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September 2001

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Changing America

By Joel L. Swerdlow
J. E. B. Stuart High School opened in Falls Church, Virginia, in 1959. At that time the school, named for a famous Confederate cavalry commander in the American Civil War, possessed a student body of 1,616—virtually all Anglo-American. Change came slowly, accelerating during the mid-1990s, when immigration to the United States—legal and illegal—reached today's near-record level of a million people a year. According to the 2000 census, 10 percent of America's 281 million residents were born in other countries, the highest percentage since 1930 and the largest number in U.S. history. Before 1965 more than three-quarters of all immigrants to the U.S. came from Europe, owing largely to quotas that favored northern Europeans. In 1965 Congress removed those quotas, and since then more than 60 percent of immigrants have come from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Latin America. Says Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the U.S. Census Bureau, "We're on our way to becoming the first country in history that is literally made up of every part of the world."
Immigration patterns worldwide show a flow of people from poor countries to those with stronger economies, especially to industrialized countries with aging workforces. The influx is changing the makeup of populations in Britain, now 7 percent foreign-born, and France, also 7 percent. Immigrants now constitute nearly 10 percent of Germany's population, and 17 percent of residents in Canada are non-Canadian. In many ways J. E. B. Stuart mirrors this immigration revolution. Half of its 1,400 students were born in 70 countries.
In "Combating Intolerance," an elective course for juniors and seniors at Stuart, class discussions cover such topics as hate crimes, Ku Klux Klan violence, and why "No Irish Need Apply" appeared on job posters in cities where Irish immigrants looked for work in the 19th century. The morning I sit in, one of the students remarks: "America is a country of immigrants but also a country that sometimes hates immigrants."
"So why would anyone want to immigrate to the U.S.?" I ask, wondering if the students can reconcile this country's ideals with its shortcomings.
Hands go up. "It's a country that gives people a chance to escape," a boy from Eritrea says. "People have a natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," declares a girl from Nicaragua. More hands wave. "What makes America special is that things are more 'wishable,' more likely to happen here," says a boy from Vietnam. "It's the tolerance," adds one voice. And then another: "The best way for us to learn tolerance is just seeing people of other cultures every day here." Heads nod in agreement.
They seem a little smug to me. "What's it like in this school for kids who don't speak English?" I ask. The class on intolerance is silent. "Do you ever do anything with them?" Someone in the back makes a comment, and the last row laughs.
Students in this class reflect a wide range of colors and cultures, but all speak English fluently and with no accent. Earlier that morning I'd eaten in the cafeteria and had heard many students who could not answer even simple questions from the people at the cash registers.
In 1990 some 32 million U.S. residents spoke a language other than English at home, and more than 7 million lived in households with no fluent English speaker over 14 years old. When language data from the 2000 census become available next year, the number of households with little or no English is sure to be much larger.
A basic command of English is a requirement for U.S. citizenship. Many argue that it also constitutes a foundation for economic self-sufficiency.
For the students who arrive at J. E. B. Stuart speaking no English, life can be tough. Two volunteers from "Combating Intolerance" escort me to a nearby corridor where English as a Second Language (ESL) is taught. "I never come here," says one. He was born in Pakistan but learned English when he came to the U.S. at age ten. "Yeah," adds the other boy, born in the U.S. but whose parents are Middle Eastern. "I haven't been here in years."
Ruth DeJong's ESL class emphasizes experiential learning. Students color pictures of objects in books to show that they understand words she is using. They get up and stand next to the window when she says "window." They write the new words and use them in sentences. As DeJong helps them pronounce words, her enthusiasm makes the students laugh. "Is anybody in here handsome?" she asks. A student raises his hand. "Yes," he says haltingly, "I am handsome."
DeJong's classroom is filled with teenagers, but the props make it look like a room for first or second graders. Stuffed animals lie on a sofa. Wall charts show pronouns, colors, parts of the human body. Everything—"window," "blinds," "pencil sharpener"—has a label. Among the books on the shelves are What the Dinosaurs Saw, Morris the Moose, and Who Sees You at the Zoo? Along with them are dictionaries: Italian, Korean, Persian, Russian, Turkish, French, Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Swahili, Serbo-Croatian.
DeJong, who has taught ESL for 20 years, says, "About a fifth of the students now are nonliterate in their native language. That makes it much more difficult for them to learn English." A child's age of arrival in the U.S., she explains, is crucial. Young children have little difficulty with English, learning it in elementary school at the same time they learn to read. For many of the students in her class, who are beginning English and only starting to read at ages 14 to 17, it is much harder.
