English-Language Learners Q&A

An Interview with Brooke Hauser, author of New Kids: Part 1

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 21, 2011 9 min read
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Brooke Hauser’s The New Kids takes readers inside the walls of the International High School in Prospect Heights, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, where every student has immigrated to the United States and students have to fail an English proficiency test to get in.

The book traces a year in the life of five teenagers: a girl from Yemen struggling to decide whether to stay in school or get married and provide for her younger siblings; a Tibetan refugee who spent 24 hours in a suitcase on his way to the U.S.; a Chinese girl who lives in a rented room in Chinatown after her stepmother kicked her out the week she arrived in the U.S.; a brand-new immigrant who is the only student at the school who speaks her language; and a boy from Sierra Leone whose immigration story seems to border on tall tale. Readers get to watch as students’ language abilities and identities develop over the course of the year.

The New Kids captures the students’ often harrowing journeys to America— and their very teenage struggles with homework, hairstyles, and relationships as they settle into life at the International High School. Hauser’s portrayal of the school’s diverse student body and its committed staff is insightful, often surprising, and a lot of fun to read.

Learning the Language spoke with Hauser about immersion, the DREAM Act, and the perils of becoming Facebook friends with teenagers. Part one of the interview is below; stay tuned for part two.

Education Week: Tell us a bit about how you got involved in writing this book. You had written an article for the New York Times on the International High School’s prom. How did you find out about that?

Brooke Hauser: I do a lot of different kinds of writing, including celebrity profiles, and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to interview Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. But I had a desire to do writing that’s more human interest and investigative. A friend who works at the International Rescue Committee told me about Bronx International High School. At the time, the IRC was doing some sort of volunteer program where volunteers could go into the Bronx school and basically tutor recent refugee students in writing. It sounded like something I’d like to do. I’m interested in immigration and stories of newcomers. The more I learned about that high school, the more intrigued I became, and I realized this was something I wanted to write about. It turned out there was an international high school in my neighborhood, which was Prospect Heights at the time. It had dozens of languages spoken, kids from 45 countries—all learning what it means to be American. I thought it was so interesting.

So I started with an experience that’s both quintessentially American and quintessentially high school—prom. The story for the New York Times was the story of kids putting together a prom. It was quite a different prom from what I had ever seen before. The most popular girl was a nomadic yak herder from Tibet. But I loved the students, loved spending time with school, and knew I wanted to go back.

EW: There’s an incredible range of stories in the book. How did you pick specific students to profile?

BH: I read some of the kids’ college essays they had worked on during their junior year. From the college essays, I got a sense of their backgrounds. Some of the stories really stood out. For instance, Jovita wrote about her experience crossing the Sonoran desert with the coyote[human smuggler]. I knew Jovita was someone I wanted to meet. But she was different than most of the kids I worked with—more reserved and quiet. Most of the kids I focused on were kids who were very eager to tell me their story. I needed longevity, needed kids who would be with me for the long haul. So I went with some of the kids who were most proficient in English. I depended on them to tell me their stories.

Also, at the beginning of senior year, I asked all 12th grade teaches. “When you go home at night, who are the kids you can’t stop thinking about?”...That’s how I found Yasmeen and Jessica.

EW: You have some very insightful scenes of teachers’ work. How did you build your relationships with teachers?

BH: This was an issue I encountered the whole time. Some of the teachers I really wanted to be friends with. We’re around the same age, have some of the same values, interests. We all live in Brooklyn. I had to not go there. But just having a common background helped. Ann Parry shared so much with me about her perceptions of the students. In fact, at one point, I asked her to send me an email recalling her initial reactions when reading the student essays. That came from interviews, but it also came from her own notes on how she felt and what she thought when she read her students’ essays for the first or second or third time. We worked on details of what she could remember, and I pulled a lot of those details out of her, but I think of her as a writer, too. She was very articulate about memories—especially on the experience of reading these essays because they really did leave an impression on her.

EW: How did the students and families respond to being profiled? Did they wonder why you were interested?

BH: That’s funny you ask. No, I don’t think they ever wondered why I was writing about them. They thought they were very interesting as well. They were up for it. A few cool boys were like, “Oh, don’t talk to that reporter lady, she’s got her notebook and she’ll write down anything you’ll say!” But most kids were very eager to share their stories. They welcomed me into their homes and into their lives, let me sit with them at the tables in the classroom, told me what was going on with them that day in the halls or in cafeteria. We spent a lot of time together.

