In “I Learn America,” director Jean-Michel Dissard’s engaging documentary about immigrant English-language learners in a New York City high school, it’s a student from Myanmar whose broken English inadvertently coins a catchphrase.
“In New York City, difficult is everything,” says a young man named Sing, a 19-year-old refugee who feels isolated from his younger classmates by language difficulties and his age. (A few full names are used, but not for all the students.)
Dissard focuses on five students at the International High School at Lafayette, a small Brooklyn program run by the New York City Department of Education to guide new learners of English.
Of course, the New York City public schools have been at the forefront of teaching and assimilating immigrant children for more than a century. “I Learn America” doesn’t delve into that history lesson, and it largely steers clear of the intricacies of U.S. immigration policy and what it means for the five subjects. (The film was produced before this year’s influx of Central American refugee students, and so it doesn’t go into that, either.)
Still, the power of a documentary like this is in spending extended periods of time with a few students in their classrooms, in the hallways, and outside of school. “I Learn America” succeeds in this regard.
Sing, the student from Myanmar, is among the lucky in the immigration debate. Having fled political strife in Myanmar with his father, we see him receive a green card.
The other subjects of the film talk about life under undocumented status. Itrat, a high school senior who is from Pakistan, dreams of going to college. Teachers at the school encourage her and her classmates to aspire to college, saying it is not out of reach, despite the students’ immigration status.
Brandon, a younger student and an immigrant from Guatemala, loves soccer but has a poor record when it comes to turning in homework assignments. This is news to his parents when they come to school for teacher conferences. We see Brandon working as a dishwasher in a restaurant, and the student himself wonders whether he will be able to advance beyond a long-term fate in jobs such as that, and even whether it was worth to come to the United States.
Finally, there are two more seniors: Jenniffer, from the Dominican Republic, and Sandra, from Poland, who appear to have a romantic relationship. Sandra is the most charismatic of the subjects, challenging gender stereotypes and bringing a fun vibe to all around her. When Jenniffer asks, “What does America have that Poland doesn’t have?”, Sandra’s response is swift: “Freedom of speech!”
Interestingly, for a film about immigration and learning of English, most of the subjects are pretty good English speakers as they approach graduation. Perhaps that is a testament to the quality of the school.
On Dec. 15, Dissard screened “I Learn America” at the U.S. Department of Education before an audience of staff members, students, and several of the subjects. I wasn’t there, but Dissard tells me it was a lively event.
The film is being screened at similar events around the country. As the policy debate over immigration roils the nation, “I Learn America” help take it out of the abstract.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.