I remember my first day of high school — mainly, the noise. Three-thousand adolescents shouted in more than forty languages. We had a large population of immigrants and no single racial heritage constituted the majority. I spent a few days blitzed by the contrast to my previous school — immaculate campus, overwhelmingly white, academically outstanding, college prep. But even though I was intimidated by Hollywood High, I felt a magnetic draw, and gradually my experience began to shift. In this new environment with so many diverse folks, the usual judgments of adolescence fell away. We spoke different words, wore different clothes, ate different food, followed different customs…and I found it absolutely liberating.
I signed up to tutor students in math and English. In my previous school, I was not admired (a vast understatement) for my Olympic-Caliber-Nerd status. But Hollywood High surprised me. Every time I helped students understand an algebra problem or read an assignment in English, they felt a heightened sense of belonging and a shot of confidence. What I didn’t expect was that I’d feel the same way. As their self-esteem grew, so did mine. In this new environment, tutoring was viewed as valuable, and I began to thrive.
I remember one girl from a small village in Vietnam. She struggled with geometry word problems. Her issue was the language, not numbers or geometric concepts. Together, we listed the words and phrases commonly found in her level of math, with definitions in both of our languages. She aced her next test. The following week, she brought me a gift — a meal from an old family recipe. I have no idea what it was, because she knew the ingredients in her language — a dialect filled with vernacular specific to her rural village. That day, I learned the powerful bond of sharing food cooked from the heart, offered from the heritage of an immigrant girl navigating a new world.
Circumstances were harsh for many immigrant students. Some lived in impoverished homes, or on their own, or with relatives who didn’t want them, or on the streets. Looking back, I realize how many were in desperate need of an intervention. At the time, the thought never crossed my mind. We didn’t question each other’s circumstances.
Today, several decades later, I’m deeply concerned about how the USA will recover from the previous administration’s approach to immigrants. I find it heartbreaking to imagine the weight of fear that immigrants have been forced to carry on their shoulders. They left a place of extreme hardship, for a land that offered possibility. We are their hope, but they are also ours. I wish that all people who are hostile to immigrants had tasted that girl’s special dish, cooked the night before by her grandmother, a recipe passed down from several generations. I’ve never known a finer gift.
Now, my heart goes out to those who were barred from entering the land that was supposed to be their sanctuary. With the ICE raids that took place, I grieve for families torn apart, for parents and children separated and shattered. I wish people realized that the dreams of DACA are also our country’s dreams. Together, one by one, we can reach out and make a difference in the life of a child, an adolescent, an adult — a future nurse, professor, artist, sales clerk — or possibly the owner of the finest Vietnamese restaurant imaginable.