The crowd erupted in triumphant noise. Cheers and cries rose from every parent as they saw their child walking into the auditorium, about to graduate Rego Park Elementary School. Unlike my 5th-grade classmates, a feeling of happiness and ecstasy did not rain on me when my name was called.
My parents were not present; they were stuck at work, preparing and serving food at minimum wage. They were rarely allowed days off, and even if they were, they chose not to accept them. New York was not a cheap place to live, and they had to save every penny.
In contrast to my life in Myanmar, the life I had to endure in America felt like a crushing weight on my shoulders. I was 6 when I first arrived in this country. This weight, on a boy of such a young age, was compounded by a multitude of problems. The heaviest was that I arrived not knowing any English.
As I shook the teachers’ hands and walked off stage, I found myself wondering about my future in my new home country. Would my parents ever have a better future? How would I carry on with my limited language skills? Though I could speak English better than when I first arrived in America four years earlier, I was still far from fluent.
A Target at School
A week after we arrived in New York, my mom enrolled me in the 1st grade at an elementary school close to Woodhaven, the neighborhood in Queens where we lived. I had to take ESL classes, which further differentiated me from the rest of my classmates.
To make matters worse, my name was constantly the topic of jokes. During the school lunch period, I would sit at the table reserved for students with allergies. I chose to sit there because it was usually empty, which meant I didn’t have to engage in frivolous conversation.
One time when I was eating my lunch, I felt someone tap my shoulder. It was another classmate. Then, a phrase came out of one of their mouths that I did not fully comprehend. (I now know that it was an offensive alternative to my name).
I apologized for not understanding. “Could you repeat what you said?”
But, another student standing behind him came closer to me and threw a piece of food that stained my shirt. He also called me a curse word I recognized from how often it was used by the people around me.
I looked down at my shirt. I looked back up, and made eye contact with him. A dense mist of malice emanated from him, warping around me and adhering to my body. I crumpled from humiliation as they started to point toward me and laugh. I rushed out of the cafeteria into the hallway in an attempt to calm myself down.
The humming of the air conditioners, the sound of footsteps, and the sound of my breath trembling—all these noises were soon replaced by a prolonged silence. I was in another universe, a universe in my mind, that was unknown to anyone who existed.
For the first time since I had moved to New York, tears started streaming down my face. Those tears turned into waterfalls. The cafeteria was no longer a sanctuary for me.
I decided to visit the library during my lunch period.
Finding Peace at the Library
I reached the library entrance. I opened the door and the librarian greeted me with a warm smile. He looked very young, especially compared to my other teachers. Was he a college student moonlighting as a part-time librarian?
I walked past the counter he was sitting behind and the bookshelves towered above me. In this big room, there was only the librarian and me. The temperature was a lot cooler than the cafeteria, and the air didn’t smell like a mixture of dipping sauces. Looking at the shelves, I walked toward the adventure section where The Magic Treehouse and Diary of a Wimpy Kid caught my attention with their captivating and silly artwork.
I took out a book from The Magic Treehouse series and tried my hardest to make out what each page was about. No matter the effort, I encountered a dead end. As a last resort, I went to the librarian to ask him if he could translate the book or at least give me a sense of what was going on on each page.
“No problem, let’s go sit over there,” he said. Before opening the book, he asked me to introduce myself.
“I’ll introduce myself first, my name is Anthony,” he said. “I’m a regular person, there’s nothing to be anxious about. Consider me your friend.”
“My name is Bhone, I am not good at English, please read along with me,” I said, along with a smile to establish a pleasant mood.
“I understand, let’s start by first understanding what this novel is about,” he said, adding “This novel is about Jack and Anne using their magic treehouse to travel to the far distance of the oceans and battling a sea serpent.”
“Eh?” I said, still feeling confused.
I noticed how he kept forgetting the fact that I could barely grasp the idea of what he was saying.
“I don’t understand.”
“Sorry” he said. He then rephrased his statement into much simpler words and repeatedly asked me if I had followed him. I had not experienced such care and patience from anyone else, except maybe my ESL teacher.
