Chasing the American Dream at an Immigrant High School in Brooklyn

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Immigrants

The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens, by Brooke Hauser. 322 pp. Free Press (2011) $26

For most American teenagers the first day of high school is fraught with anxiety. There are, after all, big questions to consider—What should I wear? How will I fit in? Where is my first class?

But at the International High School in Prospect Heights, the answers to these questions are even more complicated than usual. Everyone knows who the new students are. They’re the kids donning goatskin sandals or the colorful native dresses of their home countries. They know little or no English, and latch on to a few basic words they need to navigate the halls.

Some of these teens have never spent a single day in a formal classroom and will learn for the first time what it means to be a high school student. Eventually, all will come to understand what it means to be an American student, part of the melting pot that is Brooklyn.

Brooke Hauser’s charming book, The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens, chronicles a year in the lives of these students as they face the many hurdles of immigrants life, while dealing at the same time with the trials and tribulations of teenhood, from pimples to prom dates.

The International High School was created in 2004, as part of the city’s initiative to close large, failing schools and open nearly two hundred smaller ones. When the Internationals Network for Public Schools received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they chose Prospect Heights for its location, near several immigrant communities with a high percentage of eighth and ninth-graders. All students at the International High School must be recent arrivals in the United States and have little grasp on the English language. The year Hauser reported at the school, 15 percent of the seniors were undocumented.

Hauser’s interests lie in the school’s teachers and students––the ones who have endured extraordinary struggles to get where they are. She paints evocative portraits of the members of this small community, going further than simply rehashing the details of their past lives and hardships. In doing so she successfully articulates the psyche of these students, many of whom are still straddling two cultures.

There’s Mohamed, a sophomore from Sierra Leone who is one of “the kids who will not not be known.” Part of practically every club in school, he’s a strong student, demanding to be heard. When Mohamed first arrived at the International High School, no one knew just how he ended up in Brooklyn. Lacking documentation and here without his family, his story was shrouded in secrecy. Mohamed simply said he “got lost.”

When one of his teachers offers to become his legal guardian, thereby opening new doors for him, bits of his past are uncovered, but the truth is complicated at best.

The drama of Mohamed’s story is not uncommon at International. Another student escaped Tibet for America while cramped in a suitcase just large enough to fit his small frame for 24 hours. Yet another student arrived with a visa, only to be rejected by her father’s new family.

Hauser follows several characters throughout the book, filling in their stories as the year progresses. Some of the most compelling chapters are about the graduating seniors––the ones who will have to leave the safe enclosure of high school behind for a larger, less friendly world. Many still struggle with the basics of written English at graduation time, and even the most precocious students fear they won’t receive the scholarships that are their only route to college, and “the American dream.”

New Kids doesn’t delve into the politics of immigration in America, nor does it discuss how successful International is at preparing recent immigrants for the rest of their lives. That was never Hauser’s intention. What she leaves us with is a lasting impression of the riveting lives of these students, who came to America under improbable circumstances and found themselves united through a shared high school experience.

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This story was amended 12/9/11.

 

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