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. According to his roster, the two girls did not have the same last name. Their facial structure was also quite different. Were they biological sisters? Possibly. But a few of his prior students had arrived with makeshift families, after cobbling together
sibling-like relationships somewhere along the road. Those were some of the hardest stories he had heard. On the other hand, African naming habits were quite different from American ones, and the whole matter of what constituted a last name varied around the world. Mr. Williams did not ask the girls any more questions. If they declared they were sisters, that was good enough for him. Maybe someday they would tell him the whole story.
He knew from experience that most of his students had lived through harrowing ordeals. Every year, trauma had been represented in his cohort. This year, for the first time, a trained therapist from Jewish Family Service would visit his classroom each week, and she would ask the students if they wanted to talk about what had happened before they made it to South. It was not his job to get his students to tell him about earlier chapters in their lives. Some would say nothing about an agonizing subject all year, then visit him later and supply the whole narrative; others might never disclose certain parts of their stories. Mr. Williams knew that he was surrounded by young people who had witnessed more disturbing events than he had ever been subjected to himself, yet at this moment they could not explain what had happened, not in any language he could understand. This was humbling. It made him listen to his students with extraordinary care. He didn’t want to miss anything.
Mr. Williams moved toward the next student, smiling kindly again, his right hand extended. Each student received the same unswerving gaze and firm handshake and friendly grin, body language that stated, I consider you worthwhile.
“My nay, Hsar Htoo,” the student said haltingly. “Froh Thailand. Spee Karen.”
Mr. Williams was aware that students who spoke the Sino-Tibetan languages often had trouble saying English words. Words in Karen generally do not end with hard consonants, so it was difficult for Hsar Htoo to make the final sound in English terms. As people grow, their bodies as well as their brains become less plastic; by the age of eleven or so, the muscles in the face solidify around the ability to produce commonly used sounds. After that, it is much harder to learn foreign
languages that require different muscle formations. Hsar Htoo might always struggle to produce some of the sounds that English speakers make effortlessly. But Mr. Williams also noted that Hsar Htoo seemed alert and focused. And he had offered the teacher a huge, incandescent smile, giving Mr. Williams a glimpse of a sunny disposition. The majority of the Karen people came from the mountains or the river deltas of Burma, but they had been subjected to such extreme forms of persecution by the Burmese military—bombs, land mines, rapes, beheadings, indiscriminate butchering, the burning of entire villages down to the ground—that they had vanished in huge numbers over the mountain peaks and down into neighboring Thailand. That country treated them like illegal immigrants and held them inside enclosures that functioned like prison camps. Many Karen families had lived in the camps for so long that their children or grandchildren had been born in them. Mr. Williams wondered whether that might be true for Hsar Htoo, given the way he had introduced himself as being from Thailand. If so, everything here would be new—running water, appliances, grocery stores, snow, freedom.
As Mr. Williams went around the room, he decided that a student named Saúl seemed to understand the least English of anybody. He was fifteen years old and had just arrived from El Salvador. He wore track pants and a T-shirt, and his hair was mussed as if he had just rolled out of bed. Communicating with Saúl was not difficult, however, because Mr. Williams spoke Spanish. All of the academic literature about second-language acquisition suggests that using a student’s first language to aid in comprehension can be tremendously helpful; Mr. Williams and Mr. DeRose both used Spanish a lot. If they had spoken other languages, they would have used those as well, but Spanish was all they had. When Saúl did not respond to Mr. Williams’s query, he switched to Spanish and explained the greeting, then practiced it in English until Saúl could say, “My name is Saúl. I am from El Salvador. I speak Spanish.”
The final two students, Rahim and Ghasem, were both from Afghanistan. Everybody could see they were close friends. Later that year, Rahim and Ghasem would describe their shared odyssey to their classmates—
the two families had followed the same route to Eastern Europe and spent many months together in the same refugee camp before resettling in the United States. For the moment, what registered with Mr. Williams was that their English was surprisingly good. After several days, he would determine that Rahim and Ghasem knew so much English that he could move the two boys upstairs, into language acquisition classes that were more advanced.
After his students practiced writing their introductions, Mr. Williams asked them to stand up and form two lines facing each other. He organized the students into pairs and told them to take turns reading out loud to their partners the sentences they had just written. Stephanie said, “Hello! My name is Stephanie. I am from Mexico.” Grace said, “Hello! My name is Grace. I am from Mozambique.” And so on. By that point, the students had listened to their teacher say those phrases, read the phrases on the Smart Board, written the phrases, and spoken them out loud. Mr. Williams went through these four steps—listening, reading, writing, and speaking—with every big concept that he wanted to convey.
