Points In Between: Episode 4
[Intro sounds: kids yelling, door opening, footsteps in hallway, classroom voices, bell ringing to start class.]
You’re listening to Points In Between.
This is Episode 4: First Day
Have you ever been the new kid? I don’t mean first day of kindergarten or college, where everyone is new. I mean the kind of new kid where your classmates already know where they’re going to sit in the cafeteria at and you don’t.
I was a new kid when I was 10. I hated it. I was bad at it.
I welcomed new kids as a teacher, too. It’s eye-opening to view it from that perspective because you see both sides in a way you can’t when you’re in it. You see the new kid, their social skills – or lack thereof. Some of them, while they might feel like outsiders, just project a certain confidence. They’re attractive or charismatic and they make connections right away. Others – more - are shy or consumed by sadness about being there.
And on the other side you see the established students, we’ll call them. They make early reconnaissance missions, to size up the newcomer. Some kids fit easily into a group and get taken into the fold within days. Others, maybe they make an initial attempt but they find some kind of difference neither side knows how to bridge. And in the worst cases the new kid is automatically judged unacceptable, a kind of pariah or non-entity in the local hierarchy. It is awful to watch.
I didn’t do any kind of official sociological study, but I think what I learned, from watching it as a teacher, is that attitude, the social skills, the identity of the new kid, they all matter. And also, those aren’t the kind of things a kid can prepare the night before the first day of school.
Let’s start this episode with two stories. First, Ruth, who moved to California when she was 16. Nothing about her appearance on the first day of school would have suggested her actual experience – that she had lived in Mexico for almost a decade, that one night, in the middle of the night, she got pulled out of a sleepover at a friend’s house and deported back to a country that legally was her home, but did not feel like it.
Ruth: We lived near the school so we walked onto the campus and before we even crossed the gate and were in the quad I just had tears streaming down my face and I had this like, “No! No! No!” like screaming inside. I did not want to be there. I hated it and it was hard to come set foot on the campus without crying.
Caroline’s experience was different. She had a tough road ahead of her, learning English and adjusting to a new culture, but at 14, she was excited to leave Czech Republic and she looked forward to her new start in America.
Caroline: Fashion was definitely a big part of it. I have a picture from me walking up to the school and I turned around and did a little peace sign. It's just a really dorky picture of me wearing my little skirt and leggings underneath and a collared shirt and a hat. I always try to be more fashionable than like San Diego expects anybody to be. So that already sort of marked me out as the foreigner and my mom walked me to school and you know she wished me good luck and she was really scared for me.
She didn't know if I was going to handle it or not. But I definitely – I, in retrospect, I look back and I realize that I was, like, fearless really. I could have been so much more shy and just, you know, it could have been much harder than it was. But I guess I still had just the big excitement of everything and me and I just went into it.
But since Torre pines has... they have like nine different ESL classes. They have a really impressive program for people who don't have English as their first language. I knew it was going to be OK.
I want to be clear. I’m not saying Ruth just needed a different attitude. She couldn’t help being sad. It was a totally reasonable thing to feel at that time. I’m saying that students are people and school happens in the larger context of their lives.
Ruth: The first day of school I had to like put my head down because I had I was crying and I don't remember what my first class was but it was a rough day and I think I went home during lunch time because I was close enough so for the first few months I would go home for lunch. My dad was there and I would hang out with him and have lunch and then go back.
At the end of her first day, Caroline’s mom was waiting for her outside the school.
Caroline: My mom met me at the bottom of the hill beneath the school again and I was just like running. I was running down the hill and I was laughing and I was like, “This is so great!” Yeah, it was definitely one of like, the nicer ways that this could have gone.
Ruth and Caroline each had over a month between their arrival in the States and their first day of school. That was not true for everyone.
Juan: [Introduction in Spanish] I’m 33 and I’m originally from El Salvador and I was 16.
Juan left El Salvador after the country’s civil war, but before the rise of the violence that is currently causing so many people to flee to the United States. His family arrived at San Francisco International airport late on a Thursday night.
Juan: The very first next day, actually, we went to school high school and I do remember understanding a lot when it came to language since I did take English classes back in El Salvador so…but I was nervous. But everything was happening so fast too, but just you know trying to get into, I guess, into a routine. Mainly I was just nervous. That's about it. Looking back at the first week of school I was mainly just nervous about meeting new people, like how to behave. That was about say 40 percent of my thoughts. The other 60, they were still back in El Salvador with my old friends.
In Caroline’s story you heard mention of a common theme in First Day accounts. Fashion, especially in schools without uniforms, is a language all unto itself. And like other languages, it’s nuanced and it changes with geography. In his new community, one of the puzzles Juan had to solve was which people went with what sorts of fashion. And the presence of whole new social categories of people made the task even trickier.
Juan: I mean everything was so diverse because it was South City High. There were like different groups of kids. There's, you know, skateboarders. Their shoes were different. Of course you have your African Americans with your really baggy pants [laughs] and then you have your Hispanics, Latinos, which is pretty much the same thing, you know: baggy pants. Everybody told me don't wear red, don't wear blue, Sureños and Norteños. I tried to stay away from that. That's one of the main things that I was concerned about how to dress. Every time I would wear a blue shirt or something I would be concerned about that red shirt, you know, either color. That's pretty much it.
