Mixing Oil and Water

ASIAN refugees began to arrive at our mostly white, middle-class high school during my eighth year teaching there. At first there were only a few, then sometimes up to 12 a day. They were brought to school just days after arriving by plane from Southeast Asia. We enrolled Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong children from the highlands of Vietnam who had no written language of their own and who had never before attended school. The programs that we had proved useless for them, so we set up what we called Port-of-Entry classes, where we taught basic English, reading, writing, and math. We agreed to take all the non-English-speaking high school students in our city and were soon receiving Tongans, Samoans, South Americans, Mexicans, Greeks, Germans, and Navajos. Within a year these students made up over half the student body.

Some of the Tongan young men were well over six feet tall. They sometimes roamed the hall in bare feet and shouted greetings from one end of the building to the other. The young men talked to me of catching sharks and listening to whales sing at sunset. The Tongan girls brought cakes to school at the slightest excuse, but too soon they learned to be wary and hide their smiles.

Cambodian girls, by contrast, were tiny, frightened children gliding silently in the upper hall close to their classroom doors. From the Vietnamese boys I heard stories of hunting monkeys for food, of swimming the Mekong River while dodging bullets and clinging to the outside of overcrowded rafts in the China Sea.

The Navajos, silent, almost invisible, only reluctantly attended school off the reservation. They often dropped out before we came to know them. From a young woman I learned there are no Navajo equivalents for many English words.

For the most part the students stayed in their own groups, but tensions arose as they tested each other. There were fistfights and knife fights and many parent conferences and suspensions from school. One day hostilities between students exploded over some trivial misunderstanding, and great numbers of young people ranged into the halls and spilled out on the front lawn in angry groups, shouting and threatening each other. The police cars were there in a matter of minutes, along with reporters. Our school made the evening papers and the six o'clock TV news.

It was then that a plainclothes policeman was assigned to our school. The student grapevine knew immediately who he was and that he carried a gun. I didn't like the idea of having a policeman at school, but he proved to be a sensitive and sensible young man. Students were soon asking him for help when their lockers were rifled or their cars ripped off. As we watched his collection of confiscated brass knuckles, guns, knives, and nun-chucks grow, we were grateful to have him around to disarm students.

All of us had a lot to learn from each other, but it was like mixing oil and water. We needed shaking up. A group of us decided to sponsor a ``cultural assembly,'' where students could show off their country's dances, music, and songs.

The Asian students decided on a Dragon dance. We furnished the materials and a room in the basement to work in. The resulting dragon had a flat face, a moveable jaw fringed with long white yarn, bulging eyes, and bright red balls on springs that wobbled when its head moved. The girls sewed red, green, blue, and yellow cloth in an intricate pattern for the body.

My assignment was to help the Tongan students. I found them a place to practice and got out of the way. A lively bunch, they usually managed to pull things together at the last minute after a lot of noisy discussion. They planned a Tahitian Hula and a war dance. When they arrived for practice they'd forgotten to bring music but the drummer grabbed a stick, snapped it in half, and beat rhythm on a metal garbage can.

The day of the assembly didn't begin well. A girl, trying to attract the attention of a handsome football player, unhooked a small fire extinguisher and sprayed him, the floor, and the walls with white foam. Fortunately, the boy wasn't hurt, but the student radar, which flashes instantly to all parts of the building, alerted everyone. The foyer immediately filled with students, slipping on the floor, pushing, shoving, eager to start a fight with someone. Order was restored with some difficulty.

The principal tried to call off the program, but it was too late. The assembly bell rang. Dancers, eager to squeeze every drop of recognition out of the occasion, found an excuse to parade in costume through the halls as the auditorium filled. A troop of tiny Vietnamese girls giggled their way backstage. A Tongan dancer stood casually wearing only his sarong and a wreath of lilacs in his hair. In our tough school no one dared comment.

I sat at the back of the auditorium. Teachers, administrators, and the policeman were scattered throughout the audience trying for a modicum of order. The auditorium was filled with the roar of adolescents daring the performers to entertain them. A young man sitting in front of me was determined to prove he didn't want to be there and that he wouldn't like this assembly any better than any other he had seen. He wiggled and jumped to music on his earphones.

The assembly began. Announcements by the student body president could not be heard over the uproar. The curtains opened. Tongan drums, two long hollow logs, beat out a rhythm even louder than the voices of the audience. The girls, wearing real grass skirts - not the plastic kind sold in America - and leis of flowers and tall head-dresses of shells and colored beads, gyrated their hips in a hula so arresting even the young man in front of me took off his earphones and watched. Then the Tongan men, their muscles glistening with oil, their faces painted in ferocious black masks, grimaced and stomped in a war dance that would intimidate any enemy.

The audience exploded with cheers.

The Vietnamese girls, tiny as elementary school children, wearing elaborate brocade costumes that had emerged from trunks and suitcases of parents and relatives, performed a quiet, graceful dance celebrating a harvest in a foreign land.

Three pairs of legs in black pants, white socks, and black sneakers did the Chinese Dragon dance, lashing the mythical beast around the stage, finally taming him to lie quietly before the footlights.

Mexican girls, their dark hair woven with flowers, did a dance to lively music with much foot stomping and skirt twirling. A lone Navajo boy danced with hoops to the music of a drummer who sang a song without words. The black students sang gospel music, and a group studying German did a folk dance with their teacher.

The audience stamped, clapped, whistled, and applauded. The boy in front of me did not replace his ear phones.

For the finale the performers gathered on stage to join hands and sing. Then the audience stood and put their arms on each other's shoulders and swayed back and forth between auditorium seats and sang with the performers, ``We are the world, We are the children.''

When the lunch bell rang no one left. They stayed in the auditorium, arms linked, and sang together for a long time.

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