Book Reviews

The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens

The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens by Brooke Hauser

The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens
Brooke Hauser
Free Press
308 pages

It’s not your typical English class. At International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., Puerto Rican teacher Minerva Moya projects a slide of a bubbling stockpot. Pretending to throw some of her Tibetan, Mexican, and Dominican students into the pot, she makes stirring motions. Then she flips to a photo of a tossed salad. Which picture represents America? Her students prefer the salad, in which each vegetable retains its color and identity. “You are who you are,” Moya concludes.
Accepting yourself and your rainbow of fellow students while learning English and other skills for navigating life in the United States is what happens at this school, one of 13 in New York City belonging to the Internationals Network for Public Schools. Thanks to its dedicated administrators and teacher/advisors, it boasts higher graduation rates among English language learners than other New York public schools.
Accepting yourself and your rainbow of fellow students while learning English and other skills for navigating life in the United States is what happens at this school, one of 13 in New York City belonging to the Internationals Network for Public Schools. Thanks to its dedicated administrators and teacher/advisors, it boasts higher graduation rates among English language learners than other New York public schools.
The International High School has shared a building with three other small schools since 2004, serving about 400 students from more than 45 countries who speak nearly 30 different languages, from Arabic, Creole, and Krio to Nepali, Russian, and Urdu. About 15 percent are undocumented refugees. Its motto is: “Opening Doors to the American Dream.”
Journalist Brooke Hauser visited the school in the spring of 2008 to cover its first graduating class. Her resulting New York Times article, “This Strange Thing Called Prom” (June 22, 2008), became the inspiration for her book, The New Kids.
She spent the following year in classes and homes getting to know students, faculty, and staff. Hauser’s nuanced, compelling portrait captures the feel of the school – its hallways, deafening with the cacophony of mingled languages and high spirits of youth from Bangladesh, Burma, China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Mali, Mexico, Nepal, Panama, Peru, Poland, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Tibet, Togo, Uzbekistan, Yemen – and more.
At International High, writes Hauser, “there are more than four hundred walking memoirs waiting to be translated.” She builds the stories of five students as their lives unfold through the year; readers get to know and root for them as she does.
  • Chit Su is a recent arrival who spent three years in a Thai refugee camp after fleeing Burma’s military junta. No one speaks her language. After acquiring friends, American styles, and better English, she leaves for Chicago as quietly as she came, occasionally chatting online with the teacher she left behind.
  • Jessica Tan left her mother in China to visit her father in New York, whom she hadn’t seen for seven years. When her stepmother threatens to leave her father if Jessica stays, she is forced to live in a rented room, seeing her father only when he cooks spicy Hunan meals for her. He leaves her to eat alone – even on her 18th birthday. Cheerful and competent, she wins a full college scholarship.
  • Ngawang Thokmey endured 24 hours inside a suitcase “the size of a baby’s coffin” at age 11, hidden in a luggage compartment for a bumpy escape from Lhasa across the mountains to Nepal – and eventually India. Two years later, he and his brother joined their father in the United States. Ngawang leads the school’s Tibetan Club, sharing harrowing stories of escape from the Chinese, with whom Tibetan students keep a delicate truce.
  • Yasmeen Salahi, a studious Muslim girl from Yemen, wears a black dress and hijab. When her parents die, she decides to marry her cousin Saif, who will help take care of her little brother and sister. Will Saif let her go to college? She isn’t sure. At her females-only engagement party, her teachers and classmates are shocked to discover how beautiful Yasmeen is in her butterscotch gown and glorious hair – which they have never seen – cascading to her “butt.”
  • Mohamed Bah, a diamond miner’s son from Sierra Leone, is alone at 14, without identification papers. He reveals little about his war-riddled childhood. Mohamed’s cryptic account of his path to America begins with a stay with a host family from a church in Connecticut. On a trip to New York with church members, he got lost, ending up on the street. Details keep changing – is his story plausible? After teacher Cindy Chatman becomes his legal guardian, she is pleased by his smooth adjustment, although questions remain.
