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Summer stories

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The students have returned to my inside-the-Beltline high school. Laughter fills the halls as nearly everyone shares a summer story--everyone, that is, except the newest arrivals, the Limited English Proficient students. Those in my ESL I class also have a story to tell, but it will have to wait until they've begun the process of learning a new language.

Perhaps one day the Congolese refugees--boys in their pressed shirts, girls in their best dresses--will tell about the horrors they witnessed as they fled their countries. Will they trust me enough later in the year to share? Or will the images still be too raw? Can the years of missed school be made up in time for state-mandated end-of-year testing?

The Somali girls, covered head to toe as they wait for the school bus in the humidity, will count their blessings. The harsh treatment they received in refugee camps will hopefully become a distant memory as they embrace English and succeed in school. They need to get their thoughts down on paper soon.

My students from Central America arrive with an eagerness to make their families proud. These resourceful kids get part-time jobs as soon as possible and hand their entire paychecks to their parents. Some have endured the dangerous passage through the desert to make it to the United States. I wonder if my own children could have survived a journey like that?

The Montanyard refugees, watching as I pantomime and using their electronic translators, all give the same response when asked what they like best about the States so far--"freedom to attend church." It's back-to-school as well as back-to-church for these new immigrants. Their frightening stories of the march through the jungle into Cambodia will also have to wait.

All of them show up on the first day of school with gorgeous smiles, respect for their teachers, and a hunger to learn. I know what lies ahead of them. High school can be stressful enough for anyone, but this is compounded for a student taking all his or her academic subjects in a new language. It takes five to seven years for teens to learn a language well enough to compete with their peers. Talk about stress!

Time passes, these young adults begin to learn English, and I introduce a unit on culture shock. We discover what stage they are in: Elation? Resistance? Transformation? or Integration? They begin writing their immigration stories: "Whom did you leave behind? What could you take with you? Describe any obstacles in your journey." While a few were able to pack photos, many were running for their lives.

These kids will continue to struggle with the academic vocabulary of school all year. They may feel frustrated and humiliated. Yet, they show such maturity and wisdom as they encounter their daily challenges. These adolescents are wise beyond their years. I admire their perserverance, thank them for the reminder to appreciate life and look forward to hearing their incredible "summer stories" soon.

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