Shane: Were you concerned about that because you knew about it from home or were you concerned about because you had heard about it here?
Juan: I heard about here. That was - my aunt was actually one of the ones to tell me that, the first ones. One of the first ones to tell me that. She was like, “Well be careful what you wear.” You know she was like, “Mostly the school is OK as long as you don't associate yourself with those colors from the beginning. Just try and stay away from it.” And that's what I did.
As you already heard, Simon was born in Korea but spent part of elementary school in the US. He was a new kid twice: once when he moved from the US back to Korea and then again when he returned to the US for high school.
Simon: I was like… I wasn't really… I didn't know what people wore in America so I was just wearing what I wore, like what I would wear in Korea. And I think that kind of…I don’t think backfired. I don't think people necessarily cared about what I wore. But seeing everyone wear like Nike gear and stuff like that, it made me go out of my way to like Nike outlets and buy gear. And like I showed up to school in all Nike one day and like neon and stuff like that and people started making fun of me so…[laughs] that kind of thing. I tried to make an effort to fit in. But as time went on I think I found my own style. But when I go back to Korea I don't try to fit in. I try to be American.
Simon’s story hints at a topic we don’t really like to talk about: money. And specifically, the intersection of school and money. To fit in and feel like he belonged, Simon observed the fashion landscape, then went out to buy clothes that – he hoped – would accurately convey the identity he wanted to express.
If you’re an adult far removed from your school days, or maybe a particularly self-confident student who ignores fashion, you may be feeling skeptical right now. But I want to challenge that skepticism. Willfully ignoring the associations between fashion and identity in any community is a sort of statement of identity in itself. It’s a rare student who can do that without any social cost.
Okay, lecture over.
You already heard Cat’s voice if you listened to the introductory episode. She talked about what it was like to eat in the school cafeteria for the first time. But, here’s your formal introduction.
Cat: [Introduction in Spanish] That's funny my last name is different in Spanish and I am originally from Cadiz, Spain…
Cat grew up in a small, mostly Roma fishing village in southern Spain. When she was 9, she, her mom, and her step-father moved to Plano, Texas.
Cat: I remember when I was packing to leave Spain to go to the U.S. that I purposely chose… like left behind all my outfits that I thought were not American, like the outfits I thought would not go over to America. So I only had my like... I don't even know what they were. I think they were like sweat-suits maybe that I mostly had. But I left behind my pleated skirts and I left behind…Oh we used to wear, in Spain we always wore like tights and a skirt, like a knee length skirt and I mostly just brought like sweat-pants and jeans because those are like the American things that would fit in.
But I remember realizing on that very first day that whatever it is I was wearing, which I don't remember, was NOT cool, and being really devastated that it wasn't American at all, that I totally missed the mark and that everybody was wearing white polo shirts - I remember this distinctly - white polo shirts and khakis maybe with white Keds. And it was kind of like the uniform, but it wasn't actually uniform. But every kid had on kind of the same outfit and that all of the girls had beautiful, curly blond hair. Like every single girl had beautiful, blonde curly hair and blue eyes, which I had never seen in my entire life. And I was just so blown away by it. And there was just no way that I was going to make my hair look like that. I had no idea how I was going to put my hair in those kind of ponytails and accomplish those sorts of things.
On one level, this desire to look like her classmates was about fashion. But it’s also the re-emergence of a theme from Episode One: the theme of family separation. This isn’t a geographic separation, it’s an emotional one. I doubt, when Cat’s mother decided to move her and her daughter to America, that she ever expected that school here would - however unintentionally - teach her daughter to want blonde curly hair.
Cat: At some point, it must have been after the first few months, but somehow someone told me about what curling irons were, which I'd never heard of. And, you know, I tried to talk to my mom about how we needed a curling iron [laughing] and she was just completely… She just had no interest in getting a curling iron and I was so devastated because I needed my hair to look like everyone else’s.
This desire for a curling iron was the start of the sort of negotiations that happen in a lot of households. The big question is, how much can a kid explore and adapt before their parents feel like it’s a betrayal of their identity?
You already met Yesica. She and her family crossed from Mexico into Texas, then took an unexpectedly scenic bus route to their new home in Chicago. For her, a lack of information and a lack of money combined to make preparing for school a challenge.
Jessica: When I first went to school, there was no school uniform and that kind of threw me off because you were allowed to wear jeans and a white shirt and I was just so used to wearing your long socks, your dress shoes, your skirt, your sweater, your dress shirt because that's the way that Mexican uniforms in schools are like. So I was just like, "Well, what is this?" So when I went to school I would just wear the hand-me-downs from my cousin because it will fit and we were like trying to start from scratch. So she wore a lot of like those tight jeans and tight shirts and I think that puts a certain image about a young girl, especially.
