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The New Kids
Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens
Table of Contents
About The Book
Some walked across deserts and mountains to get here. One arrived after escaping in a suitcase. And others won’t say how they got here.
These are “the new kids”: new to America and all the routines and rituals of an American high school, from lonely first days to prom. They attend Brooklyn’s International High School at Prospect Heights, where all the students are recent immigrants learning English. Together, they come from more than forty-five countries and speak more than twenty-eight languages.
An inspiring work of narrative journalism, The New Kids chronicles a year in the lives of teenage newcomers who are at once ordinary and extraordinary in their paths to the American Dream. Hauser’s unforgettable portraits include Jessica, kicked out of her father’s home just days after arriving from China; Ngawang, who spent twenty-four hours folded up in a suitcase to escape Tibet; Mohamed, a diamond miner’s son from Sierra Leone whose past is shrouded in mystery; and Chit Su, a Burmese refugee who is the only person to speak her language in the entire school.
The students deal with enormous obstacles: traumas and wars in their native countries that haunt them, and pressures from their cultures to marry or to drop out and go to work. They aren’t just jostling for their places in the high school pecking order—they are carving out new lives for themselves in America.
Everybody has The Outfit—the outfit they bought for America. The students who have lived in the country for longer have learned how to blend in better, disappearing in brand-name sneakers and low-riding jeans. But each September on the first day of school, the new kids are easy to spot.
Some arrive in their native dress, like the Bangladeshi girls in colorful shalwar kameez, or the African boy who walked the halls in goatskin sandals lined with bristly hair. Others try to fit in and fail, like the boy who came from a country that no one had heard of. He wanted American blue jeans but settled for a pair hand-sewn by his uncle instead. Then there are the kids who dress the part of model student, a few in starched shirts and slacks still wrinkled from the plane, as if they were headed to an immigration interview instead of first period. One Yemeni boy showed up in a business suit, and a Haitian freshman carried a backpack filled with books that weren’t on any syllabus, his notebook thin from all the used pages torn out. Still, he was better off than the refugees who seem to arrive with nothing at all. Everyone remembers the Burmese sisters who wore flip-flops through the first winter snow.
Sitting behind a cluttered desk in her office on the fourth day of school, Dariana Castro examines the new girl from behind cat’s-eye glasses. Somehow, Student No. 219870508 got it almost right. Today is her first day at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to new immigrants, but at least by appearances she could be any girl entering the ninth grade at any high school in any city or small town across America. She has silky brown hair, which is half up, and small eyes, which are cast down at the floor. Her lips are glossed and her nails polished, but that doesn’t stop her from nibbling on them. She wears brand-new blue jeans (factory made), a black-and-red Mead backpack, and a T-shirt the fluorescent-green color of Nickelodeon slime. Her clothes fit too well to be hand-me-downs, and they leave no trace of a foreign country. It’s as if someone undressed a mannequin in the back-to-school display in the tween department of Target, and re-created the ensemble on her.
“What’s your name?” Dariana asks.
“Chit Su,” the girl says, twisting a flower-shaped ruby ring on her finger.
“Cheet Sue,” Dariana repeats carefully.
Cradling a phone receiver to her ear, she motions for the girl to take a seat. Especially during the first week of school, it’s rare that an extra chair is available. Throughout the day, a steady tide of visitors flows into this air-conditioned room, located in the back of the student-government office on the fourth floor, keeping Dariana in a perpetual state of distraction.
Officially she is known as the Coordinator of Special Programs, but a better job title would be The Fixer. Every immigrant community has one, and the International High School at Prospect Heights has Dariana, a twenty-five-year-old Dominican with pale skin, curly red-tinted hair that will change colors and styles many times in the coming months, and a solution for everything. Teachers go to her for glue sticks, information about scholarships, or a squirt of hand sanitizer from the giant container on her desk.
To students, Dariana is like Craigslist and a big sister rolled into one, offering everything from job opportunities and relationship advice to home remedies for any number of ailments. For instance, how to get rid of a hickey. Step 1: Address the problem, as she had to do with a Parisian junior who came to school with a blotchy purple stain above his collarbone. What’s on your neck? That’s disgusting! Step 2: Rub the inflicted area with a penny to disperse the blood. It works with black and blues, too. Step 3: Cover what’s left of the love bite with concealer, dismissing any protests that the student in question, in this case a boy, might make about not wanting to wear make-up. Well, why’d you let her do that? Step 4: Send the student back to class.
As soon as the new girl walked into her office to pick up her class schedule, it was obvious to Dariana that Chit Su was suffering from a bad case of nerves. But that’s just about the only thing about Chit Su that is obvious. Other than the ID number assigned to her by the New York City Department of Education, very little is known about Student No. 219870508. No one is exactly sure where she came from, or how she got here this morning, up three flights of stairs and past security. To Dariana, she looks like an ordinary American girl. But she is from Burma. Or Thailand. Her answer changes depending on who asks. Either way, she is the only person in the entire school who speaks her language, now that the flip-flop-wearing Burmese sisters have relocated to Texas. She is seventeen years old, and her English is very limited. That much is clear.
