Meet the Author of a New Book Profiling Teen Immigrants in NYC

BY  | OCTOBER 12TH, 2011 


Brooke Hauser is the author of “The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.” Hauser profiles the amazing journeys of students making their way in American culture while growing up in traditional immigrant families.

Says Mary Pipher: “This wonderful book connects us to the complexity, intensity and liveliness of refugee and immigrant teenagers. Hauser is masterful at storytelling. The New Kids is a must read for anyone interested in teaching, teens, or our new America. It does what the best writing does: it increases our moral imaginations.”

Brooke answers questions below about her exciting new book.

How did you first become interested in writing about the students at the International High School at Prospect Heights?

I first heard about the Bronx International High School, which belongs to the same larger network of schools—the Internationals Network for Public Schools—from a friend of mine who was working for the International Rescue Committee at the time. The IRC helps to resettle refugees around the world, and in New York they were running a volunteer program at the Bronx high school where people could go in and do different activities with some of the refugee students. I got in touch with the Network, which now oversees more than a dozen similar schools in New York City and California, and they told me that there was an International High School that was basically in my backyard in Brooklyn. That was The International High School at Prospect Heights, which at the time had kids from over 45 countries who spoke more than 28 languages—Arabic, Bangla, Krio, Mandarin, Spanish, Tajik, and Urdu, to name a handful.

The more I learned about the school, the surer I became that I wanted to spend time there. I knew the kids had amazing stories about the journeys that had brought them here, but they were also just trying to fit into high school, in a new city, in a new country, with its own unique customs. I ended up writing about the high school’s first-ever prom. Most of the kids didn’t even know what a “prom” was, which made the planning of it difficult. In the end, it was very different from a typical American prom, but a lot more interesting: The most popular girl was a former nomadic yak herder from Tibet, and her date was a Mexican boy with shaggy hair who loved The Beatles.

What is the purpose of the International High School at Prospect Heights, and why was it founded?

The purpose of the International High School is simple: to teach English to recently arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. To be eligible, students have to meet a few basic qualifications. At the time of intake, they must have lived in the United States for fewer than four years, and they must be new English-language learners. Prospective students take an English-language assessment test, and the joke is that they have to fail to get in. Once they do get in, students of all different ethnic backgrounds and academic levels are mixed together in classes.

The teachers start talking to new students in English on the first day, and the kids’ job is to figure out as much as they possibly can, communicating in their native language when necessary. The Network’s Executive Director has compared this approach to learning how to ride a bicycle: You learn to ride a bicycle by getting on it—not by watching. The kids start riding their bicycles immediately, but they have training wheels. The school provides all sorts of support, both academic and cultural. Many teachers also act as cultural translators, helping students negotiate everything from what subway to take in the morning to how to convince their parents to let them go to prom.

Did you go into the project with any preconceived notions? If so, how were your preconceptions challenged?

I spent the first six months of school trying to identify the typical American high-school cliques: popular girls, jocks, nerds, etc. Then I realized that those cliques didn’t actually exist.

Not exactly. There were definitely teacher’s pets and athletes and some girls who were more popular than other girls—a few who every guy thought were hot. But even though I could see them that way, they didn’t seem to view each other that way. When students did separate into specific groups, like in the lunchroom, it was often according to ethnicity and language. After a while, I gave up on trying to pinpoint who the popular guys were, and instead I zeroed in on this interesting subculture of Chinese boys who sat together at lunch and all aspired to be professional “hair designers.” Every day, they came to school with the most amazing Edward Scissorhands-like hairstyles. I can’t really think of an equivalent from my high school experience.

Why did you choose the five students on whom you focus the narrative? Is there one student in particular whose story you find inspiring?

I chose the students I did after talking to their teachers and basically asking them, “Who are the students who you can’t stop thinking about when you go home at night?” For one teacher, that was Jessica, a Chinese girl who came to the U.S. with the promise that she would live with her father and his new wife and sons—only to be thrown out of their apartment during her first week in America. For another teacher, that student was an ambitious Yemeni girl named Yasmeen, whose parents had died by the beginning of her senior year, and who suddenly found herself untethered—not knowing if she would stay in the U.S. or move back to Yemen, finish high school or drop out, pursue college or get married so that she could better manage her top priority: raising her two younger siblings.

I chose to follow Chit Su, a freshman from Burma. During the first week of school, I made it a mission to follow a new student throughout that week. On the very first day, there were tons of new kids, of course, but I wanted to shadow a new, new kid. Chit Su interested me because she was the only student who spoke her language in the entire school. She had everything to learn, and no one to talk to. That changed. By the end of the year, she was one of the more popular girls in her grade.

Every single one of these students has inspired me, but a couple I couldn’t stop thinking about when I went home at night—just like that question that I put to the teachers in the beginning of the year. The boy from Sierra Leone is the ultimate survivor. Everything he has gotten for himself has been as a result of his intelligence, ambition, and hard work. Yasmeen also inspired me. Like the boy from Sierra Leone, it was so obvious how eager she was to learn. She had been pulled out of school at an early age in Yemen, and she saw America as her chance to pursue her education and her independence. Both of these kids kind of crystallized the idea of the American Dream for me. They made it very real.

What did you take away from this experience and what would you like others to know about the community of people at International High School at Prospect Heights?

I never expected that a high school would be one of my favorite places on Earth, but the International High School at Prospect Heights is. It’s so vibrant and colorful and just bursting with life and hormones and rambunctious, hormonal teenage energy. It’s not a perfect place by any means, but there is something so hopeful about seeing the world reflected in the faces and stories of these students.

As far as what people should know about the school and community, I’d say this: If you want to get involved, volunteer. The International High School can always use a helping hand, as can the Internationals Network for Public Schools. Some people help kids with their college essays. Some people donate prom dresses and suits. Some people help bring the arts to the students, and the students to the arts—the year I was reporting at the school, there were many field trips to go to galleries and to see Broadway plays. The Network partners with all sorts of organizations to enhance the lives of the students, in and out of school.

My hope is that people relate to the students in the book, root for them, and learn from their stories. We need to support the education of immigrant students, whether they are undocumented or not. Alabama’s new immigration law scares me: Among other provisions, it requires public schools to check students’ immigration status. All students, regardless of their status, are legally entitled to attend public school from kindergarten through the twelfth grade as a result of the 1982 United States Supreme Court ruling, Plyler v. Doe. The ruling has been called into question several times over the years, but the alternative—not educating the hundreds of thousands of undocumented children who currently live in this country—could help grow an impoverished underclass. Investing in the futures of these kids is investing in the future of America: Some of the undocumented students from the International High School are among the most hard-working people I know, and they need the chance to become productive members of society, rather than hiding in the shadows.

Brooke Hauser’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Allure, Parade, and Premiere, among other publications. She has written about subjects ranging from New York’s broken juvenile justice system to Harlem’s spirited Baptist community to a Chinese beauty pageant. She divides her time between New York City and Northampton, Massachusetts. Her book is available from Amazon.