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Student in a Strange Land

Susan Notes:


The good news is that
teachers like this still exist in schools like
this.


By Christina Shunnarah

I am a 7th-year kindergarten teacher at the
International Community School (I.C.S.), in
Decatur, Ga. It is a DeKalb County charter
school founded in 2002 with about 100 students;
it now serves over 400, from kindergarten
through sixth grade. Our school is unique in
its mission to educate and integrate American-
born and refugee children from countries all
over the world — including Afghanistan, Bosnia,
Kurdistan, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Burundi and
Burma.

When I first learned that I would be writing
for Lesson Plans, I was excited about the
opportunity, but I was hesitant, too. What
would I write about? How could I do justice to
the hundreds of students I’ve taught since I
came to the I.C.S. in 2002? To get some
clarity, I decided to climb Stone Mountain.
Located outside Atlanta, it is the world’s
largest piece of exposed granite, with a
circumference of five miles and a summit higher
than 1600 feet above sea level; it is a place
many Atlantans go to for prayer, solace,
spiritual rejuvenation, or simply for exercise.
For me, it is an oasis of peace. I needed some
grounding so I took the 1.3-mile trek to the
top with my notebook and pen in hand. It was a
typical Georgia morning, hot, humid and very
sunny.

At the top of Stone Mountain, I meditated on my
path as a teacher and how I came to be here at
this point in time. As a Palestinian-American,
navigating my own cultural identity has been a
life-long process. My experiences led me to
want to help children develop and express their
unique identities — and the way I chose was
through creativity. Soon the story of a young
boy who came to my class from Sudan last year
entered my mind.

When Luca walked into my kindergarten classroom
on the first day of the 2007 school year, he
paused, took a look around, and walked right
back out. In fact, he ran out. He wanted to
find his brother. When he realized his brother
had disappeared down the hallway, complete
anguish filled his eyes. He fell onto the floor
and started crying. People literally had to
walk over him as he screamed and kicked on the
floor in the middle of the hallway.

The tears were endless. Each day it was the
same routine. He walked in; he walked out. The
teacher assistant in the class, Mr. Eddie, an
asylee himself from Rwanda, had to spend the
whole morning standing by the door because Luca
had gotten really good at escaping the
classroom without anyone noticing. We were a
foreign culture to him — this school, our
language, our very being — a long journey from
the language and culture of his life and heart.

Running away and seeking escape had become his
daily habit. Considering where he had come
from, it was not surprising. When it was time
for physical education class, Luca ran past our
classroom into the parking lot. When it was
time to line up after recess, he was nowhere to
be found, hiding behind trees to escape having
to go back into the classroom to practice his
writing. Even when students were lined up to
get lunch, Mr. Eddie was forced to chase after
Luca, who flew by in the other direction. He
hid under the table during class discussions.
He fell into deep sleeps during the afternoons.
Working with Luca was overwhelming at times. I
felt frustrated when I couldn’t reach him. I
had a whole class of kindergarteners to teach,
but I worried continuously about Luca.

It was not until I introduced an art project to
Luca that I saw the first spark of interest in
his eyes. Art, as a therapeutic tool, can be
extremely beneficial and healing for children
such as Luca. It also can be an outlet for
unexpressed emotions. Since Luca was struggling
with basic language and communication, art
became a powerful vehicle for exploration and
self-expression. Many refugee and immigrant
children aat our school have experienced
traumatic events in their home countries. They
have lost their homes, family members, and ways
of life. They need to be able to explore their
experiences in a positive and healthy way.

One day in October, when he awoke from a nap,
he looked at a nearby table and saw
paintbrushes, tissue paper, markers and liquid
starch. I demonstrated how to use the materials
and he watched with excitement. I showed him
how to use the markers and he pulled out the
different colors he liked, and started making
designs all over the paper. He then feverishly,
dipped the paintbrush into the liquid starch
and began pasting colored tissue paper all over
the picture. Once he started, he couldn’t stop.
By this time, he had learned some basic
English. Enthusiastically, he said, “Teacher,
more?” I nodded, smiled, and gave him as many
supplies as he needed. Keep exploring, I
thought. And he did. He made several abstract
pictures filled with amazing color. He wanted
me to hang them up on the wall for everyone to
see. At the end of the day, he gave me a hug,
and I felt as if I had finally reached him.
Somehow, by encouraging him to express himself,
I had found a link to his creative identity.

It was a long process of adjustment for Luca
after that: finding him a mentor, helping him
make friends, letting him be my helper in
various ways, visiting his home and meeting his
younger sister and mother, calling his father
to come to the school to surprise him, showing
him I knew just a little about his side of the
world. Soon Luca’s tears and anguish turned
into a tentative smile. Over time, the smile
turned into enthusiasm, excitement, friendship,
and complete radiance.

Why am I writing about a student from last
year, and how does that connect with the first
days of school this year? This is a testimony
of transformation in Luca’s life as well as my
own journey as an educator; throughout the
year, Mr. Eddie and I strove to help him
develop trust, respect, and friendship. This
year he is back in my class because of work
that we must continue to do together. The
difference? He walked into my classroom the
first day of school happy and excited. And he
didn’t run out. We were long lost friends
greeting each other after a huge summer break.
He gave me a big hug and asked me what was for
lunch. In the hallway, he also gave all of his
old friends hugs — connection, camaraderie, and
community.

Last year, Luca was dealing with the conflict
of his identity as well as culture shock. He
wasn’t ready for kindergarten: he had to go
through a year of emotional healing to regain a
sense of balance and connectivity before he
could even deal with academics. Now he has an
intense focus and concentration. There is a
passion in his eyes that pulls on the
heartstrings of all who cross his path. He sits
quietly at his seat with an inner strength,
creating small works of excellence. He is proud
of his completed assignments. He listens
intently to stories and often sings and dances
with laughter. He is loved and he is the face
of all the children at the school.

This is still a tough journey for him, however.
It is only recently that he has begun to
articulate some of his experiences back in
Sudan. He speaks more openly about the war. He
speaks about his memories, about running with
his family, about the reasons for coming here.
He tells me that the people over there don’t
like black people. He says he dreams about his
homeland sometimes and he misses it. But he is
happy to be here now.

— Christina Shunnarah
New York Times blog


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