The true story of refugees in an American high school

On the first day of school—it was going to be a ninety-degree scorcher—Eddie Williams jogged up the four stone steps at the main entrance to South High School in Denver, Colorado, half an hour before the first bell rang, eager to meet his new students. The teacher was a tall man, six foot four inches in his socks. He was thirty-eight years old, but could have passed for twenty-eight, and he was wearing a short-sleeved purple South High polo shirt. All the teachers had put on purple shirts, that being the school color, so that the students could easily see whom they should turn to if they had a question about how to find a particular classroom, or how to read the confusing schedules they carried. Mr. Williams usually avoided short-sleeved shirts, because they revealed the dark blue tattoo that circled one of his biceps, and he feared his students might misinterpret the inked designs as macabre, given their backgrounds. He worked diligently to communicate in all sorts of ways that he was a person they could trust.

Mr. Williams had inherited his Anglo father’s rangy height and propensity to freckle, along with his Latina mother’s dark eyes and hair. Fluent in both Spanish and English, he was the sort of teacher who devoted an enormous portion of his kindness, vitality, and intellect to his students. Most of the classrooms in the school were crowded with noisy, chattering teenagers. That morning, however, as he looked around his room, Mr. Williams saw many empty chairs and only seven students. The teenagers assigned to him wore shut-door expressions on their faces. Nobody in the room was talking, not even to one another. The teacher had expected. His room always got off to a quiet start.

“Welcome to newcomer class!” he said, in a deliberately warm tone of voice. “My name is Mr. Williams. What is your name? Where are you from?”

The seven teenagers who had reported to Room 142 said nothing. Just the act of showing up by 7:45 in the morning had required enormous fortitude. It was August 24, 2015, and the students assigned to Mr. Williams had spent on average more than an hour negotiating the local public transit system to get here. They lived crammed with other relatives into small houses or apartments located in parts of the city where a dollar could be stretched. Getting from the patchwork zones of cheap housing located on the farthest edges of the city to South via the public transit system took dogged commitment, but that was a quality that Mr. Williams’s students typically possessed in abundance. What they did not possess, for the most part, was the ability to understand what he was now saying.

“Welcome to newcomer class!” the teacher repeated, taking care to enunciate each word even more deliberately. “My name is Mr. Williams. What is your name?”

The students continued to stare back at the teacher without speaking. The technical description for what was happening is “preproduction,” which in the academic literature about language acquisition is also known as “the silent period.” The vast majority of second-language learners begin in a quiet receptive phase, able to produce hardly any English themselves, even as their brains furiously absorb everything being said. That year, about sixteen hundred teenagers attended South High School, and roughly one-third of them had been born in another country. South served as a regular neighborhood school and also the designated destination for students who spoke foreign languages other than Spanish and whose education had been interrupted. This meant South handled the bulk of the city’s teenage refugees, for it was primarily children in refugee families who had significant gaps in their education. War—that was what generally caused children to be unable to attend school for long periods.

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