Following the exercise, Mr. Williams pointed out artwork by previous students that hung on the walls. “Saúl, here we have the flag of El Salvador,” he said slowly and carefully. “Right? Is this the flag of El Salvador? Is this the flag of El Salvador?”
“We have had other students from El Salvador in this room,” Mr. Williams told him. “Otros estudiantes de El Salvador en esta clase.”
Then Mr. Williams turned to Stephanie.
“Stephanie, do you recognize this? What is this?”
“The flag of Mexico,” Stephanie replied right away.
Mr. Williams saw that with her he could speak more quickly. He handed out sheets of paper, distributed markers and crayons, and asked the students to draw the flags of their home countries. Stephanie drew two flags—the flag of Colorado and the flag of Mexico. She wrote: “I am from Denver. I am from United States. I am from Mexico.”
“You’re originally from Colorado?” asked Mr. Williams.
“And you’ve also lived in Mexico?”
She nodded again. There it was, the bare bones of a life journey—a few important plot points disclosed, all the details still hidden. He’d heard a lot of stories about parents moving back and forth between the United States and Mexico, usually due to the availability of jobs.
“Which do you consider home, Colorado or Mexico?” Mr. Williams asked.
“Colorado,” Stephanie responded confidently.
High comprehension, the teacher thought. He suspected she had once known a lot of English and that it would return to her quickly. At the end of that week, when he would assess her reading and writing abilities, Mr. Williams would decide that Stephanie was not yet ready to move upstairs, but he thought she might transfer to a more advanced room before the end of the year.
On his drawing, Hsar Htoo wrote: “My namee Hsar Htoo.” Mr. Williams recognized that for what it was: an accurate phonetic representation of what those unfamiliar English words sounded like to a newly arrived Karen-speaking person. For someone in the preproduction phase of English-language acquisition, who had arrived speaking a Sino-Tibetan language after never having lived outside a refugee camp, it was good work. Some years, Mr. Williams got kids who could not produce the Latin alphabet, or who were illiterate even in their own language. Hsar Htoo drew the flag of Thailand and the flag of the United States, though he had never lived here before. He seemed eager to embrace his new homeland.
Grace also drew two different flags, both of which had been used to represent Mozambique. The second flag she drew, a correct rendition of the flag used by that country today, featured an open book, a hoe, and an AK-47. Her sister Nadia drew two flags as well—one was Mozambique’s and the other Burundi’s. The history of Burundi bears parallels to that of Rwanda, its immediate neighbor to the north, including waves of mass killings between members of the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Grace and Nadia were not alive during those phases of Burundi’s history, but it was possible that older members of their family might have sought
refuge in Mozambique after one of the catastrophic waves of violence in Burundi.
Near his desk, Mr. Williams had displayed an essay written by a former student. It read:
Life was difficult. I was living in the middle of a civil war. 2002 was when the Ethiopians came. They were firing at everyone. . . . All the kids were running. I was holding onto the back of a truck. . . . After that I lost my eye. Then we went to Ethiopia and lived in a refugee camp. We went from Addis Ababa to Amsterdam, then to Chicago, and then to Denver. It took 2-3 days. Our apartment here smelled bad like marijuana. My life here is really good now. Compared to my life in Mogadishu it is much better here.
Mr. Williams did not point out that essay to the new students, because they would not be able to read it. He kept it on the wall for himself—as a reminder of what stark environments his students had left behind, and evidence of how much English he could teach them in a single school year.
Meanwhile, Saúl drew the flag of his country and wrote underneath, “I am from: El Sarvador.” The fact that Saúl had misspelled the name of his own country touched Mr. Williams and suggested that perhaps Saúl had not attended school for quite a while. Only when Mr. Williams brought up parent-teacher conferences a few weeks later would Saúl mention that neither of his parents lived in the United States. He did not explain why he was here, at age fifteen, parentless; he just asked if his older sister could come to the conference. That would be fine, Mr. Williams told him. He was curious to know more, but to quiz Saúl on the whereabouts of his parents would have worked counter to his main priority, which was to build rapport. He couldn’t teach the students English if they did not trust him.