“Are you happy to be here?” Dariana asks, leaning forward. “Are you nervous?”
Silence. Shifting her weight in the chair, the girl smiles, her teeth crowded on top of each other like subway riders at rush hour.
“You’re not nervous?” Dariana asks again, this time speaking more slowly. More silence.
Dariana stands up and walks over to the corner of the room, where a large plastic bag is filled with snacks and small cartons of juice.
“Here,” she says, handing Chit Su a package of peanut-butter crackers, along with her class schedule. “Eat these every time you feel nervous. It will make you feel better.” Rubbing her stomach, Dariana pretends to chew. “Mmmm. That’s what I do.”
* * *
The International High School is located in north-central Brooklyn on the third and fourth floors of a massive, sandy brick building, formerly known as Prospect Heights High School. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, amid gang warfare, it was considered among the most violent schools in the city. But since then, the Prospect Heights High School closed, and in its place are four small schools: the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment, the Brooklyn School for Music & Theatre, the High School for Global Citizenship, and the International High School at Prospect Heights.
Every morning on the way to first period, students have to pass through a metal detector. Located on the southern side of the school building, the security area is better known as “scanning,” and was set up as part of a citywide effort to reduce violence and weapon possession in schools. The rules are pretty simple: In addition to guns, knives, and glass bottles, no headgear, belts, or electronics are allowed. Nevertheless, day after day, a battle of wills plays out on the patch of sidewalk where boys and girls form double lines under the watch of various administrators and blue-uniformed school-safety officers who guard the entrance to the cafeteria. Despite countless PA announcements throughout the year about dress code, students show up in bandannas and bandies (bandannas tied around the chest like a bra), do-rags and chains, country flags festooning from their pockets, and dingy boxers ballooning from their low-riding jeans like puffs of smog.
For the most part, the upperclassmen are wise to the campuswide restrictions from 8:40 AM to 3:10 PM A few bury their cell phones in Prospect Park until school is out, while others grudgingly deposit their Sidekicks and iPods into numbered brown paper bags, which, for a small fee, cashiers at any number of nearby delis will stow behind the counter, along with the scratch-off cards, Wet N’ Wild condoms, and E-Z Wider rolling papers. The Yemeni clerk on Franklin Avenue is known to have the best deal on the block, one reason why his store is always packed with International students in the minutes before class. Occasionally kids manage to stash their phones in their shoes and get through the metal detector without incident, but it is hard to sneak much past the flat stares of the guards.
One person who always manages to slip by is Alex Harty, a twelfth-grade math teacher. Tall, lanky, pierced, and tattooed—a multicolored portrait of “the gunslinger” from Stephen King’s series The Dark Tower covers his right arm—Alex lopes through the halls of the International like a walking DO NOT DISTURB sign, when he isn’t rolling through on his skateboard. On most days, he comes to work wearing a Toronto Blue Jays cap and baggy cargo shorts, publicly flouting the schoolwide ban of hats and disregarding the administration’s distaste for low-riding pants. He did wear a suit on his job interview: his prom suit. Despite the no-iPod rule, Alex is rarely seen without his headphones. Not just any headphones. These are Shure SCL2 sound-isolating earbuds in black, which, according to the product description, are “great for use in noisy environments such as bus stations, airports, or live stages.”
Or high schools. In the past, everything from the metal band Tool to the bluegrass fusion of Bela Fleck has helped Alex keep his sanity, but not this year, not during the first week of school. Over the summer he lost his iPod, and when he walks into the halls of the fourth floor, there is no buffer, no noise rock or soothing Flecktones to drown out the sound of his students crying out, “Mr. Haaaaaarrrrrtttttyyyyyyyyyy!”—and more than four hundred other voices shrieking simultaneously in foreign tongues.
“Aiiiiiiiiii, Te ves muy morena!”
“What’s crackin’, yo? What’s poppin’?”
“Kire ki obostha!”
“Hey, Plátano,” a French junior calls out to a curly-haired Dominican girl, her brown skin oozing like fresh taffy out of too-tight jeans.
“Hey, Frenchie,” she says, smiling over her shoulder before folding herself into the arms of her boyfriend.
Three years ago, when Alex first began teaching at International, it all sounded the same to his ears: “‘JABBA-JABBA-JABBA.’ When the hallway would come into the room, it was insanity,” he says. “It felt like the Tower of Babel.”
In some ways, Babel is an apt metaphor for the International High School at Prospect Heights, which is part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization formed in 2004 that serves recent immigrants and new English-language learners from around the world. (In addition to twelve schools in New York City, the Network has opened schools in Oakland and San Francisco.) At the school in Prospect Heights, students come from more than forty-five different countries and speak more than twenty-eight different languages. At any given moment hundreds of tongues are flapping in Arabic, Bengali, Creole, French, Fula, Hindi, Krio, Mandarin, Mina, Nepali, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tajik, Tibetan, Urdu, and Uzbek.
