Navigating the world of high school can be a difficult task for any American teenager. However, for the students at International High School in Queens, N.Y., a school specifically for immigrant students learning English, surviving high school only marks the beginning of the struggles they face. In “The New Kids,” author Brooke Hauser documents the trials and tribulations of these students as they juggle the academic and social demands of high school while trying to find a new home in America.
Hauser first met IHS students in 2008 when she did a story for the New York Times about these teens preparing for their first-ever prom. For the next three years, Hauser got to know five different students, each of them chasing after the American dream of getting an education. The book’s depth and detail can be credited to Hauser’s complete immersion into the school and the lives of the teens. “There's really no substitute for putting in the time, and I wanted to see the kids in different contexts, not just in the classroom,” she said in an interview.
Take Jessica, who left her mother in China to join her father in the U.S., only to find that he had made a new life for himself that includes a wife. After being kicked out of his home by her stepmother, who refuses to accept her, Jessica is on her own. In the book we learn that Jessica rents a tiny room from a Malaysian hairdresser, and her father comes over every night to cook dinner for her. With movielike detail, Hauser describes a scene in which Jessica eats the meal her father prepared for her, alone. “Staring at her plate, Jessica tweezes a bite of fish and chews. ‘Hai chi, Pa,’ she says, ‘Delicious.’ Then she watches her father put on his sneakers and tie up the trash, before heading home to eat dinner with his new family.”
Jessica’s story is one of many Hauser explores in her book, each filled with heartbreak and triumph. The accounts of these students overcoming unimaginable obstacles moved Hauser, though she says it was important to maintain some distance.
“I helped students by reading over their college essays or writing recommendation letters,” she says. “But I always knew that the people who could help them most were their teachers, administrators, and social workers at the school.”
The book focuses heavily on immigrant status and education, issues that are particularly timely considering the recent debate surrounding the proposed DREAM act, which would allow undocumented students to gain conditional residency to access college education. While Hauser says she tried not to include her own political opinions in the book, she hopes that the students’ testimonies will perhaps change some minds. “I got some letters from readers who said that ‘The New Kids’ made them reconsider how we, as a nation, should treat undocumented students, including DREAMers.”
The New Kids follows the students as they journey through adolescence in a country that is completely unfamiliar. When it comes time for prom, many of International’s seniors have never even heard of “prom,” a word which doesn’t translate in many other languages. Hauser says the teens watched movies such as “Mean Girls” to familiarize themselves with prom customs and myths, “everything from electing a prom king and queen to losing one’s virginity on prom night.”
However, Hauser came to learn that the students at International were not all that different from American teens. When she attended school dances, she observed the students “just being themselves--nervous, sweaty teenagers goofing off on the dance floor.”
The book closes with the class of 2009’s commencement. The students’ families, “Bangladeshi women in gem-colored scarves and tunics, Haitian grannies wearing netted bonnets and African patriarchs still wearing their Bluetooth headsets,” gather in the auditorium to celebrate their children’s accomplishments. School Principal Alexandra Anormaliza acknowledges those who have an even longer road ahead of them. “Some of you intended to attend college in the fall but are not able to do so because of lack of funding. Hang in there. Your life has been interrupted, not ended.”
“The New Kids” leaves you wondering about the New Adults. Have they gone on to college despite economic hardships or immigration status? According to the Bell Policy Center in Colorado, every year 65,000 undocumented high school graduates face obstacles to gaining higher education due to lack of access to federal financial aid and in-state tuition. While it is a tremendous feat that these “New Kids” reached graduation, their challenges are far from over. As Hauser says in the book, “As soon as they walk out of the building, many of the students, especially those who are undocumented, will be on their own.”
Read a Q&A with author Brooke Hauser here.
The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens by Brooke Hauser | Atria Books | 336 p.