DECEMBER 12, 2017
HELEN THORPE IS a journalist, but The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom reads more like an anthropologist’s notebook than a work of reportage: the author not only observes, she chips in her two cents and participates. Like her, we’re moved and agitated by this story of refugee teenagers in a Denver public high school because we keep discovering how vulnerable their precious hopes truly are.
My two favorite 21st-century books about teaching are memoirs: Mark Salzman’s True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall (2003) and Elizabeth Gold’s Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity: One Season in a Progressive School (2003). Salzman had not really been a teacher before he took on a writing class at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, and Gold, a poet and college adjunct, had not dealt with New York City high school freshmen since she had been one herself. Though both were professional writers, they hadn’t meant to convert their experiences into books until it became clear this was how they could keep themselves afloat in their tumultuous classrooms. Their serendipitous accounts are highly revealing of their students and of themselves.
Thorpe, on the other hand, does not take her own experience as her subject. Instead, she tackles three key themes and their interrelationship: teenagers, refugees, and teaching. She unhurriedly recounts, in plain, straightforward prose, the 2015–’16 school year at a Denver public high school, up through last fall’s election of the “Evil Clown.” Donald Trump’s gross slander of refugees and immigrants is countered on every page by the evidence of these students’ lives and characters.
Thorpe watches unobtrusively as the rawest ESL students adjust to American life and education in the hands of an efficient, steady, but hard-pressed teacher. As an English-speaking adult in the room, she contributes as needed and as requested by the bolder students:
While Mr. Williams was doing his best to teach all the students that the world kept sending him, I was doing my best to be a helpful presence in his room, and one way I did this was by sharing the stories of students I got to know. Mr. Williams knew nothing about [the Salvadoran] Lisbeth’s odyssey until I told him what she had recounted.
Thorpe chronicles the patient methods Williams uses to draw out his naturally hesitant charges: “He sprinkled praise in the direction he wanted the students to go, as if he were putting down breadcrumbs to mark the path forward.” She reminds us through her observations that pedagogy needs the freedom of potential chaos, that true learning can often scramble the dynamics of the classroom. After several months, Thorpe observes:
The students were increasingly engrossed with one another, which forced Mr. Williams to exert more discipline, and at the same time, they were able to comprehend more English, which was how they could interact more. The double effect of all this learning was amusing to observe, because Mr. Williams was succeeding and failing at the same time. He was gaining control of the room academically and losing control socially.
The newcomers of the title are fresh arrivals not only to the United States but also to adolescence: the book is very much about people of a certain age undergoing all manner of personal and cultural change. Thorpe, who was born in Ireland and is the mother of a teenager herself, has a natural interest in this subject. The students have no particular reason to trust her except that she gradually proves her trustworthiness and helpfulness. The girls are quicker to confide; the boys sometimes reveal themselves more when she attends their sporting events. Though she knows her limitations in the classroom, not to mention in the students’ precarious home situations, she finds herself being gradually accepted into their budding community:
In journalism, traditionally, becoming close to your subjects is discouraged. The reasoning behind this is that the journalist might cross over a line — might lose his or her objectivity. And teachers generally do not talk about how much, emotionally, students offer them. But when the girls walked over with their arms open for an embrace or the boys were giving soul handshakes or Saul was saying Tia! or Lisbeth was taking selfies with her cheek pressed tightly to my face, the warmth of the students’ affection filled my life with a sunny kind of joy.
Thorpe is, bless her, a bleeding heart, and, thanks to steady observation, she provides a wealth of evidence for the common sense values of religious and cultural tolerance. The various volunteers and teachers and community liaisons she encounters are equally big hearted. What they all have in common is a desire to help some of the most vulnerable people in the world. For example, Mark, an evangelical Christian fluent in Arabic who works for a refugee resettlement agency, bends over backward to assist a frazzled Iraqi widow who is struggling with two teenaged daughters.
Among the vividly portrayed students are Methusella and Solomon, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who come from a family where the unhappy past isn’t discussed in front of strangers. (Dealing with these two brothers, Thorpe was so ashamed of her naïveté and ignorance that, after studying up on recent African wars and catastrophes, she spent part of her summer vacation on a trip to the refugee camps in Uganda, where the boys’ relatives remain.) As it turns out, Methusella is a brilliant student, one of those talents teachers only need to cheer on and try to get out of their way. Then there’s Lisbeth, the irrepressible motormouth from El Salvador, who — with scarcely any English herself — can get anyone to talk:
Just then, I glanced around the room and saw that Lisbeth was not paying attention, as Mr. Williams had hoped, over in her new seat. Instead, she was chatting animatedly with Bachan. He had come to life and was pointing at another student while he spoke to Lisbeth in broken English. She was listening closely and making a series of expressive faces (shock! laughter! horror! vigorous affirmation!) while he talked. I had not thought any non-Nepali speaker could forge a social interaction with Bachan, so withdrawn had been his demeanor, yet somehow she had managed.
Lisbeth is indomitable. At 15, her life in danger because of her mother’s work as a Salvadoran police officer, she had walked across the Mexican border into the United States. It keeps dawning on her advocates — and us — that this enthusiastic cross-cultural socializer could be deported at any time.
The biggest star among the students, however, is Jakleen. She displays a catalog of unpleasant teenaged characteristics: haughty, selfish, lazy, fashion conscious, moody, suspicious, deceptive, calculating, and rude. In this book about hope, Jakleen is so obviously hopeless, retreating repeatedly into drama queen sulks, secretly communing with her cell phone, and of course deliberately tormenting her mother. Yet, as the months and pages pass, Thorpe begins to feel more for Jakleen than for any of her more well-behaving and obviously inspiring classmates. Her background was brutal: she had witnessed the bombing deaths of friends and family back home in Iraq, along with the disappearance of her father. New to the United States, living on the edge with her fragile mother, she was scornful of her hardworking classmates and, though her English was terrible, felt superior to the others, about whom she knew nothing. Watching the highly distracted and distractible Lisbeth come to Jakleen’s social and educational rescue, we begin to see that public school can sometimes work as it’s supposed to. Indeed, Thorpe suspects that the teacher …
deliberately let … Jakleen get away with a certain amount of out-of-bounds fun with Lisbeth, even though it meant he had to work extra-hard to manage the whole situation, because he recognized that Lisbeth had become one of the reasons [Jakleen] looked forward to school.
Thorpe’s clear-eyed observations occasionally tilt over into corniness, but the feeling of emotional and moral uplift is totally earned. Public education in the United States is a mess, but it’s also great, and, if Denver South High School’s experiment is replicated elsewhere, it may heal us sooner — or at least more cheaply — than any other social remedy.
Bob Blaisdell teaches English in Brooklyn at Kingsborough Community College (CUNY). He has written essays about teaching for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the Times Educational Supplement.