Despite his efforts to tune out the cacophony, Alex has picked up a few things over the years. At first, he was boggled by the fact that some of the Tibetan and Bangladeshi students seemed to understand one another; then he learned that they share the common language of Hindi, which the Tibetans learned in Dharamsala, India, home to the largest Tibetan exile community as well as their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Their native “Tashi delek” means “hello” or “good luck.” The Haitians speak Creole, not to be confused with Krio, the broken English dialect of the Sierra Leoneans, who greet each other with the somatic salutation, “Ow di bodi?” (How’s the body?) Typically, the answer is, “Di bodi fine!”
Everyone who walks through the halls of International on a daily basis has a different way of dealing with the noise. (Aspirin helps.) The effect can be overwhelming, like audio spam. Imagine being trapped in a small, windowless room and tuning into dozens of AM radio stations at once. Some frequencies are low, such as the soft chatter of the Pakistani girls who gather in black hijabs, moving like shadows against the rows of rusting blue lockers; or the Bangladeshi girls, who giggle behind their palms and form a colorful garden with their streaming silk scarves in marigold, bluebell, rose, and lime.
Others are head-splittingly strong, like the Dominican girls who do running jumps into each other’s arms, or the Haitian fashionistas who clog the halls, screaming at the top of their lungs, their hugs more like body slams in a cage match.
Chaos and confusion always reign during the first week, but the administrators and school-safety officers who police the third and fourth floors still try to impose order. For the rest of the year the classrooms will never be as clean as they are in September. By June every year, barnacles of dried gum encrust the undersides of tables and chairs, and every August they are scraped away. The restrooms are stocked to the hilt with toilet paper, the bowls pristinely awaiting an answer to a communal plea that has been laminated and taped to the girls’ bathroom door: FLUSH, it says, IF YOU LOVE YOUR SCHOOL. At least for a little while, the hallways smell of disinfectant and not body odor—or, worse, stink bombs. The mottled blue floors are practically spit-shined, like linoleum lagoons, dimly reflecting Nikes and Pumas on their surfaces, as students pounce on each other, their shrieks rocketing off the walls.
Leaning against a row of lockers and sporting a pair of Nike Airs in red, white, and blue, a sinewy African boy named Freeman Degboe lives up to his reputation as the class flirt, stroking his goatee and chatting up girls in various tongues.
“Did you miss me?”
“Where are you from?”
“Hey, it’s my wife!” he greets a cute Chinese junior with short-cropped hair and broad shoulders. “Ni hao!”
Over the summer, Freeman traded in his round John Lennon specs and the acoustic guitar he always carried around in the halls—both more for effect than actual use—for those white Nikes, a gold Jesus head pendant, and the nickname Pollo Frito, which his Dominican rapper friends call him in honor of his appetite for Spanish-style chicken and rice. Wind Liu, a whippet-thin Chinese girl with a penchant for patent-leather stilettos, rechristened herself Dinice, even though she still heads her homework with her birth name, Dong Er. Owen Zhu, a geeky senior with a few sparse chin hairs and a flash drive on a cord around his neck, came back with fresh skills, which he hopes will impress Wind/Dinice/ Dong Er.
“I got really into Rubik’s Cube over the summer,” he tells her. “I like it to make my fingers smoother and my thinking smarter.” Oblivious to the cloud of boredom misting over Dinice’s milky-blue contact lenses, he fishes out the puzzle cube from his backpack and works it with thick, sweaty hands. “I learned how to do this on YouTube,” he explains, when each side is a single wall of color. “My best time is one fifty-seven.”
Most of the faces that pass through the halls are familiar. But every year approximately 110 freshmen are accepted into the school, many arriving in the country just months, weeks, or even hours before the first day. Tiny and burdened by huge backpacks, the new kids grip their class schedules and wander the halls lost and confused, watching as teachers pull over other kids like traffic cops stop speeding, swerving cars for Breathalyzer tests. Do you know where you’re going? Who’s your advisor? Who, who, who? She’s waiting for you!
On the first day of school, every student is directed to an “advisory,” a group of about a dozen kids who meet with each other and their advisor, usually a teacher in their grade, for sixty-five minutes twice a week. A few advisors have already led their freshmen charges through the halls, pointing out important landmarks, like the cafeteria in the basement and various classrooms, including 444, which is the room number for Chit Su’s first-period class, global studies.
Because Chit Su came late, she is on her own until she meets her advisor, who also happens to be her first-period teacher. Outside Dariana’s office, Chit Su passes through a harsh, seemingly lawless world on the way to Room 444. Gripping her class schedule in one hand and half-eaten peanut-butter crackers in the other, she walks with her head down through the halls, her backpack molded to her like a turtle shell, her sneakers squeaking against the bluish-gray linoleum. On her right is a mural left by the Class of 2008. The entire wall is covered with a colorful patchwork of squares painted in different shades, representing the skin tones of the inaugural class: peach, parchment, ebony, cocoa, and umber. On her left, locker doors open to reveal stick-on mirrors and photos of teen idols like Zac Efron and Selena Gomez, before banging closed.
