The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom

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9781501159091: The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom
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“A delicate and heartbreaking mystery story...Thorpe’s book is a reminder that in an era of nativism, some Americans are still breaking down walls and nurturing newcomers, the seeds of the great American experiment.”The New York Times Book Review

“The teens we meet have endured things none of us can imagine...and [this book has] never been more crucial than at this moment.” —USA TODAY

“Helen Thorpe has taken policy and turned it into literature.” —Malcolm Gladwell

From the award-winning, “meticulously observant” author of Soldier Girls and Just Like Us comes a powerful and moving account of how refugee teenagers at a public high school learn English and become Americans, in the care of a compassionate teacher.

The Newcomers follows the lives of twenty-two immigrant teenagers throughout the course of the 2015-2016 school year as they land at South High School in Denver, Colorado. These newcomers, from fourteen to nineteen years old, come from nations convulsed by drought or famine or war. Many come directly from refugee camps, after experiencing dire forms of cataclysm. Some arrive alone, having left or lost every other member of their original family.

At the center of their story is Mr. Williams, their dedicated and endlessly resourceful teacher of English Language Acquisition. If Mr. Williams does his job right, the newcomers will leave his class at the end of the school year with basic English skills and new confidence, their foundation for becoming Americans and finding a place in their new home. Ultimately, “The Newcomers reads more like an anthropologist’s notebook than a work of reportage: Helen Thorpe not only observes, she chips in her two cents and participates. Like her, we’re moved and agitated by this story of refugee teenagers...Donald Trump’s gross slander of refugees and immigrants is countered on every page by the evidence of these students’ lives and characters” (Los Angeles Review of Books).

With the US at a political crossroads around questions of immigration, multiculturalism, and America’s role on the global stage, Thorpe presents a fresh and nuanced perspective. The Newcomers is “not only an intimate look at lives immigrant teens live, but it is a primer on the art and science of new language acquisition and a portrait of ongoing and emerging global horrors and the human fallout that arrives on our shores” (USA TODAY).

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About the Author:

Helen Thorpe was born in London and grew up in New Jersey. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, The New Yorker, Slate, and Harper’s Bazaar. Her radio stories have aired on This American Life and Sound Print. She is the author of Just Like Us, Soldier Girls, and The Newcomers and lives in Denver.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Newcomers 1

Nice to Meet You


On the first day of school—it was going to be a ninety-degree scorcher and you could already feel the air starting to shimmer—Eddie Williams jogged up the four stone steps at the main entrance to South High School half an hour before the first bell rang, eager to meet his new students. THE LIVES OF MEN, THE CUSTOMS OF PEOPLES, AND THE PAGEANTRY OF NATIONS CHART THE COURSE OF TOMORROW proclaimed a large mural by the front door. The teacher was a tall man, six foot four inches in his socks, with an athletic body (when there were no kids in the building, he sometimes used the many staircases in the school for exercise), short black hair, and a clean-shaven, angular face. He was thirty-eight years old, but could have passed for twenty-eight. Earnest, ardent, industrious, kind, and highly sensitive were traits that came to mind when I thought about the parts of himself this teacher brought into his classroom, week in, week out, all year long. He almost always dressed conservatively, in long-sleeved dress shirts and chinos, and his wardrobe often made me think of leafing through an L.L.Bean catalog, but that day he was wearing a short-sleeved purple South High polo shirt. All the teachers had put on purple shirts, that being the school color, so that the students could easily see whom they should turn to if they had a question about how to find a particular classroom, how to read the confusing schedules they carried, or where they could find the school’s elusive cafeteria, way up on the fourth floor. Mr. Williams usually avoided short-sleeved shirts, even in August, because they revealed the dark blue tattoo that circled one of his biceps, and he feared his students might misinterpret the inked designs as macabre, given their backgrounds. He worked diligently to communicate in all sorts of ways that he was a person they could trust.

Mr. Williams had inherited his Anglo father’s rangy height and propensity to freckle, along with his Latina mother’s dark eyes and hair. Fluent in both Spanish and English, he was the sort of teacher who devoted an enormous portion of his warmth, vitality, and intellect to his students. South was a century-old castlelike structure that stood on the edge of a rolling, green, 160-acre park in central Denver, Colorado. The rectangular park boasted meadows, manicured flower gardens, two lakes, a lily pond, meandering carriageways chock-a-block with Lycra-clad joggers, ten much-in-demand public tennis courts, and the busiest recreation center in the city. The grand old homes that ringed the park were selling for upward of $1 million, while modestly sized homes nearby that did not look directly onto the park might sell for half that amount. The neighborhood public high school was a popular choice, even for families who possessed significant wealth. Most of the classrooms were crowded with noisy, chattering teenagers. That morning, however, as he looked around his room, Mr. Williams saw many empty chairs and only seven students. The teenagers assigned to him wore shut-door expressions on their faces. Nobody in the room was talking, not even to one another. The teacher had expected this, for his room always got off to a quiet start.