Hauser describes the school’s staff from around the world as “straight, gay, single, married, black, white, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Taoist, conservative, radical, pierced, parents, tattooed,” and “graying.” Among those she introduces:
  • Alexandra Anormaliza, founding principal, who emigrated from Ecuador at age 9, recruits students to this school that embodies her vision of a happy place with the best teachers as diverse as its students. She personally welcomes each new student; about 110 freshmen are accepted every year.
  • Dariana Castro, coordinator of special programs, is a Dominican described as “the Fixer,” regarded by students as “Craigslist and a big sister rolled into one,” dispensing class schedules, advice, and home remedies. She’s the first staff member whom Yasmeen informs of her engagement, helping to investigate why everyone thinks marrying one’s first cousin is shocking.
  • Ann Parry, English and social studies teacher, helps her students prepare for graduation: passing state Regents exams and preparing college applications. Students’ priorities – marriage and children, religious and social demands, and after school jobs – clash with tight academic deadlines. Can she help Ngawang expand his brief paragraph about his escape from Tibet into a compelling college essay?
  • James Rice, social studies teacher, struggles “to get his advisees to take their college application deadlines seriously.” The dozen students who have been in his advisory since ninth grade notice Rice’s face growing red when several miss the deadline for student aid. “The money will be gone,” Rice predicts, explaining again that parents must report their income. Then, swishing his hips, Rice asks Yasmeen to show Joe, a Chinese boy, how to dance. Mr. Rice convinced this Muslim girl not to drop out when her parents died; now she laughs and calls him crazy.
Hauser thinks “guardian angel” is a better label than “advisor.” These advocates develop intimate rapport with students during classes, home visits, and field trips, whether finding shelter for a homeless student or hosting an American-style holiday dinner. Hauser’s description of a school event for parents who hear immigration lawyers explain legalization and citizenship enlightens anyone involved with international students.
Hauser’s descriptions evoke striking images. Among throngs of students who adopt American teen fashions – from logo T-shirts to too-revealing tops and skirts – Yasmeen’s hijab makes her look like “a giant Pez dispenser.” A few perceptive strokes become revelations: “Cooking is a meditation, a period of grace.
For at least one hour, Mr. Tan is a man in control,” she writes. “He leaves his cooking supplies in Jessica’s cupboard the same way a lover might leave behind a toothbrush or a comb.”
No story is as baffling as Mohamed’s unlikely tale of losing his church sponsors during a New York City tour; it causes consternation at church, school, and court. Wearing her investigative reporter hat, Hauser gathers mounds of detail about Mohamed’s stay in Connecticut and his lunch with church sponsors at Macy’s, about which no one at school seems to know. How much is he fudging, and why? What consequences might he have to pay? Mohamed’s fate  remains undecided.
The book’s grand finale is graduation day for 60 members of the class of 2009. The undocumented will be on their own when they walk out the door, but Principal Anormaliza offers hope: “Once there was a little girl who came to this country as an undocumented immigrant. Today she is a school principal.”
Teacher of the Year James Rice recalls a student who had been silent for months suddenly yelling “PENCIL!” – his first word of English. “If it is possible to go from pencil to here,” Rice asks the graduates, “how much bigger can your journeys become?”
An epilogue adds reflections from Mohamed – who fears deportation – his guardian Cindy, and several Connecticut church members.
Hauser allows readers to reach their own conclusions about this pragmatic young survivor. She also catches up with Yasmeen, now married and enrolled in community college, and Jessica, who enjoyed long visits with her mother in China and her father in New York before entering college.
This paperback edition contains a reading group guide and an interview with Hauser, who describes how she inhabited an English class each day, visited students at home, and attended social events, including Yasmeen’s engagement party. The International High School became one of her “favorite places on Earth,” she confides.
Her goal “was to render the students’ stories as faithfully and powerfully as possible,” hoping that “readers would come to care about them as much as I do.” Those who carry these indelible images know she succeeded.
This biography of a public school that serves its international population with dedication and sensitivity enlightens all of us. Hauser provides a luminous window on worlds often misunderstood in our salad-bowl nation.

Cathi Dunn MacRae, former editor of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), specializes in teen writing and reading.

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