Looking back on learning in DCPS

Arsema Demeke, Contributor

Hello Kitty book bags were the style in 2010. I’d picked mine out at a store downtown, its shiny pink glitters effortlessly memorized in my young girl’s mind. This sparkling bag was to be worn for my very first day of school in America. Mom and I stood outside the wooden door of my new elementary class in Brightwood, a neighborhood school she selected to conveniently pick me up after work. Despite my best efforts, I was anything but bright that day. “Please don’t make me go, mom!” I cried and pleaded, my face partly red and my voice raspy from the ceaseless screaming in the hall. “I’ll never make you mad and I’ll do everything you ask, just please don’t make me go!” I foolishly begged, wrapping myself around her thin legs in hopes of delaying her evil scheme. My tiny body unleashed deafening cries and puzzled teachers stopped in their tracks, my own teacher coming out of her class, to see the commotion.

After my mom hastily clarified that I’m a new student scheduled to her class, Ms. Wills greeted me with a tender smile, then guided me through the door. Having no alternative option, I grudgingly walked in but my now pink eyes were still fixed back on my mom, trying my last chance at a way out. Failing, I looked to the class. My breath was quick to accelerate while scanning the squared room. I’m taken aback by the distinct faces but exceedingly terrified, not recognizing any of the calculating eyes that stared back at me – a condition I’m unaccustomed to. Not speaking an ounce of English, I was partnered with a student that spoke my native tongue, Amharic -I was relieved. However, despite hoping to forge a new friend, my optimism was instantly shattered by the boy who pierced his eyes at me with shamefulness. He didn’t want to help me. Instead, he loathed translating to me, feeling embarrassed to speak Amharic in front of his friends who’d torment him if he uttered even a word. Whirlwinds of emotions rushed through me, but three stood out: dejected, unwelcome, an outcast. I sat there beside him in silence, failing to understand the lesson being taught. Something had to change.

My underfunded school couldn’t afford an ESL class, and my mom was too busy working overtime to help, so consequently, I had to rely on myself. For the remaining months, I was adamant on learning English, not able to bare bewilderment by lessons others comprehended flawlessly, or raising my hand only to stammer my words; I was a ghost in my own classroom. However, this remains true: “a child’s brain is like a sponge.” Yet, just like a sponge, you have to soak it with knowledge. Every day, I’d try reading children’s books in the school library during lunch, frequently endeavoring in the Curious George collection. Although I couldn’t speak in them, I listened to conversations my peers had, quietly mimicking their words under my breath. Gradually, I mastered basic communication and my presence at school finally expanded! In middle school, I joined the Model United Nations club where I delegated with countless countries and in turn, practiced writing and public speaking. I even ran for Secretary of Student Government, proposing my plan and speech in front of the entire school. My eyes couldn’t ignore the boy watching from the crowd, serving as a reminder of how far I had come. I graduated with the highest GPA, winning a medal and rounds of applause. My smile reflected the beaming face of Ms. Wills, observing among the audience.

Despite my personal success story, many immigrant students in the U.S. continue to be in the same shoes I grew out of. Because stigmas and stereotypes persisted, I made it my mission to help others combat these challenges. Creating the Youth Empowerment Alliance, I gave voices to the silenced and representation to the immigrant youth community, even if their issues didn’t directly affect me anymore. Reaching out to younger students near the age that I immigrated, it felt like a tribute to my 7-year-old self when I taught them the gravity of their actions and the effects they have on others, hoping to prevent experiences like mine. 

Today, I embrace the roadblocks I faced. Blooming where I was planted, I crafted a stronger me. Despite missing family back home, I’m proud of the one I’ve created here. Being an only child grants you the possibility to choose your own siblings, ones who you’ll stand by to defend. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to speak my native language either. So, when a foreign exchange student walked into class one Monday morning, I saw a little girl with her tiny fingers wrapped around her Hello Kitty bag. Rising up from my seat, I eagerly volunteered to help.