Room 440, 441. Chit Su squeezes by a knot of Dominican boys wearing sunglasses and long chains of colored rubber bands—their rap group’s very own discount bling. “718! All day!” someone screams in honor of the posse’s name and Brooklyn’s area code. Nearby, a Haitian girl wearing a single, black lace Michael Jackson glove teases her hair with a purple pick.
Room 442, 443. More classroom doors swing open, and students spill out, shrieking, laughing, hugging, high-fiving, and talking—so much talking. Even their T-shirts talk, getting louder and bolder over the year: “Sexy Baby,” “Sexy Bitch,” “Mean Girls Finish First,” “I’m Looking for a Rich Man.” A stringy African girl in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Hi, Hater” sprints down the hall, leaving Chit Su to stare blankly at the blocky lettering on her back: “Bye, Hater.”
At Room 444, Chit Su comes to a squeaking halt and peers through a rectangular glass window in the door. The room is bright and filled with students, their faces turned toward a thin woman standing in front of a huge map. Her name is Suzannah Taylor, and she teaches global studies. Two days ago she made the students step up to the map, point out their countries, and then say one thing they liked about where they were from and one thing they liked about New York City. Everyone agreed that the best thing about America was TV. A boy from Mauritania said he liked his country because it’s large. One girl couldn’t find Haiti on the map and was surprised to see how small it looked when Suzannah pointed out a speck of green amid so much blue. When Suzannah asked a Puerto Rican girl what she missed most about her country, her eyes welled up with tears. “Todo,” she said. Everything.
Suzannah told the class that she missed her home, too, but it was hard to tell where she was from. Fair-skinned with fine brown hair, glasses, and a tiny silver nose stud, she looked like she got dressed in an African market that day. She wore a grass-green skirt in a bold flowered print, big black hoop earrings made of wood, and ivory bangle bracelets that clanged together when she pointed to a gigantic mass of land on the map. “Texas,” she said. “The capital of Texas is Austin. It’s not the biggest city, but it’s where the government is. My country’s capital is Washington, D.C. That’s where the president lives. One thing I like about my country is that there are so many different kinds of people. My second country is Mali because I lived in Africa for a year.”
“Where are you from?” Suzannah asks Chit Su, when she walks into her classroom on the fourth day of school.
“Thailand,” Chit Su says, looking around the room. The peach walls are covered with posters of laminated world currencies and flags. If she had been in class on the second day of school, she would have drawn her country’s flag in crayon on a four-by-six-inch index card along with the other students. But because Chit Su is late, Suzannah gives her a worksheet to fill out. It is divided into three columns: “Words I don’t know,” “Words I kind of know,” “Words I know.”
From her backpack, Chit Su pulls out a pencil bag and selects a sparkly silver-and-blue pen, poising it over the page but never touching the nib to the paper. From the corner of her eye, she watches Suzannah show the class pictures of maps on a projector.
“Who can tell me what a continent is?” Suzannah asks.
Several hands shoot up.
“It’s like an island, but bigger!”
“A group of countries!”
“Something you find on a map!”
Biting the tip of her pen, Chit Su stares at the assignment. As the other students get to work, she stares at the walls, and at her classmates. Like in the mural in the hall, their faces range from ivory white to cake-batter brown to dusky black. Only, up close, they are in high definition. There are a surprising number of mustaches and lots of acne, some of it covered up with patchy foundation or hidden behind heavy bangs. A couple of the girls wear dark veils wrapped around their heads and shoulders.
“We’re going to talk about maps today. Pretend I’m from a different planet,” Suzannah says, cocking her head to the side. “What’s a ‘map’?” More hands shoot up, and she shows the class a map of Central Park. “Is that Costa Rica?” a Haitian girl asks.
At moments, the outside world seeps in, breaking up the chorus of voices. Through the open window comes the whoosh of braking trucks and distant cries of ambulance sirens. In a nearby classroom, the English teacher Minerva Moya claps her hands for attention, her voice ringing down the hall. “Students! STUDENTS!”
When the clock hands hit 9:45 at the end of the period, the effect is already Pavlovian. Students zip their backpacks closed and shove out of their seats, grinding metal chair legs against the floor. Chit Su is still clutching her sparkly silver-and-blue pen, but her page is blank.
Reading Group Guide
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In The New Kids, journalist Brooke Hauser takes readers inside the International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, New York, and into the lives of its students—all recent immigrants who are learning English. Among the memorable students she follows: Ngawang, who escaped Tibet by hiding inside of a small suitcase for twenty-four hours; Mohamed, a diamond miner’s son from Sierra Leone who dreams of becoming a doctor; and Yasmeen, a Muslim girl from Yemen who has her feet in two worlds. Despite their different backgrounds, all of the students are adjusting to life in a new land and forging their own paths to the American Dream.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The New Kids is divided into three parts: Passages, Between Worlds, and Almost American. How do those titles reflect the narrative arc of the book and the students’ stories? What does it mean to be almost American? What does “being American” mean to you?
