During freshman orientation, I met a young man who continues to surprise me.
His pseudonym will be Ahmed.
He was escorted to my room by a student helper.
I introduced myself and he entered the room.
The older student immediately pulled me into the hall and whispered
"Ms. Hirsch, he just asked me if the teachers will hit him if he speaks out!"
She was totally nonplussed by his cultural ignorance.
I said thank you and sent her off.
Almost immediately, Ahmed raised his hand and stated quite flawlessly that his English wasn't very good.
I replied "Neither is mine," smiled and winked. Then I asked him to tell me if he didn't understand something.
During the presentation, he became a bit confused and asked both of the following questions:
"How many grade are in high school?" and
"Which grade am I in?"
At the end of the short presentation on athletics and activities, the students filed out.
Ahmed hung back.
He asked if the school had an Arabic club.
We don't, but we do have an AFS group and a World Languages club.
I gave him this information and then volunteered to introduce him to the teachers sponsoring those groups.
As we walked down the hall, he told me a little about himself.
He is Palestinian, but is from Jordan and lived in the US for 2nd grade.
At the time we met, he had been back in the United States for two weeks.
He told me he had never seen girls without head scarves in person before.
He almost giggled as he explained that where he was from the girls went to a different school and seeing a girl was always a big deal.
He expressed concerns about how different everything was.
He told me that all he knew about American school was what he had seen on TV and in movies.
He wanted to know if bullies were real.
I introduced him to the Spanish teacher who runs AFS.
She shook his hand and explained how the club runs and when it meets.
As we walked away, Ahmed whispered "Ms. Hirsch, that was weird. I have never shaken a girl's hand before."
Holy culture shock, Batman!
I made sure he had a student buddy who could help him find other soccer players and introduced him to the ELL teacher.
Since then, I have been so impressed with him.
Ahmed is handling the transition with alacrity.
His spoken English is excellent.
He struggles with reading and writing, but he never hesitates to ask questions.
Friday was the moment when I was reminded of just how new and different everything is for him.
He sits with a group made of himself, a white boy, a black girl, and a Mexican girl.
As they were settling in to work time, they were conversing.
The girls asked Ahmed where he was from and what language he spoke.
He told them.
They were clueless. Like completely unaware of where Jordan or even the Middle East is on a map.
They didn't know what Arabic was either.
Ahmed was, understandably, shocked.
Then the Mexican girl said "I am from Mexico and speak another language too."
Ahmed replied "What language does people from Mexico speak?"
Which, not surprisingly, shocked the rest of the group.
I intervened at that point by instructing them to learn about each other and use their Chromebooks to look at some maps.
When I checked in a bit later, they thanked me for letting them talk.
Each had learned something new and as a result, the group was already collaborating more effectively.
Ahmed is a minority in our school community.
There are perhaps 5 other students in the building who speak Arabic, maybe less.
And none of them are so newly arrived.
But he is going to be just fine.
He has a strength, a confidence, an openness that is approachable and appealing.
He also has an eagerness to learn and to share that will serve him well.
I'm not totally sure I have earned the unreserved confidence his questions indicate, but I will definitely try to live up to his trust.
Academic struggle is new to him. It is strange, and scary, and confusing.
Ahmed does not understand the flexibility of open-ended questions and independent learning.
Sometimes this upsets and overwhelms him.
At those times, he reaches out to his principal for support.
The struggle will benefit him in the long run, even though it breaks my heart to know he cries.
We do what we can to ease his transition.
And because he met me first, and I answered all his questions, I get to be one of his go to people.
I get to witness his struggle and his inevitable success.
That is definitely a good thing.