"Let's do some reading now," DeJong says, passing out a booklet written by local teachers. It contains reading and vocabulary lessons based on fictional students. "Many students are at school," reads one student. "They are talking and laughing. They are not talking to Ali. He is sad and afraid."
Slowly and softly, DeJong calls on everyone, even those who never raise their hands. She is both gentle and persistent. If they don't learn to speak and read English now, she knows, they won't stay in school—no matter how intelligent they are.
One-fifth of the full-time jobs in the U.S. pay eight dollars an hour or less. Filling most of these jobs are the 40 percent of the workforce who have no education beyond high school. Similar figures characterize most industrialized countries. For immigrants with poor language skills and little money, entering a technology-driven job market is increasingly difficult.
J. E. B. Stuart's computer labs are furnished with up-to-date equipment. The teachers are patient, and students still struggling with English participate here along with everyone else, learning to use word-processing software and to cruise the Internet. I find Mel Riddile, the high school's principal, standing in the hall outside one of the labs, greeting each passing student by name.
"Maybe the key to success lies in computers," I suggest. Riddile disagrees. "Computers are important," he says, "but not as important as literacy. The kids have to be able to read or they can't even use computers," Riddile continues. "Here we spell hope 'r-e-a-d.' We make them 'haves' by teaching them to read. It's no guarantee, but it's essential."
Riddile shows me how reading programs permeate the school's curriculum. Students who need extra help attend a reading laboratory, but even in science and mathematics a systematic effort is made to teach reading. In the school's library, students seem to feel no social stigma as they select the easiest books.
Emphasizing that more than half of his students qualify for free or reduced-price meals in the cafeteria, Riddile describes efforts to keep them in school: 6 a.m. automated wake-up calls help, as do special counselors who speak foreign languages. But some still drop out, he says, because they either need to work or become too discouraged. Parents, unfamiliar with the inner workings of an American high school and sometimes illiterate in their own language, are ill-equipped to help their children succeed. "We're the best hope these kids have," says Riddile.
In the end Riddile is upbeat. Students who attend Stuart enjoy a special advantage, he says. "Going to school here makes them better prepared for the world. They're living in the workplace of the 21st century."
A visit to the counselors' offices offers further perspective on the workplace of the 21st century. "Immigrants often do the work no one else wants to do," says one of the counselors, referring to child care, housekeeping, and restaurant work. There is no shortage of such jobs in Fairfax County, Virginia, the jurisdiction that operates J. E. B. Stuart—where the median household income is $80,000 a year. "But students don't want these types of jobs. Their parents do this kind of work out of necessity, but most of the students hope to do something more professional."
"How many go on to college?" I ask.
"About 59 percent of the student body as a whole goes on to four-year colleges and 21 percent to two-year schools," another counselor replies. "But the numbers are much lower for foreign-born students. The big economic jump may be made by their children. Remember that many of the kids here have already passed through a great filter. They have a much better chance of making it than do lots who don't get here. It's relative. For them, to have a job and a home and enough money to feed a family can be a very big accomplishment."
"Too many very capable students simply do not think of themselves as college material," says Mark Rogers, coordinator of J. E. B. Stuart's International Baccalaureate (or IB, for short) program, a rigorous precollege curriculum for juniors and seniors. The work required is significant: For every course, a student can count on at least one hour of homework every night.
Some 250 students (about 20 percent of the student body) take at least one IB course, although the program is open to all upperclassmen. Most of the students in the IB classes I visited were nonimmigrant whites. Rogers says teachers try to recruit a broader range of students by persuading them to take special preparatory courses in the ninth and tenth grades. But the work is especially difficult for immigrant students because courses require fluency in English.
One pattern is clear: The longer immigrant families have been in the U.S.—and the longer they have spoken English—the more likely their children are to take IB courses. They are following the same pattern that has characterized most assimilation in the U.S.
Statistics about literacy and language and college prospects aside, what about being a teenager at J. E. B. Stuart—an immigrant teenager or an American teenager in this small-scale melting pot? A teenager with black skin or white skin, brown, yellow, or red skin—a teenager who speaks English or Spanish or Chinese or Hindi?
"I don't want to be white," says a white student from Poland. I'm in the library with a cross section of students who volunteered to speak with me.
Others agree with the Polish-born youth, but I'm confused. They explain. To call someone "white" is an insult, as are synonymous terms like Wonder bread. "I don't consider myself white," says a young woman from Russia. She has white skin. "Whites act white and do white stuff."
"What's 'white stuff?'" I ask.
"White kids act different. They hang out differently. Whites are privileged. They're smart, do homework on time, run the student government, participate in plays and musicals, sell stuff, have parents who are involved in the school."
"When you go to apply for a job," says one boy, "you have to act white."