2. Many students at the International High School at Prospect Heights believe in the American Dream. Do you? Why or why not? Would you say that America is still the land of opportunity?
3. “I used to say, ‘We’re going to turn around people’s perceptions of what a school for immigrants should look like,’” says founding principal Alexandra Anormaliza (p. 16). What is your opinion of the International High School model? Do you believe it’s a good idea to have a separate school for immigrants who are learning English, or do you think it’s better to mainstream English-language learners (ELLs) into a more traditional high school environment?
4. Of the five students featured most prominently in the book—Jessica Tan, Ngawang Thokmey, Mohamed Bah, Yasmeen Salahi, and Chit Su—whose story resonated with you the most, and why? Which of these students do you think changed the most during the course of the school year? How so?
5. “I think every immigrant who comes here has a big story,” Jessica says (p. 62). Is there an important immigration story in your family? How much do you know about your own background or ancestry? What would you like to know?
6. Students at the International High School come from more than forty-five different countries. How do ethnic differences play out at the school? Were there any friendships between students from different backgrounds that surprised you?
7. Using examples from the book, discuss how the students are often caught between two cultures—tied to their traditional customs and beliefs, yet trying to acclimatize to American society. How does Yasmeen’s situation illustrate this conflict?
8. After Yasmeen gets married, her advisor James Rice worries about her being on a “slippery slope” and sacrificing her dream to go to college (p. 220). However, Yasmeen has her reasons for accepting the proposal. What are those reasons? Do you think she got what she wanted, or do you think her compromise may have cost her too much?
9. “Every year, the principal encounters a handful of students that she categorizes as ‘the kids who will not not be known.’ Mohamed Bah is one of those kids” (p. 83). What was your first impression of Mohamed? Did it change over the course of the year—and the book?
10. The story of how Mohamed came to live in America is a complicated one. He was brought to Connecticut by a church, and later disappeared during a day trip to New York City. He said he had gotten lost. What do you think about the church’s decision to host him in the first place, and how do you think they handled the situation?
11. What similarities does the International High School at Prospect Heights share with the high schools you are familiar with? How is it different? In what ways are International students like their American-born peers, and in what ways are they not?
12. The New Kids was inspired by an article Brooke Hauser wrote for The New York Times titled “This Strange Thing Called Prom.” What does this iconic dance symbolize to the students? How does art teacher Cindy Chatman’s play The Prom help the kids to better understand the tradition? Were you reminded of any memories from your own prom?
13. Consider the complexity of the students’ lives outside the classroom. How do external factors such as living conditions and financial circumstances affect their education? Why is Ann Parry surprised when she finds out Jessica is living on her own? Do you think you could have survived on your own in this situation?
14. The staff at International make it a point to support students who are in need, both in and out of school. How involved should a teacher or administrator become in a student’s home life? What did you make of the confrontation between members of the staff, including Dariana Castro and Cindy, and Mohamed’s African “uncles” and the eldest Brother?
15. “It’s amazing, some of the trials and tribulations that our kids have gone through just to get a foot into our school,” says parent coordinator Miguel Antunes” (p. 33). Consider the harrowing journeys that students have endured to make it to the United States. Do you think that having limited or no access to education in their native countries has made some International students value school more highly than their American-born peers? How did reading The New Kids influence your views about education and immigration? Does knowing the personal stories of these individuals impact your view of current policies and social attitudes toward immigrants? How so?
16. “When Ann looks at Ngawang, she doesn’t see the Boy in the Suitcase but a punky kid wearing Converse and a black T-shirt inscribed with a yellow smiley face and the message “I Hate You”. . . . She sees a boy who is much more than a myth, and much less” (p. 51). At the International High School, the students are sometimes defined by events in their past. How do their stories help them or hinder them? What does it mean that Ngawang is more than a myth and less?
17. At the end of the year, James Rice asks his advisory to imagine what their classmates will be doing in twenty years. Think about the five main students featured in the book—where do you see them in twenty years? Were you bothered by the fact that the end of the book left so many loose ends? Why or why not?
18. What inspired your book group or class to read The New Kids? What are your overall thoughts about the book?
Enhance Your Book Club or Class Discussion
1. Read Brooke Hauser’s June 22, 2008, New York Times article, “This Strange Thing Called Prom,” which helped inspire The New Kids, and watch the accompanying video online at www.nytimes.com.
2. Get involved. “The International High School at Prospect Heights can always use a helping hand, as can the Internationals Network for Public Schools,” says Hauser. Her suggestions include helping students with their college essays and donating prom dresses and suits. Visit www.internationalsnps.org to see how you can lend support or reach out to the International Rescue Committee, which helps to resettle refugees and has regional offices around the country. Learn more about volunteer opportunities here: www.rescue.org/our-work/resettling-refugees.
