The initial focus of journalist Helen Thorpe's book The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom is intentionally very small: a group of 22 immigrants, teenagers from various countries and cultures, fleeing from war and international chaos and sometimes total dispossession, brought together in a specially-created English-language school class at South High School in Denver, Colorado. Thorpe spent a year and a half at South in order to understand both the students in that special class in Room 142 and the faculty members who devoted their time and effort to creating this dedicated English Language Acquisition class and running it in the 2015-2016 term.
These 22 teenagers were immigrants from a wide variety of the world's trouble-spots, fleeing from fighting, famine, political upheaval, and squalid refugee camps in places like Eritrea, El Salvador, Mozambique, Iraq, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of them arrive in the United States with virtually nothing: no possessions, no families, sometimes no homelands anymore – and little or no English. Hundreds of South High School's 1,600 students enrolled in English Language Acquisition classes, but this core group of teens, their numbers starting at half a dozen and gradually expanding, are the neediest, the ones furthest from any orbit of assimilation.
Rudimentary English will be their first step into an entirely new world, a world, as Thorpe points out, that's full of shocking new things: “They were still getting acclimated to so many things: the weird sound of American-accented English, the frighteningly large new urban high school, their strange-looking teacher, and the idea of students changing classrooms throughout the day (in many parts of the world, teachers changed rooms).” The sharp turns of Denver's weather, the spontaneous friendship of Denver's people, the restaurants, the grocery stores, the conveniences large and small that most Americans take for granted – all this and more contributed to a sense of forlorn isolation that was only increased by a language barrier.
Breaking down that barrier was the primary responsibility of a teacher named Eddie Williams: “Earnest, ardent, industrious, kind, and highly sensitive were traits that came to mind when I thought about the parts of himself this teacher brought into his classrooms, week in, week out, all year long.”
Despite the dramatic backgrounds of most of the students in Room 142, Williams is in most ways the star of "The Newcomers." He bears the spotlight well; like many thousands of high school teachers across America, he pours his whole heart into his job, serves as teacher, guidance counselor, role model, and spiritual advisor for his students, and doesn't exactly get paid a king's ransom by the Denver public school system in return. He's not only endlessly cheerful but endlessly inventive, always thinking on his feet, coming up with new and sometimes surprising ways to convey the basics of English to students who have virtually knowledge of America and virtually nothing in common with their fellow newcomers.
But from that small, simple premise, Thorpe's book subtly and irresistibly broadens and deepens into a story not only of language acquisition but of what it means to become an American. As the classroom grows in size and readers learn more about these two dozens students, narratives begin to unfold, and personalities begin to emerge. The book steadily becomes both funnier and more personal as both Thorpe and Eddie Williams come to know the students and learn bits and pieces of their traumatic pasts. And the learning happens in both directions; most of these students are not only uprooted but traumatized, and finding a teacher like Williams (or South's sympathetic track coach) is a boon not only to their lessons but to their damaged trust in the world. “Also critical for children who have lived through trauma,” Thorpe writes, “is the ability to form a safe, close relationship with an an adult who causes them no harm.”
"The Newcomers" obviously deals with issues that have become hot-button debate topics since Donald Trump was elected President largely on the strength of anti-immigration rhetoric about building walls and expelling Dreamers. But it would be a shame if the book were dismissed on the grounds of the tawdry headline-grabbing of politicians. What Thorpe writes about in these deeply affecting pages are lives – young people who've lost everything except the hope for a chance to start over. Reading their stories puts a much-needed human face on the refuge-crisis headlines in the news – and reading about Williams and his colleagues offers a much-needed reminder of the small miracles teachers perform every day.