"What do you do on weekends?" I ask.
They all answer: Eat at a diner, talk, chill, watch television, go to an outlet mall, be with a boyfriend while he gets his car inspected, talk on the telephone, go to a movie.
"Sounds like what a white person would do," I say. Several students shake their heads, amazed at my inability to understand.
Most white students remain silent during these discussions. "I won't apologize for being white," says one.
I end up wondering if these kids aren't just struggling with an age-old adolescent dilemma: wanting to achieve versus wanting to be "cool." If achievement—or at least too much achievement—is unfashionable and achievement, as they have defined it, is "white," then "white" is not cool.
Whether they want to end up "white" or not, the kids here know they're in a blender: People of different colors and textures go in, and a mixture that appears homogeneous comes out. Everyone has a backpack. Most boys wear jeans and T-shirts; many girls wear short skirts or tight pants, showing a bit of bare midriff. Boys and girls wear earrings and talk about the same music.
But running beneath the sameness in fashion and attitude is a current of ethnic soul—a diversity that many of the students cling to even as they conform. They may sense that they are losing their family stories in the blender. Students here come from places where there's war, civil unrest, or extreme poverty. Some have horrible memories; a few have seen family killed. Most of them, though, have asked their parents very little about their decisions to immigrate. "My parents don't talk much about it," one explains. Another girl says, "I'm Malaysian, but one set of my grandparents was from Thailand. I don't know anything beyond that."
The students' ethnic awareness coupled with the sense of losing their ethnic identity creates a subtle tension, even in the relatively benign atmosphere of the high school. "Hey, Italian!" evokes a response of "Hey, mulatto!" Pakistani girls are teased about wearing pajamas to school.
"I'm forgetting Arabic," says one student.
"I can feel it fading away, being sucked away from me."
"It's part of becoming an American," says a friend.
This pattern persists even in the Hispanic community, which now constitutes more than 12 percent of U.S. residents. Roughly half of second-generation Hispanics assimilate so completely that they don't learn Spanish.
"We feel better with our own people," explains one student when I ask about apparently segregated groups in the cafeteria, which has a distinct geography that all the students can readily map out. Groups that sit together include Pakistani, Spanish-speakers, Moroccan, freshmen, cheerleaders, slackers, and nerds. Blacks who have recently arrived from Africa do not sit with the black Americans. Some tables are frequented by students who live in the same apartment building.
Despite such boundaries, most tables appear just plain mixed. At what looks like a typical table I pass out a piece of paper and ask everyone to write down his or her ethnic background. The results: "half Greek, half Middle Eastern," "Greek," "Saudi Arabian," "Bolivian," "African American," "Hispanic," "white (American)," "Russian," "African," "Pakistani," "confused," "mixed—black with??"
Lunch in the cafeteria seems dominated by interaction between two groups that transcend ethnic differences: boys and girls. Hand-holding, hugging, and occasional kissing have been very much in evidence throughout the school. Even some of the Muslim girls, who wear clothes that cover their entire bodies, have magazine pictures of muscular black men wearing only bikini briefs taped up inside their lockers.
What do these teenagers think of the cultural rules their parents try to enforce? A Sikh student says he finally talked his father into letting him cut his hair. Some of the Muslim girls argue with their parents about what kinds of dresses they can wear. One girl says that her mother told her she would have to marry an Asian man, and another girl insists that people must marry for love. A third girl reports that her mother says that people
marry people, not cultures.
But most Stuart students are too young to be thinking of marriage. Conversations, especially among the boys, quickly turn to cars. "A car means freedom," one says. "You can go anywhere—your car is your life." A friend, who is saving his minimum-wage earnings for a car, says, "I know this girl farther out in Virginia I want to visit. With a car we could go to the shore or to New York. Doesn't everyone want to get away?"
At 2:05 p.m. the school day ends, and a rush to buses and cars begins. Some students get rides with parents or friends. Music blares from radios, kids sit on the grass, shouting, laughing, and flirting.
I go for ice cream with several boys, most from the football team. It's a typical J. E. B. Stuart group: an African American, an Afghan Italian, a Cambodian, and a Palestinian. They're talking about rap music when two girls walk in. One of the boys goes over to talk to them. When he returns, the others tease him. He defends himself: "I just asked if they'd like to chill together sometime."
These are normal American teenagers, I think, wondering how I'll get them to discuss immigration issues. Then I realize that they've already taught me the most important lesson. Young people whose backgrounds span the spectrum of human cultures are becoming "normal American teenagers," and in the process they will change America. We may not know yet what the change will mean, but the kids themselves know they are at the heart of something significant. As one boy, speaking simply and confidently, told me: "We make America more interesting."


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