3. The author references Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” on page 60 (To read the entire poem, visit www.bartleby.com/142/86.html).
4. The New Kids opens with an epigraph, a quote from a Polish-Jewish immigrant who passed through Ellis Island in 1917 and was later interviewed in 1985. To learn more about the early immigrant experience in America, plan a trip to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum or the Tenement Museum in New York City. Closer to home, uncover your own family’s history at www.ancestry.com, or interview someone you know—a relative, friend, or an acquaintance—about how he or she came to America.
5. Visit www.brookehauser.com to learn more about the author, find articles and radio interviews about The New Kids, see photographs of some of the students featured in the book, and read the commencement address Hauser gave at the 2011 graduation ceremony at the International High School at Prospect Heights.
A Conversation with Brooke Hauser
The New Kids grew out of an article you wrote for The New York Times, “this strange thing called Prom.” How did you first learn about the International High school, and when did you realize you wanted to go further and write something more in-depth about the school and its students?
Even before I wrote the prom article, I suspected that I might want to write a book about the International High School at Prospect Heights. I just loved the idea of the world in a high school: a place where students come from dozens of countries and coexist under one roof. I first heard about the Internationals Network for Public Schools through a friend who worked at the International Rescue Committee. I was interested in volunteering with refugee youth at an International High School in the Bronx, but the more I learned about the mission of these schools—to teach English to immigrants and refugees—the more interested I became in writing about the students.
I chose the school in Prospect Heights because I lived nearby, but also because, as the founding principal, Alexandra had brought such a strong and personal vision to the school’s creation. When I started reporting the article in the spring of 2008, the school was relatively new, and the first-ever graduating class had to figure out a lot on their own—prom, for instance. For most of the seniors, “prom” was a foreign concept, which made the planning of it very difficult and the final event unlike any other. (That year, the most popular girl was a former nomadic yak herder from Tibet.) In some ways, prom was like a baptism into American life for these students. For me, it was a wonderful entry into the culture of the school and the mind-set of teenagers who, in many cases, were straddling two worlds: old and new. It was obvious to me that I had only scratched the surface with the article, and that there were countless more stories to be told.
You feature five main students: Jessica, Chit Su, Yasmeen, Mohamed, and Ngawang. How did you determine which students you would profile in-depth?
In September, I asked several twelfth-grade teachers this question: “When you go home at night, who are the students who you can’t stop thinking about?” For English teacher Ann Parry, that student was Jessica, who got kicked out of her father’s apartment during her very first week in America—a revelation that stunned Ann, who hadn’t known the turmoil Jessica had been through until she read her college essay. For social studies teacher James Rice, that student was Yasmeen, who in the coming weeks and months would be in and out of school dealing with the loss of her parents. Even though she was absent for much of the fall, I got to know Yasmeen through James’s descriptions of her. He clearly had tremendous respect for her, and before I even met Yasmeen, I knew that she was a willful, religious, and relatively outspoken Muslim girl who struggled to balance her difficult home life with her dream to go to college. That tension intrigued me.
Other students shared their personal essays with me early on, giving me glimpses into their lives back home and their journeys to America. When I read Ngawang’s story about being trapped in a suitcase for twenty-four hours, I knew that, with his help, it would be a chapter in the book. Mohamed also shared a moving essay with me, about the day he spent mining diamonds with his father, but it was really his larger- than-life personality that got my attention. I’ll never forget how he first introduced himself to me, saying, “I’m from Sierra Leone. We’re known for our riches!”
Of the five main students I follow in the book, Chit Su is the one I chose most at random. I knew I wanted to shadow a freshman on his or her first day of school, and Dariana and Miguel, who worked closely with new students, were willing to make an introduction. One day in September, Chit Su showed up. Not only had she just arrived in the United States, she was also the only person to speak her language, Burmese, in the entire school. I wanted to know what that felt like.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to select students who would represent different countries, but it was also important to me to show a range of experiences: varied education levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious beliefs, etc. Finally, the students had to meet two unspoken criteria: one, they had to be proficient enough in English so that we could have in-depth conversations (Chit Su being the exception); and two, they had to want to share their stories. Writing a book is a long process, and I needed the students to feel invested in the project for it to work.
One Booklist reviewer wrote, “Hauser clearly cares about the students whose lives she entered for a year.” How did you establish a rapport with the students and get them to open up to you and share their stories? What was it like for you to meet with them one-on-one in their homes? Did you attend Yasmeen’s engagement party?