We started with the first page, as he read each and every word gradually. He stopped at the end of each paragraph or at my request to summarize what had just occurred in the story. With this practice, nothing was so hard for me to understand.
By the end of the lunch period, we finished reading the first three chapters. I returned to the library the next day. The day after, we unintentionally picked up our pace as we enjoyed each other’s company, and ended up finishing the book.
Reading and understanding the journey of Jack and Anne along with the dangers they faced made me realize that I lacked their characteristics of bravery and courage. I realized I had to implement these traits in my own life.
We started another book together, but before we could finish it, there was a scheduling change in which another class would use the library during my lunch period. My journey at the library came to an end.
Making a Friend
When I recall my days in the library, I faintly remember an image of a girl sitting in the opposite corner from where I would sit to read. In her hand would always be a novel that would fall into the category of fictional adventure. One time, I saw her reading the same book I had read. She was just like me, locked away behind the gates of her imagination.
The day after the closing of the library, I sat at the same lunch table, reserved for students with allergies. But, today, unlike all other days the same girl from the library sat at the other end.
In her hand was a book, with the National Geographic logo on the front cover. This caught my curiosity. I wanted to start a conversation with her, but at the same time the fear of embarrassment took over my body. I stared at her pale and concentrated face, bound to the pages of the book, while mine was glowing red from heat.
I slowly built up my courage by imagining that I was one of those characters from the novels I read. I approached her and asked what the book she was reading was about. She responded, “I noticed you in the library reading with the librarian.”
From our conversation, I noticed her ability to speak English far exceeded mine. Her speech was more stable than mine, her manner more elegant. She started explaining how the book was about urban myths originating from different countries.
“I kind of understand what you said, sorry, my English is bad,” I said.
“No worries, mine was bad too at a certain point,” she replied.
I told her my name and that I was quite new to the country. We were united by the fact that we were both recent immigrants. I found that she too had struggled with assimilating in America. We talked about how we preferred reading books and playing card games with just one other person over hanging out with a crowd of people.
After that first conversation, we started eating lunch together every day. Our world grew from two small spheres into a bigger, collective, more ample one. My speaking skills improved during my time with her as well. She located flaws in my sentences and suggested ways to rephrase them, always with a smile on her face.
As the days passed, my confidence in my ability to speak increased. My accent began to shape itself into a voice that people could, at last, understand. I had formed my first friendship in the U.S.
The Gift of Language
As the elementary school years flowed by, each day was a repetition of the previous one. My lunch period was the only one where learning something new was actually fun. My new friend and I would exchange pieces of information with each other, what we had watched on television or had read in a book, at a very fast pace, and I no longer hesitated in my responses, to her or to others.
I noticed how effortlessly one can create friendships. A simple sentence or so and then another from the receiving end persuades the mind to endlessly communicate with another, causing the marked distance among us to shrink. This was the foundation of what people call “friends.”
Although we never saw each other outside of school, my friendship with her continued through each grade. This loop of spending my lunch period with her was the thing that I would look forward to every school day throughout the next four years. My desire was for these days to never end, but they did, on the day of graduation.
She was zoned to a different middle school from mine. Knowing that the only person who motivated me to keep learning English—and made me forget the financial struggles I was in, and provided me comfort—was disappearing, made me sad. She had written her phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to me days before the graduation, but I never contacted her as I did not possess the courage to do so.
Still, though she may have disappeared, her gift of language remained with me.
In middle school, when a classmate came to talk to me about a topic, my mind would trace back to memories with my first friend in America, allowing me to be in a more relaxed state. Before I knew it, my body was as calm as an autumn leaf floating through a river of springtime water.
I was able to form friendships with people in my class and even upperclassmen. And with these interactions, my English language skills improved at an accelerated pace, allowing me to finally pass my exams that determined if I would remain in ESL class. I did not need ESL any longer.
- How did the novels that Bhone read help him make his first friend?
- How did both the librarian and his new friend’s actions impact how Bhone saw himself, as well as his confidence in learning a new language?
- What does Bhone learn from his first friendship? How does this knowledge change Bhone’s experience of adjusting to the U.S.?