Nothing makes me sadder than a kid sitting alone in the cafeteria. Sometimes, a student is sitting alone by choice—he or she simply prefers to be alone, perhaps reading a book, or taking a break from interaction.
Other times, a student sits alone because he or she is new, and is the only person who speaks his or her own language. The High School of Language and Innovation is a school for newcomer English Language Learners. Most new students that have a large same-language, same-culture group—Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Albanian, French—will be quickly adopted into the group. If a student speaks a language like Vietnamese or Chinese, which are both small populations in our school, they might be alone if their 1-2 compatriots are absent.
We have tried to prevent alone-ness by assigning a buddy to new students, but if the buddy is unexpectedly absent or in another lunch activity, the student is once again alone.
Now we’re in summer school. When I walked to the cafeteria the other day, I saw mini-version of our usual lunchroom division: a group of Yemeni girls, a group of younger Dominican boys and girls, a group of older Dominican boys and girls, and one Vietnamese boy sitting alone. The Vietnamese boy, Thao, was quietly drawing an anime-like cartoon.*
I looked at a Dominican boy, Roberto, who was sitting near Thao. I had remembered Roberto sitting near Thao in class.
“Are you friends with Thao?” I asked Roberto.
He shrugged, looked over at Thao, and then nodded his head.
“Can you sit with him and become better friends?”
Roberto looked hesitant.
“It’s lonely when people sit alone.”
Roberto nodded, reluctantly got up, and then sat across from Thao. He asked Thao some questions about his drawing, which Thao, who arrived 3 months ago, couldn’t yet answer.
Roberto and Thao sat in what appeared to be awkward but friendly silence for the rest of the lunch period.
At the end of the period, Thao pushed his drawing across to Roberto. He said nothing.
“For me?” said Roberto.
Thao nodded. A slightly stronger friendship was born.
I didn’t get to go to the cafeteria the next day, but my staff member Paul told me that Thao and Roberto were making paper airplanes together and throwing them. “I told them to go ahead,” said Paul. “At least they were interacting.” I agreed.
It’s become obvious that being in a multicultural school poses its challenges for our students. We’ve increased the cultural understanding of our students by holding student-led cultural assemblies. And by 11th and 12th grades, students are much more comfortable interacting with one another– of course it doesn’t hurt that by then, most of the students can speak English.
But I realize that while we celebrate cultures, we don’t explicitly teach students how to start interacting with someone from another culture—how to communicate when there’s a language barrier, how to be curious without being offensive. Maybe it’s because we’re not so clear on these skills as adults. But our school’s multicultural nature is an untapped gift, and I’m seeing more and more how we can teach kids how to use that gift.
*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.
Photo credit of student artwork: Julie Nariman