Once I chose the five students, I just tried to spend as much time with each of them as possible in different environments. The journalist Leon Dash said that, when he interviews a new subject, he initially covers four main topics: home life, school, church life (or more generally, one’s relation to religion), and social life. I tend to explore these same spheres, though not always consciously. School was the obvious place to start. While I did spend a lot of time with students during class time, I often learned more when they were gossiping in the halls or finding their seats in the cafeteria (or struggling to find them). That said, I became a fixture in one twelfth-grade English class taught by Ann and Vadim Feyder, and just as important as me getting to know the kids was the kids getting used to seeing me day after day after day; once I became familiar, rapport came naturally.
Over the course of the year, I conducted hundreds of hours of inter- views on tape, but sometimes the best conversations happened during a subway ride or while running an errand. The kids invited me to all kinds of social events. Hasanatu and her cousin brought me along to a West African wedding, and several of the Tibetan students insisted I go to a Tibetan party at a Queens banquet hall. Throughout the night, the guests sat before a shrine and a banner of the Dalai Lama, and watched as several young men took to the stage to perform Tibetan pop songs, like one called “Lhasa Girl.” These parties didn’t make the cut to be scenes in the book, but they were important because they gave me an insider’s view into cultures I previously knew very little about.
As for home visits, there were many memorable ones: for instance, drinking viscous butter tea at Ngawang’s apartment, which he shared with several Tibetan bachelors; and seeing Jessica’s room for the first time. Despite the cramped space, she took pride in playing the host, offering me a drink and snacks from the assortment of groceries she kept stored in her room.
Come to think of it, every student I visited offered me food, except for Mohamed, who didn’t have any to offer back when he was living with his African “uncles.” The first time I visited, their refrigerator was empty, except for some Reddi Whip, a liter of Pepsi, and a giant tub of mayonnaise. That day it struck me how little Mohamed had to call his own. It seemed like such a paradox that this kid, so vibrant and engaged at school, was virtually invisible at home.
Yasmeen was the only student who I didn’t visit at home during the school year, though she invited me over later. Instead, we sometimes would meet nearby, at a park bench or at a Laundromat. Still, even away from home, Yasmeen couldn’t escape it. One day at a Middle Eastern grocery store, she pointed out the exact spot where her mother used to stand to scoop olives. Much of Yasmeen’s story came out in this way—with her passing mundane landmarks that made her recall intimate memories.
Yasmeen had limits as to what she did and didn’t want to share when it came to her home life, but she invited almost every woman she knew, including me, to her engagement party. The day of the event, Ann Parry and I arrived at approximately the same time and took our seats at a decorated table. We were the first guests there, and I’ll never forget the reaction of the veiled Yemeni woman who arrived a few minutes later.
She walked in, took one look at Ann’s blond hair and my red-and-white polka-dot dress, and walked back out, apparently convinced that she had shown up at the wrong party. As the evening went on, some of Yasmeen’s friends and relatives eyed our table curiously from afar—Yasmeen had invited several of her classmates as well—but others went out of their way to be welcoming, offering us tea and bread and bits of commentary about Yemeni customs. Still, nothing they said could have prepared us for the sight of Yasmeen in her golden gown. Her unveiling was one of those unforgettable moments—and the fact that we couldn’t take pictures somehow made it all the more indelible.
Why do you think the students, as well as the administrators and teachers, were so willing to share their stories?
I believe it’s human nature for people to want to share their stories. Consider StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit that has recorded thou- sands of personal stories told by “ordinary” Americans. Consider the Ellis Island oral History Project, which has collected nearly two thousand interviews about the immigrant experience, from leaving home to adjusting to life in this country. I think some of the students, like Ngawang, shared their stories because they were proud of having survived their journeys. Other kids seemed to use stories as a way of piecing together their pasts, and in a few cases I was able to help simply by asking questions. By senior year, the students were already used to sharing chapters of their lives, in college essays and in a self-published book of narratives they created together as a class, so it wasn’t that big of a leap for some of the kids to retell those stories to me. I should add that not all of the kids were as forthcoming, and the last thing I wanted to do was dredge up difficult memories for students who might not have been ready to revisit them.
As for the staff, occasionally they just wanted to vent, and I happened to be there to listen. I also think that many of the teachers and administrators felt incredibly proud of the school and of their students, and wanted to relate their experiences for that reason. Teaching can be a thankless job. Maybe the teachers appreciated talking to someone who put such high value on their insights and opinions.
You’ve said that the International High school is one of your “favorite places on earth.” why do you find it to be such a special place?
It’s just . . . fun. I love walking down those hallways and seeing what seems like the whole world. I love the crazy teenage energy and the out- fits and hairstyles the kids wear. I love the noise. The year I reported the book, I used to duck out between periods and head across the street to the Brooklyn Museum, just to remember what quiet sounds like. Hearing hundreds of kids talking and screaming in dozens of different languages can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating—the school is so full of life.
I also enjoyed the small, daily interactions I had with the kids. Once they began to recognize me, they would always say hello, sometimes giving me hugs, high-fives, even little gifts. Around Christmas, a Tibetan freshman presented me with a huge card that was addressed to “Mr. Hauser” and encrusted with leftover dough from some momo dumplings she had made. I think I still have it somewhere.
