobody at home seemed able to help him with his studies. He was lovable and well-behaved, but not very focused. Grace worried that Ignazio might be picked on because he was chubby and innocent.

Khoa was skinny and wore a torn Star Wars T-shirt and tight polyester pants that didn’t reach his ankles. His hair badly needed a wash and a cut. He was clowning around, making everyone laugh at his outrageous order of four hamburgers and three malts. Grace said his family had experienced great trauma in traveling from Vietnam to the United States. In Lincoln, he lived in a rough neighborhood, and his older brother had been in trouble with the law. Khoa was a fan of violent video games, but Grace felt he was essentially a good person.

Beside Khoa sat three Vietnamese girls. Ly came from a big hard-working family. She had extremely good manners, and her schoolwork was consistently A plus. Mai was a small, angry-looking girl. She’d lost her mother when she was 3, just before she and her father left for America. Her father had remarried, and Mai lived with her father, stepmother, and new baby brother. A troubled girl, she scratched her arms or pulled her hair whenever she was upset. Beside Mai, Trinh stared at her glossy menu. Her parents had drowned crossing from Vietnam into Thailand. She lived with her grandparents, and Grace said she had yet to hear Trinh speak.

As Grace told me about another student, Deena, the small, blond-haired girl ordered an imaginary ice cream sundae. After witnessing the deaths of her grandparents and uncles in Bosnia, Deena and her parents had been herded into an internment camp. Her mother was depressed, her father incapacitated by stress. Solid, energetic, and intelligent, Deena spoke the best English in her family and was often kept out of school to translate.

Sitting next to Deena was Fatima, a Kurdish girl who was burned on her face and arms after Iraqis bombed her village. Grace told me that Fatima’s scars had caused her trouble because some ELL kids come from cultures where deformed people are shunned.

Grace tapped on her desk, and everyone stopped ordering food and looked up. She introduced me as “Miss Mary,” and the kids stared at me with interest. Ly smiled. Khoa loudly declared that I looked old, very old. Grace picked the name of a helper out of a hat. Today it was Fatima, whose job it would be to feed Nibbles and distribute supplies. Grace had the class look at a calendar and take turns saying, “It’s Tuesday, September 6, 1999.” She asked what the weather was like. “Clear,” shouted Khoa, and Grace smacked a yellow plastic sun on the calendar board.

As Fatima, Deena, and Ly worked at their spelling, Khoa talked about poop and eating boogers. He looked like he needed everything—a bath, a good meal, a full night’s sleep, and lap time with a patient adult. He watched me as closely as I watched him, and he winked whenever our eyes met.

Grace went over the spelling words, then began a discussion of what people needed to do at home. She wrote down phrases on the board such as “sew clothes,” “mow yard,” “cook food,” “change baby’s diapers.” Khoa shouted out, “Change the diapers, or the baby will get a stinky butt.” He laughed uproariously at his own joke.

The class was then asked to write stories about families who forget to do some jobs. I sat by Abdul. He bristled and turned away as if he were allergic to me. However, for the first time that day, he did some work. When he finished, I checked his paper. Then I turned to Pavel, who’d been waiting impatiently for help. He was a big teddy bear of a kid. He wrote, “Good dads take their sons fishing.”

Stupidly, I said maybe the class could go fishing sometime. Pavel was riveted by the suggestion. He asked: “Tomorrow? Where? How would we get there? Could I bring my own pole?”

I realized what I’d done and tried to put the rabbit back in the hat, but, of course, I failed. Other kids also got excited. We never finished the assignment.

It was time to go. Fatima picked up papers and pencils. I helped Ignazio with the broken zipper on his coat. Ly flashed a smile and said, “I’ll see you next Monday, Miss Mary.” Trinh and Deena slipped out, but Fatima waved shyly at me. I gave Abdul a hug, and he shrugged it off. Pavel had one last fishing question, and I smiled sheepishly at Grace, remarking, “I’ve created a monster.”

Watching Mai walk across the yard into the main school building, I thought about her complex situation. I wanted to help her with her feelings about her baby brother, her stepmother, and even about her mother’s death. She was raised in a culture that teaches the suppression of negative emotions. It was unlikely she knew what to do with her troubled feelings.

All of the children had many needs, including the need to heal from great sadness. Some dealt with the sadness by withdrawing, others by clinging. Trinh, Deena, Mai, and Abdul needed therapists, but they all came from places where mental problems are unacceptable. Many students came from cultures where creative expression in children isn’t valued. Yet they longed to understand and share their experiences. Group storytelling would be great, and art and music therapy might work because they don’t require advanced verbal skills. Play, laughter, and joking are wonderful ways to heal. I had never been around kids who loved to laugh as much as ELL kids.

But they needed help with self-definition. I wanted to put birthdays on the calendar, take pictures, and identify what each child did best. Question games might help. What was their favorite food? The scariest thing they ever did? The bravest thing? What was their earliest memory?

With ELL classes, I understood the value of classrooms small enough that each child could be given individual attention. The kids were at very different developmental and acculturation levels. Some were precocious from war experiences but had missed out on typical childhood activities. Some cared for younger siblings, cleaned, and cooked. A few had no play in their lives.

There were differences in intelligence, energy, confidence, and likability. The amount of trauma the kids had experienced varied, as did the amount of family and community support they received in America. Still, they had much in common. They were strangers in a strange land, eager to be accepted. They liked games, music, puppets, and cookies. And compared to American kids, they tended to be better behaved, more respectful of adults, and less spoiled. Grace said the longer they were in America, the more likely they were to act up.

It helped me to remember that these kids had simple needs as well as complicated ones, needs to be hugged, helped with spelling words, smiled at, and read to. Even small acts of kindness made a difference.

I had been in class three hours and was ready for a nap. How do teachers do this five days a week, eight hours a day?

Excerpted from The Middle of Everywhere by Mary Pipher, Ph.D. Copyright (c) 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Harcourt Inc.,


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