“Welcome to newcomer class!” he said, in a deliberately warm tone of voice. “My name is Mr. Williams. What is your name? Where are you from?”

The seven teenagers who had reported to Room 142 made no reply. Just the act of showing up by 7:45 in the morning had required enormous fortitude. It was August 24, 2015, and the students had spent on average more than an hour negotiating the local public transit system to get to the school. They lived crammed with other relatives into small houses or one- or two-bedroom apartments located in far-flung neighborhoods nowhere near this upscale zip code, in parts of the city where a dollar could be stretched. Rents had jumped dramatically in central Denver in recent years, and affordable housing could be found only on the city’s periphery, if at all. Getting from the patchwork zones of cheap housing located on the farthest edges of the city to South via the public transit system took dogged commitment, but that was a quality that Mr. Williams’s students typically possessed in abundance. What they did not possess, for the most part, was the ability to understand what he was saying.

“Welcome to newcomer class!” the teacher repeated, taking care to enunciate each word deliberately. “My name is Mr. Williams. What is your name? Where are you from?”

Mr. Williams often said things twice. It gave his lessons a singsong quality. The students continued to stare back at the teacher without speaking. The technical description for what was happening is “preproduction,” which in the academic literature about language acquisition is also known as “the silent period.” The vast majority of second-language learners begin in a quiet receptive phase, able to produce hardly any English themselves, even as their brains furiously absorb everything being said by their teacher.

* * *

That year, about sixteen hundred teenagers attended South High School, and roughly one-third had been born in another country. South served as a regular neighborhood school that drew many English-speaking students as well as one of the designated destinations in the Denver Public Schools system for students who spoke foreign languages other than Spanish and whose education had been interrupted. For many years South had handled the bulk of the city’s teenage refugees, for it was primarily children in those families who had significant gaps in their education. War—that was what generally caused children to be unable to attend school for long periods of time.

About three hundred students at South were presently enrolled in English Language Acquisition classes, and hundreds more had taken those classes in years past. Among them were students who had seen every kind of catastrophe on the planet. The other two-thirds of the student body had always lived in the United States and had been speaking English since birth. Across the United States, students from non-English-speaking backgrounds had become one of the fastest-growing segments of the K–12 population. Such students now made up 42 percent of the students served by Denver Public Schools. What was remarkable about South was how well it had been integrating students displaced by extreme forms of upheaval with their American-born peers. The school cultivated a mind-set, widely shared by faculty and students, that everybody under its roof was an asset. Native-born kids helped new arrivals learn English, even as foreign-born students helped their American peers become more global-minded. But first, the newcomers had to adjust. Of all the students jammed into the vast five-story building, the seven souls in Mr. Williams’s room had been evaluated as knowing the least English. If any teacher in the building wound up working with a child who had just arrived in the United States as a refugee and did not yet know anything about life on this side of the globe—how to ask a bus driver where to get off, what exactly the Broncos were, and whether to eat “spicy chicken” (the cafeteria served that a lot)—it was Mr. Williams.

Some people viewed ELA students as occupying a place on the low end of the scale, socially. Eddie Williams disagreed; he saw the chance to work with these teenagers as an extraordinary, life-changing experience, one that lit up his own days with meaning. What took place inside his room always struck him as being as close to a bona-fide miracle as he was likely to experience. If these students showed up every day, he believed, they would evolve and heal and adapt and flourish. Their progress might be achingly slow at first, but after a while they would accumulate small victories with rapidity—he had seen it happen before. The closed faces of the students before him would unlock.

Not right away. They were still getting acclimated to so many things: the weird sound of American-accented English, the frighteningly large new urban high school, their strange-looking teacher, and the idea of students changing classrooms throughout the day (in many parts of the world, teachers changed rooms). They were still learning the unfamiliar transit routes to and from South and still getting used to homes made of building materials radically different from any structure they had ever lived in before. Even the weather wasn’t like the weather they had known previously. But one by one, the students would get over the enormous shock of it all and start speaking back to him, he knew, and ultimately the whole room would be transformed.

He also knew that these seven students were only the first to materialize. Over the coming year, the strife-ridden parts of the planet would dispatch many more students to Mr. Williams, he was sure. They turned up that way every year—higgledy-piggledy, not when the calendar advised. Some of them would arrive looking alarmingly thin. They could be anywhere from fourteen to nineteen, and a few would not know exactly how old they were. They came from nations convulsed by drought or famine or war, countries that were barely countries anymore. Many came directly from refugee camps. Every so often, he got a student who arrived in the United States alone, having left or lost every other member of his or her family. The students walked into his room dazed at the abruptness of the transition, looking profoundly lost. And then they started over—started to figure out where they were, started to wonder who he was, started to ask whether to call this place home.

