Back to Square One
The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys
at a High School for Immigrant Teens
(Free Press, 2011)
The students who attend the International High School at Prospect Heights walk through hallways originally constructed in the 1920s, when the New York City Board of Education erected a colossal 3,500-seat school in view of the Brooklyn Museum and Botanical Gardens. It is an understatement to say times have changed—for a small fee, at least one grocery near the school will store students’ Sidekicks and iPods during school hours—but as always, education theory has a habit of reversing itself. In 2002, overcrowding and low achievement rates made it a target for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s small schools initiative, which divided the school into four separate entities. The International School at Prospect Heights, the subject of Brooke Hauser’s The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens, is one of the results of that division. The school is devoted entirely to English-language learners who are “newcomer” immigrant students who have lived in the U.S. for less than four years.
Hauser first wrote about International for the New York Times, in a piece about the school’s first prom—to understand exactly what prom is,the prom-planning committee watched teen movies and paged through issues of Teen Prom. (Those who have attended an American prom may be equally at a loss.) It is easy to see why Hauser then chose to return, following the lives of the senior class during the 2008-9 school year. The New Kids captures the energy of high school and all its hilarity, humanity, and chaos—bosoms covered in brazen T-shirts that read “Cocktails now question later” and “Slippery when wet”; members of a hip-hop group who wear chains of Memorex CDs around their necks; the student who gives a teacher wrinkle cream at the end of the school year.
Hauser focuses on the lives of five students. Yasmeen is an orphaned Yemeni senior who files for guardianship of her younger siblings the same year she considers a wedding proposal from a cousin. Her best friend, Jessica, emigrated from China to live with her father for the first time in seven years, only to be kicked out of the house by her stepmother. Mohamed was meant to return to Sierra Leone after a brief “reverse” mission trip, but he abandons his host family during a trip to Macy’s. Ngawang was smuggled over the Tibetan border in a two-by-three-foot suitcase, and Chit Su, recently arrived from a Thai refugee camp, is the only person at the school who speaks Burmese. (Freeman, an aspiring playboy, is undeterred. Including the language of his native Togo, he flirts with girls in a minimum of four languages, all in that dialect which is exclusive to teenage boys.)
The New Kids charts the complex journey of immigrant adolescents: “Four hundred memoirs waiting to be translated,” who aren’t below cussing at Bloomberg on Facebook for his failure to declare a snow day. Hauser includes excerpts from the Yemeni-Chinese-American diary that Yasmeen and Jessica share. “I look at myself in the mirror to see, am I the person I used to be?” Yasmeen writes to Jessica. “I can speak English. I am in America, in high school. Is that real? Am I living in reality or not? Who am I?” Jessica’s father visits her small apartment in Chinatown each weeknight. He cooks her dinner a few times a week but, fearing his second wife’s disapproval, rarely stays long enough to welcome her home from school. Jessica is the top student in her class. Nothing is wasted in her neighborhood, she tells Hauser—except “daughters who have been cast aside.” On the morning of her birthday, she tells Hauser, she sang “Happy Birthday” to herself.
Such details reflect the discipline and depth of Hauser’s reporting process. Her writing falters, though, particularly in its tendency toward unnecessary and perplexing metaphors—the spring “slinks in like a delinquent student,” questions “pile up in his brain like dirty dishes on a busboy’s tray, wobbling and crashing around until he can’t take it anymore,” and girl’s skin oozes “like fresh taffy out of too-tight jeans.” There are disadvantages to spending a year around adolescent writers.
Such is the fate of high school English teachers, who muddle through misplaced punctuation and stale sentences in an effort to lead their students to clarity and eloquence—a task that becomes even more difficult when filtered through a foreign language and interrupted schooling. One teacher says she tries not to learn too much about her students’ lives, as she believes that it would compromise her expectations for their work. But she recognizes the impossibility of this: in addition to the wildly popular teen writing topics that are the Bermuda Triangle and broken hearts, students turn in first-hand accounts of poverty, death, and persecution. “How do you correct a sentence about someone’s family dying in a car crash?” she asks.
Other staff members take a different approach. The art teacher adopts Mohamed, the runaway, after learning that the men he is living with are exploiting him for labor. The guidance counselor loans a student her jacket to wear to a job interview. “As she sees it, international students must work much harder to be considered equal to their American-born peers,” writes Hauser. “They have to prepare longer, talk louder, and dress sharper. Every last detail counts.”
The 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe grants all students in grades kindergarten through 12 the right to attend school, regardless of documentation status. In the eyes of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which runs International, individuals without documentation will eventually become legal through work, marriage, or changes in the legal system. “Better to have those people functioning as productive members of a democratic society than not,” says the executive director.
Although recent legislation in Alabama threatens to overturn Plyler v. Doe, a handful of states offer in-state college tuition to undocumented students, including New York and Texas. At present, undocumented students are ineligible to apply for federal financial aid. For students at International, the joy of receiving a college acceptance letter is quickly tempered by the details of their financial aid package. Those who don’t receive private scholarships or state funding begin to wonder “why they bother coming to school at all when they feel destined to work in corner bodegas, nail salons, and restaurants, like their parents.”
The New Kids is not a policy text for those seeking to define and implement the levers of educational change for immigrant students. But its attention to detail and its commitment to complexity illustrate a school’s holistic, integrative approach to educating students with diverse needs. It is one that appears to be working. According to data from the Internationals Network, 73 percent of its students graduate within four years, double that of English-language learners in other New York City public schools. In reporting the life of a school whose motto is “Opening Doors to the American Dream,” The New Kids illustrates the potential for the nation to achieve—through education that is rigorous, holistic, and collaborative—a greater and more egalitarian reality.