Mr. Williams affixed his students’ crayoned pictures of flags to a bulletin board that hung beside the door to his room. The hand-colored flags appeared simple, but they raised complex questions. The world was riven by ethnic conflict, gang violence, armed rebel groups,
terrorist organizations, oppressive regimes, full-blown civil wars, and wars between countries. When families lost their homes, children often struggled to find a foothold in a foreign place. What obligation, if any, did the rest of the world have to make things whole again for those children? The flags spoke to the subject of nationality, and around the world, the global refugee crisis was bringing up intense sectarian political forces, centered on this idea of individual nations, and the matter of what obligation one nation might or might not owe to the citizens of another. As the 2015–2016 school year began, Germans were filling train stations to wave homemade signs of welcome at arriving Syrians and to offer them blankets and hot drinks. The increasing numbers of displaced people coursing through Europe were simultaneously unnerving citizens of other countries, however, and in Hungary officials had started building a fence along the border to keep out the refugees who were seeking to escape the devastation of the Middle East.
In the United States, controversial bills to block the entry of refugees had recently been introduced in the House of Representatives, and opponents of resettlement were using terms like “jihadi pipeline” to describe the flow of Arabic-speaking people streaming out of Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, Donald Trump had held a press conference at Trump Tower in New York City to announce that he was running for president on the slogan “Make America Great Again!” It seemed likely that the huddled masses walking across Europe would become a centerpiece of the coming presidential election, which would unfold throughout the first year these students spent in the United States. In other words, at the very moment when Mr. Williams was welcoming the latest newcomers into his big, mostly empty classroom, and resettlement agency staff were working closely with their parents to find employers willing to hire people who arrived with little or no ability to speak English, some political leaders around the United States had started asking whether such people ought to be welcomed here at all.
Once, the United States had been the most generous of the world’s wealthy countries in terms of its resettlement policy. Historically, the United States had taken more refugees than any other country. The federal
government had pledged to take seventy thousand refugees during fiscal year 2015, and President Obama wanted to admit more the following year, but candidates like Donald Trump were calling for the number to be reduced. Should the United States continue to shelter large numbers of refugees seeking an end to hardship? Should a school-age child who arrived unaccompanied by an adult from a violence-plagued country such as El Salvador be given asylum? How many foreign people with strange customs could one country absorb and still retain its identity? What about immigrants who frequented mosques? Was it possible that the violence taking place in other regions might be imported along with refugees to host countries, making them less secure?
Those were the sorts of questions preoccupying people who were running for political office. They were not the questions that beset Mr. Williams. His concerns were much more basic: Could his students understand his sentences? Had he sufficiently challenged those who had more English yet kept things simple enough for the rest? Did the kids feel safe in his room? Could they open their lockers? Were they going to be able to find their next class? And did they have enough to eat?
Probably not, he suspected. Before the bell rang for their next class, Mr. Williams beckoned to his seven teens and asked them to follow him into a large walk-in closet on the far side of the room. Inside, neatly arranged on wire shelving, the students beheld pasta, rice, lentils, beans, cans of vegetables, boxes of cereal, and individually wrapped protein bars. The food bank had been started one year earlier, by one of South’s English-speaking families. Although their own daughter had graduated the previous spring, Jaclyn Yelich and Greg Thielen had nonetheless spent the past several days stocking these shelves with everything they could imagine a newly arrived family might want for dinner.
“This is the food bank,” Mr. Williams announced. “You can come here on Friday afternoon and take home bags of food.”
The students stared at all the boxes and all the cans and said nothing. Did they understand that the food was there for the taking?
“On Friday, if you want, you can take food,” Mr. Williams repeated, more slowly.
“Are you hungry now?” he asked.
Silence. They were probably hungry. Mr. Williams handed out protein bars, two per student.
“Gracias,” said Saúl.
“Thank you!” said Stephanie.
Grace and Nadia whispered their thanks. Hsar Htoo said nothing at all, but gave Mr. Williams another immense smile. At the end of that week, when the last bell rang on Friday, boisterous teenagers of all shapes, sizes, and skin colors—some wearing hijabs and others in Rockies gear or shirts with Nike swooshes—poured out of the vast high school. Several of Mr. Williams’s students returned to his ground-floor classroom from elsewhere in the building. As he prepared to go home himself, the teacher saw his students line up and wait their turn to be given food. They walked out of his room carrying recycled plastic bags bulging with beans, lentils, rice, all the staples. Yes, they had been hungry.