Did you have a broader agenda in mind when you wrote The New Kids? what would you like readers to take away from the book?
I simply set out to write a good book, so in that sense, no, I didn’t really have a broader agenda in mind. The New Kids is, above all, a book about people, not about politics. I’ve often thought of the words of 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt, who said, “I don’t do issues—I do stories.” My goal was to render the students’ stories as faithfully and powerfully as possible, and my hope was that readers would come to care about them as much as I do. That said, I do hope that their stories inspire people to share their own stories, and to talk about immigration and education, two of the most important issues of our time. Since the book first came out, I’ve gotten a lot of mail from readers of all different backgrounds. One of the most moving letters came from a retired teacher who had gone back and forth on the issue of what should be done with undocumented immigrants. After reading The New Kids, she said, she now believed that she would be supporting The DReAM Act.
Personally, I walked away from the experience of writing the book with a renewed optimism. For so many of these students, America still is the land of opportunity. I’ve never thought of myself as a patriotic person, but I now feel so fortunate to have been born and raised in the United States. I also find myself being more consciously thankful for my family, having gotten to know kids who either lost family members or had to leave loved ones behind. There are a lot of basic privileges that I know I’ve taken for granted—access to clean water, to a good education. I don’t think about these things every day, but when I do I no longer take them for granted.
During the year you spent reporting on the students and the inner workings of the International High school, what did you discover that most surprised you?
I was definitely taken aback by the number of students who were married, about to be married, parents, or about to be parents. Even more surprising was how well some of these students handled the responsibilities and burdens that we associate with adulthood. I got to know several teen- age mothers, but they weren’t the stereotypical “teen moms.” Bilguissa Diallo, the young mother from Guinea, came across as more mature than some of her teachers! There were quite a few students who appeared older than they were, having come from cultures where kids grow up faster.
I was equally surprised by what I didn’t discover. For the first half of the year, I searched in vain for the traditional high school cliques in the cafeteria: mean girls, jocks, nerds, etc. There were variations on those themes, of course, but at a certain point I gave up on trying to squeeze the International students into preexisting categories. Instead, I opened my eyes and started seeing what was really there: a clique of Tibetans who were former nomadic yak herders or farmers back home, a group of Chinese boys who aspired to be professional “hair designers,” and a table of boys who were known simply as The Arabic Family. Much more interesting than jocks and cheerleaders.
Finally, I was a bit disbelieving when it came to some of the students’ attitudes about school. Let me be clear: Most of the kids were prone to bouts of obnoxiousness like any other high schoolers. But there were more than a few students who just seemed so grateful to be receiving an education, and they treated their teachers with a level of respect that is probably uncommon in most American high schools.
Tell us about delivering the 2011 commencement address at the International High school at Prospect Heights. What was the experience like for you?
Being asked to deliver the commencement address was such an honor, and it was all the more special because Mohamed’s class was graduating that year. He actually introduced me, and later in the ceremony I had the pleasure of watching him walk down the stage in his gown and mortarboard, beaming. I felt proud of all of the kids, and it was hard for me to keep my composure. I recently had moved out of New York City, and coming back to Brooklyn, to this high school, to these familiar faces—it just got to me. I had so much I wanted to say to the kids, I didn’t know where to start, but I knew how to end. Before meeting these students, the term “American Dream” didn’t mean much to me. Now it does. I summed it up this way:
What is the American Dream? Everybody has a different definition, but to me, it is the act of striving for something more. It is the boy who is the first person in his family to graduate high school. It is the girl who came here not knowing how to read or write, but who practiced forming her letters until the letters became words, and those words became sentences, and those sentences became stories and college essays. It is the students who came here alone, without family, and found a new family at this school; a second home. And it is all the students who worked long hours after school—washing dishes, selling groceries, or cleaning other people’s houses—and still came to class with their homework done.
To me, the American Dream is you.
- Publisher: Atria Books (May 1, 2012)
- Length: 336 pages
- ISBN13: 9781439163306
Browse Related Books
Raves and Reviews
A People Magazine "Great Read"
"The stories of these kids are simply astonishing." -- Talk of the Nation, NPR
"A refreshing reminder of the hurdles newcomers to this country still face and how many defy the odds to overcome them." --The New York Times
"Brooke Hauser, who spent a year following members of the senior class, delivers a rich, extraordinarily moving account of the challenges they met--and the many ways in which kids are the same the world over." --Parade Magazine
Awards and Honors
- ALA Alex Award
Resources and Downloads
Common Core Suggestion
Tarleton State University (2012/2013)
University of Vermont (2012/2013)
University of Wisconsin, Whitewater (2012/2013)
High Resolution Images
- Book Cover Image (jpg): The New Kids Trade Paperback 9781439163306
- Author Photo (jpg): Brooke Hauser Karen Wise (Karen Wise Photography)(9.4 MB)
Any use of an author photo must include its respective photo credit
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