Mr. Williams knew the additional students would come because they always had, and because for several months the front pages of newspapers like the Denver Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal had been filled with photographs of homeless multitudes. Over the summer, the news cycles had been consumed by reports of Middle Eastern asylum seekers arriving by the boatload in Greece and then walking to Germany. Millions of Syrians had been forced from their homes by the civil war gutting that country; in neighboring Iraq, millions more had been uprooted by a decade of fighting; additional millions had fled escalating violence in Afghanistan. The massive movement of people around the Middle East had thrown the whole region into turmoil. Meanwhile, wars of even longer duration in Asia and Africa had inundated camps in those regions with refugees, too. A total of fifty-nine million people around the world had been displaced from their homes as of that year, according to the United Nations—more than at any point since World War II.

Because it provided services that drew such families, South High School’s population mirrored the state of the world. Twenty years earlier, when the school first put its expanded English Language Acquisition program into place, many of the foreign-born students who walked into the front office had been from Bosnia. Generally, they had been well educated, although perhaps they had missed one or two years of schooling, and they typically lacked English; getting them up to speed had been, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. After the school began its second decade of work with students from other parts of the globe, the front office staff had started greeting an increased number of students from the Middle East, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the same period, the school had received large numbers of students from Southeast Asia, primarily Burma, home to the longest-running civil war in the world, a conflict that had raged across its river deltas and its mountain passes for more than sixty years. The school had also welcomed many students from the war-torn parts of Africa—at first from Sudan and Somalia, and later from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. South did not yet have a large number of Syrians, but they were coming. If war erupted halfway around the globe, Mr. Williams knew in a few years he would see children from that place.

So he did not brood about having too few students; more were on their way. Nor was he anxious when the newcomers did not answer, because when they first arrived, they were almost always speechless. Several years might elapse before certain students would come back to tell him in unbroken sentences who they really were. He was consistently staggered by how much his former students had to tell him, once they got hold of enough English. That was his job, to help them find the words. First he had to get them settled, and that was the biggest challenge. Loss of all kinds had robbed these teenagers of certitude, and his main job at the start of the school year was to show them that they were in a room where they would come to no further harm. It was hard, convincing them it was safe to hope.

Mr. Williams taught in a capacious room with a navy blue carpet, white walls, and a high ceiling. A large clock hung directly over the door. The opposite wall featured ten-foot-tall windows with dusty blinds he had closed to keep the room cool, although the sun was peeking through the chinks. Mr. Williams stood with his back to the half-darkened, half-glowing blinds. Because most of the students appeared confused by his greeting, Mr. Williams turned to his aide, Ed DeRose.

“Welcome to newcomer class!” the teacher said again, enunciating each word even more slowly. “My name is Mr. Williams. I am from the United States. I speak English. What is your name? Where are you from? What language do you speak?”

“My name is Mr. DeRose,” his aide replied. “I am from the United States. I speak English.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Mr. Williams.

“Nice to meet you,” responded Mr. DeRose.

The two men shook hands and grinned with genuine amusement, as they had worked together for several years. “Nice to Meet You” happened to be the title of the first chapter in the English Language Acquisition textbook that Mr. Williams employed—the book was titled Inside the U.S.A., and the unit began with the most common greetings used by Americans. Mr. Williams walked over to one of his students, extended his hand, smiled warmly, and repeated his questions.

“What is your name? Where are you from? What language do you speak?”

“I am Stephanie,” the girl responded. “I am from Mexico. I speak Spanish.”

Mr. Williams nodded at her while she spoke, to indicate that she was doing a good job. Stephanie had a heart-shaped face, straight bangs that fell over her forehead, and a shy smile. She had good pronunciation, and she had answered with confidence; clearly, she had some basic English. The teacher gathered that she had just arrived from Mexico but wondered if she had lived in the United States at some previous point.

He walked over to another student and greeted her in the same emphatically friendly manner, smiling widely, giving her all his attention.

“I am Nadia,” she said. “I am from Mozambique. I speak Portuguese.”

“I am Grace,” said the next student. “I am from Mozambique. I speak Portuguese.”

That was odd: Mozambique had endured a lengthy civil war from 1977 to 1992, but it had not been producing large numbers of refugees in recent years. How had two girls from that country arrived in his room at the same time?

“Are you sisters?” asked Mr. Williams, with an even wider smile.

“Yes,” said Grace and Nadia at the same time.

Mr. Williams thought for a beat. Accordi...

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