So, yeah… I didn't have much of a choice. Most of her clothes - and her clothes were all like South Pole kind of clothes, you know like those clothes? So it was interesting because when I first started going to school I felt like this wasn't my image because I wasn't used to wearing these kind of clothes. I wasn't used to hearing this kind of music that comes with the outfit, I guess? I felt like for my first couple of years of elementary school I was stuck trying to assimilate to what everybody else was doing in order not to stick out and that was one way, dressing the same way as everybody else did in the neighborhood and listening to the same music and…
In addition to managing complicated emotions, and in addition to navigating a new social landscape, the people I spoke with struggled to just make sense of the basic logistics in American schools.
Serafin came from Senegal to California when he was sixteen. He started school three weeks into the school year.
Serafin: …and when I walked he’s like, "Oh here's a new student". And I said “Hi” everybody said “hi” and he was like, "Sit right here in the front” and I'm thinking, "What about back over there?"
He looked at me and I was like, "Can I... [motioning to back of room]?"
And he said, "You want to sit in the back?"
I was like "yes" he was like "go ahead". Because I always like sitting in the back, because… you know. So I was sitting in there and he was doing his class and I'm understanding some words, some words I'm like...[sigh]
And I was like "Yeah, yea, yeah, yeah." Just to say yeah and get it done with so.
And then you have to move to another class. And everybody’s like, "Let's Go!"
I'm like. "Where?"
It was like, "Next class."
"OK." So I follow everybody like, maybe like 20 students. And then you have to go to a math class and I’m like, “Okay this is cool. You get out of class, you are out. This is nice.
As you learned when you listened to Caroline, just because the transition to a new school is hard doesn’t mean it’s bad. Even though he was embarrassed by his inability to communicate, Serafin liked the more relaxed atmosphere of school in America. And, even though it took him a while to learn the process, he liked changing classrooms.
When he arrived from Yemen at age 16, it had actually been a couple of years since Ra’ouf had regularly attended school.
Ra’ouf: I wasn't thinking that I would be going to school. I was thinking that I will be just working and helping my dad. And, you know… I used to be a good kid in Yemen. Like when I went to school I got good grades and I think my dad realized how much he suffered in terms of you know living in this country without speaking English. Also there was a big motivation on my part to take advantage of… I didn't have in Yemen…But at the same time there were a lot of challenges. And one of them is like learning a new language.
My dad just dropped me off and he went back to work and I didn't know anyone. And I didn't have any friends at all, like that I can relate to. And, in fact, my first day in a school was so crazy to the point where I went home crying and I was telling my mom, because I don't want to - we didn't want to bother my dad and we didn't want to make him feel like guilty or concerned you know. And it's because I felt so lonely, like alone, [laughs] walking around not knowing where to go.
For instance, you know, one time I get off the class and needed to go to a different class in the third floor, but I was just lost and I'm looking at my schedule. They just gave it to me but I can't even read it. It's not even in Arabic. And I was just wandering in the hallway in Yemen you stay in the same class until till the day finished. It's totally the opposite. So in Yemen the teachers come to the class, but the students in America go to the teachers. So… and I'm like, you know, “Why the bell is ringing? Is it time to go home? [laughs] But it's too early. I’ve just been in school for one hour. Is it only one hour? Wow! Very easy!” And then I heard the security guy yelling "go to class." And he was just yelling, “Go to class! Go to class!” And he was yelling at me and I turned my head and he just screamed at me and I think he thought that I'm one of those guys that are just playing around, you know, and doesn't want to go to school and doesn't want to go to class, you know. And so he yelled once, too, and I was… shaking. And he was walking towards me and I'm like, “Gosh. I hope that nothing really happens.” So he walked up to me and he says, “What are you doing?” I didn't respond. He saw the schedule in my hand and he picked it up and then I think he saw Arabic, the language, and he's like, “Oh gosh, I'm sorry.”
I remember him saying [that] and holding my shoulder, he's like "sorry" you know. Even though I didn't understand what he was saying but I just felt, you know, from the way he reacted trying to make me calm down. And so ... he walked me to my second class but by the time I arrived the class was already done you know.
Ra’ouf’s second period teacher was understanding about the mix-up. Then one of his classmates helped him out, possibly at the direction of the teacher – Ra’ouf wasn’t sure.
Ra’ouf: One of the students just - I think it was very kind of him - just grabbed me and then walked me to the third class. And um… I think he was also from – yeah, he was from Ethiopia - but he'd already been there three years, or maybe two, but he was already accustomed to the system and he was very aware of everything. We, even though we didn't speak the same language, but still we were able to relate and connect. And I think that's because he already went through this experience.
When you’re the new kid, a lot of things determine how that first day goes: your emotional state when you walk through the door, your understanding of the social landscape and your skills at reading the situation, how you dress, how you look, the language you speak.
But other things matter, too: the institution’s approach to newcomer students and, definitely not least, the kindness of strangers. So, it seems that maybe schools and current students can, if they choose to, make that first day a little easier.
Next, in episode five we’ll spend some time focused on the classroom exploring how different places define what it means to be a good student and why we have school at all.
[Outro sounds: classroom voices, footsteps, door opening, exterior noises, including school bus]
Points In Between is a production of the California Global Education Project. See the Points In Between web page for additional information about each episode. You can find it at CISPISGLOBAL.org. Look under the Resources tab.