I tried to focus on the kids who were most interested in sharing stories, who had the most invested in sharing their stories. I needed to be able to count on them. From the beginning, I wanted kids who wanted to share their stories with me. Certain kids who had been through such tragedy—girls who had been circumcised or had escaped war or had gone through all sorts of terrible tragedy—I was reluctant to dig too deeply into those kinds of stories. I wanted to tread lightly; I was afraid of calling up memories I wouldn’t know how to handle. I certainly got some dramatic stories from kids, but never wanted them to feel uncomfortable sharing their stories, never wanted it to be painful for them.

EW: You have a few nice scenes that show the teachers’ struggle to reconcile the punky adolescents in front of them with these people who have undergone very difficult things in their lives. How did you see teachers and students dealing with this disparity?

BH: What happened to them and who they are now? So many of the students have these incredible stories about how they came to America. In some ways, these stories are their currency. When they apply for college, many of these students have lower SAT scores than American peers. Their grades may not be straight As. They may be doing well, but they still need to catch up to kids who were born in America and have been speaking English their whole lives. These essays are really valuable because if you’re an admissions officer and you see an essay entitled “24 Hours in a Suitcase,” that will set this student apart. The mining of these personal stories—very valuable to students.

But it’s also a lot of weight. Ngawang, for instance: He is not his story. His story is one story of hundreds and thousands that will make up his life. He was often kind of defined by this story [traveling in a suitcase], but by the time I met him, he was this cute, somewhat punky kid with a faux hawk and sneakers, slacking off in class—a normal kid. At the same time, his Tibetan identity is very important to him.

There’s some tension sometimes. Kids aren’t necessarily made to be heroes during high school. They have flaws, they have faults. People mess up in high school. In some ways, kids put a lot of pressure on themselves to live up to these amazing people who they were in stories and personal essays. They are these amazing people but they’re also regular teenagers.

EW: You conducted some Facebook research. Can you talk about what you learned about how kids were presenting themselves online?

BH: I’m still with the kids on Facebook, and sometimes I just have to close my eyes when my newsfeed pops up: oh my god, you need to be more careful! I like Facebook because - whenever possible - I tried to view the kids through the lenses they themselves provided. Facebook is one way to do that.

What’s interesting about Facebook is that the kids were really able to invent their personalities, too. One boy from Sierra Leone—his identity on facebook has really changed. He grew up in a mud-brick hut with no electricity, but on Facebook he changed his name to a more American-sounding name and became a fan of all these pages like Will Smith, and he’d quote Jay-Z. At one point, he became a fan of hemorrhoids. My husband and I laughed—does he even know what this is?

But it was almost like he was asserting his American identity on Facebook - when really he’s a kid, brand new from Africa. Both of those make up who he is today. He is African, but he wants to be American. Facebook was a place where the kids asserted whatever identity they wanted. They became the people they wanted to be.

EW: Is being American something the students strive for? What does that mean to them?

BH: It depends on the kid. If you’re talking about a kid from Tibet—their Tibetan identity is so important to them. It’s why they left Tibet in the first place, to escape Chinese control. Maybe you can become more American without having to lose your original identity. Is that possible?

The melting pot metaphor doesn’t quite apply to this high school. In a melting pot, ingredients have to blend into a whole, but lose their characteristics. This school is more like a tossed salad metaphor—all these ingredients that mix together. Or maybe International High School is somewhere in the middle. They blend in, but they also seem to really value their individual cultures. Yes, you will see Bangladeshi girls who’ve stopped wearing their head scarves or maybe are less devout Muslims. But other kids have held onto the same beliefs and traditions. It really is case by case.

EW: You write about prom, graduation, all these hallmark high school events. What did these events mean to the students?

BH: The short answer is nothing. Of course, graduation means everything—shouldn’t lump that in. But at first the events meant nothing to the kids. They had to learn the significance. Didn’t happen at the beginning—the kids didn’t care. One girl from Senegal was obsessed with prom because she’d heard about it from her sister, but most kids were like, “Prom, what’s that? Why should I care, why should I go?” When they learned, they started panicking: “Do I have to go? Is it a requirement?”

Things like pajama day, twin day—these little hallmarks of school experience—when they were first debuted at the school, they really didn’t get a lot of traction. The kids were like, “Why would I come to school in pajamas?” But cut to a few years later, and everyone comes to school in pajamas. Girls love the opportunity to wear cute pajamas to school. Everyone dresses up. It takes a few years—they’re new traditions.

Stay tuned for the second part of the interview, where Brooke Hauser talks about teacher involvement, the importance of leadership, and how students work together when they don’t share a language.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.