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Allison Gurski: Stepping Off the Bus

Allison Gurski: Stepping Off the Bus

STEPPING OFF THE BUS — UH, BOAT!

by Allison Gurski

A teacher and her 11-year old students talk about their experiences learning how it might have felt to be one of America’s first immigrants.

I live in the same town I grew up in, a place that was once a small town with a distinct personality but has now been converted into just another ordinary, overpopulated Atlanta suburb. I’ve been teaching 5th grade here for nearly three years now. All thirty of my students, which for the most part I refer to as “my kids”, are ages ten and eleven. The following reflections on immigration are written from the perspective of some of these students during our annual Immigration Day at Lewis Elementary. The journey of European, Latin, and Asian immigrants to Ellis Island in America is one of many state curriculum standards to be taught to fifth grade students here. Rather than just reading about the immigrant’s hardships of leaving their country and arriving in a foreign land, we decided to let them walk in the shoes of many of America’s ancestors and feel a bit of the experience for themselves.

Prior to arriving to school on Immigration Day, the students have no idea what to expect. They have only been told to dress as they think an immigrant may have dressed, and to bring food from a foreign country. Upon arrival the students, now considered immigrants, are quickly ushered off their buses (the ships) and into a line of close to 150 other students (immigrants). The line wraps around the school building. The temperature on this particular morning was less than 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the students had all of their belongings in hand. There was nowhere to sit, and they had no idea of exactly what was happening to them. It is this unknowingness and confusion, as well as the language barriers (no one is spoken to in their mother tongue), that not only test their patience but also give them a very real experience that stays with them for longer than just that day.

Speaking only when necessary, my fellow teachers and I act as the Immigrant Officials and speak to the students in foreign languages that confuse them and often leave them feeling somewhat helpless. It is up to the students to figure out the situation and decide how they must react to what they encounter. Just as chaos outside the school is about to ensue, the “immigrants” are issued passports and ordered
to complete their papers of entry. They realize that they are trying to get into a new country and that the goal is not so easy to attain. Many are quarantined after the “six-second” medical exam and then have to wait and reflect on the experience in “The Great Hall.” Others are subjected to a citizenship
test in a language they cannot read or understand. If they pass this test, they must then explain their reasons for wanting to enter the country, and figure out how to purchase train tickets to their desired destination in America.

Each year I look forward to Immigration Day because I know it is a day that students will never forget. In this fastpaced technological society, a society where fast food, the Internet, IPODS, TIVO, and Gameboys seem to suck up all of a kid’s attention, it is often difficult to teach these “hightech” students of the times that preceded their generation. Immigration day is a day dedicated to history and to the experiences of our ancestors. It’s a day where students are taken back to their beginnings, to a time when technology either didn’t exist or wasn’t available, a time where the dreams of a better life drove immigrants towards this country. I know this process continues today, but the ideas behind what it means to have “a better life” are perhaps a bit more complex. I hope “my kids” can use this experience to understand the history and diversity that make up their country. When reading their reflections, one feels the real emotion and thought that they went through during this experience. It is this emotion and reflection that opens them up to other understandings of life, and this is what makes Immigration day worthwhile, and also what gives me hope in my place as an educator.

Allison Gurski, 2005, teacher of a 5th-grade-class in Kennesaw, Georgia – U.S.A.

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