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South Meck students write America’s story through immigrant eyes

I’ve reported the numbers showing the international face of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. This week at South Mecklenburg High, students told the stories.

Daniela Christer Chinchilla, who is from Honduras, wrote about taking her first plane ride alone, then being sent to a foster family before being reunited with her mother in Charlotte.

“When I finally saw her, I cried,” she wrote. “I didn’t recognize her at first because I hadn’t seen her since I was 3 years old.”

Ghadeer Al-Saadi wrote about praying she could stay in Iraq, but being told it was no longer safe.

Francesca Marotta, who speaks Italian, Spanish and English, wrote about her momentary confusion when her mother kept saying, “Llama al nueve uno uno.” Her mother had suffered a stroke, and needed Francesca to call 911 for help.

Tuesday morning, students, parents and faculty packed South Meck’s media center to celebrate the publication of “My America,” a collection of stories written by English as a Second Language students and the Spanish immersion students who tutor them.

South Meck, a school of about 3,000 that includes a world language magnet program, has students from 53 countries, many of them Latin American. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has students from 165 countries, and roughly 1 in 4 students come from homes where English isn’t the main language spoken.

Spanish teacher Nhora Gómez-Saxon, who has taught at South Meck for 19 years, is the force behind the book. A former television journalist, “I know the importance of documenting moments,” she says. “If you don’t document it, it goes away and no one knows.”

She has always had her students write their stories. So when she got an email last year about CMS Teacher Innovation Fund grants, she decided to see if she could publish a book. She had only two days left to claim a piece of the $250,000 donated by the Charlotte Hornets Foundation, Fox Sports Southeast and Lowe’s. She enlisted the help of colleagues Haley Houghton, Alison Johnson and Sherry Roberts, met the deadline and won a $3,000 grant.

The group had originally hoped to publish in spring 2015, but it’s no small task to collect stories, poems and artwork from busy teens. The teachers worked to edit stories, some written by students still struggling with the English language, in ways that preserved the students’ voices.

The 59-page book took an extra year, but it was greeted joyously at Tuesday’s signing party, which featured readings from student authors.

When Blanca Rivera was introduced, I thought I’d made the connection to a familiar face I’d noticed as a group of us slipped in a few minutes late.

“Is that Ron Rivera’s daughter?” I whispered to Gómez-Saxon.

“No. I wish,” she replied wistfully.

“You know he’s here, right?” I said, nodding to the back of the room, where the Carolina Panthers coach had quietly taken a place.

Gómez-Saxon’s face lit up. She’d invited him, hoping that the son of Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants might take an interest. But after receiving a noncommittal reply, she’d assumed he had other things to do.

Rivera said afterward he was intrigued by the students’ heartfelt stories. Like Gómez-Saxon, he believes these voices are part of American history: “They kind of epitomize the new struggle.”

“My America” includes accounts of dangerous border crossings, heartbreaking farewells and painful adjustments to schools where newcomers who don’t speak English feel clueless.

But there’s plenty of quirky humor, too.

Student Cy Pair offered a reminder that those of us who are at home in the United States can be outsiders when we travel. He wrote about spending time in Chile with his father’s job and having to learn the “annoying” custom of kissing cheeks as a greeting.

“I grew so accustomed to the kiss on the cheek to say hello that when I returned to North Carolina, I accidentally did it to some of my ‘Gringo’ friends,” he wrote. “That took some explaining.”

Natalia Luengas, who came to Charlotte as a baby, wrote about struggling to understand Colombian idioms when she visits family. The first time she was asked “¿Quiéres una limonada de mango?” – or “Do you want mango lemonade?” – she assumed it was some kind of fusion drink. In fact, it assumes that lemonade can be made only with lemons: “Now I understand that this phrase means you are asking for something that is impossible to obtain.”

Juan Parra, a 2015 South Meck graduate, made it back to read his piece about his first day at the school after arriving from Nicaragua. At 16 – he had enough credits to graduate early – he’s working, preparing to attend Central Piedmont Community College and dreaming of becoming a neurosurgeon.

But judging from the crowd’s reaction, he also has a future as a stand-up comic. They roared at his tale of blundering through a chat with a cute girl in clumsy English and Spanish, struggling to understand South Meck’s schedule, going to the bus lot at the wrong time and missing his bus when school let out.

He had arrived at his bus stop at 5:45 a.m., wearing only a T-shirt in chilly weather, and left school when his father picked him up at 6:30 p.m. Despite all the obstacles and snarls, his conclusion was simple:

“I survived.”

The crowd burst into applause.

About the book

South Mecklenburg High plans to order a second printing of “My America” and sell copies as a fundraiser to support new editions. Check the school’s website for details – look under “Schools” at www.cms.k12.nc.us – or contact Principal Maureen Furr at m.furr@cms.k12.nc.us or 980-343-3600.

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