I help run an after-school bike shop at a local middle school. All of our middle schools have after school activities three days per week. The thought was that if students this age had the opportunity to do fun things after school, they would stay there, supervised, rather than be at home or out roaming the community from 2:15 to whenever their parents get home. Ours is the only school with a bike shop. It’s a real shop – tools, bikes, and a paid mechanic to come in and supervise and teach the students.
I usually have 8 students, evenly divided between girls and boys, 7th and 8th grade, with a mix of skin colors. Four of my kids are Latino, one born here to Ghanian parents, and the rest some blend of white. In bike shop they just work on bikes together. No politics, no age, no flirting.
One of the students who joined us this semester is 14 and struggling to learn English. He just came from a country in Latin America in August. “C” is living here with an aunt and says his mother is still back home. I don’t know his full story or his immigration status, but I know he has had a difficult time. I can’t imagine moving to a new place with a new language and starting over, especially at age 14 without my mom.
There is also a high school student, “K”, the older brother of one of the girls in class, who comes to help for the last hour. He walks from the high school, about 2 miles, so by the time he arrives, we are half finished. But he jumps right in and gets to work. He has more English fluency than “C”, but it’s still tough. He’s a junior at the high school.
Today “K” brought a friend from school who had less English ability than “C” and no bike skills. I have no idea if his English challenge is because he is new to the US or has just not picked it up. He needed a bike, and helped “K” work on one. He then asked how much we would sell it for because he needs a bike to get to work. I told him $10 and he could pay next week or send the money through “K”. He didn’t want to take the bike until he paid, but I told him I trust him to do the right thing.
This kid “J” is probably 16 or 17, and his English skills are minimal. His future is grim if he doesn’t acquire them. While it is possible to live in our area and not interact in English, it is very difficult, and will certainly keep him from moving ahead in any meaningful manner.
But if he’s from El Salvador (and most of our recent arrival students are), it’s safer for him here than back there. Tough choices for a family.
These kids aren’t statistics or a category. They are in our school and community because some adult made that decision for them. How they choose to use this opportunity is up to them as well as intertwined with the education they had before they arrived. Many have had little or none.
Usually I chat with the bike shop students about home and if they’re originally from another country, ask them how long they’ve been in the US, etc. I’m interested in their stories and what they find different, new, exciting, annoying. Their answers make me laugh – they’re teenagers no matter where they’re from. But I’ve stopped asking about their “before” stories now. I don’t want them to feel any more pressure about being recent immigrants. There’s enough uncertainty in the community. I don’t want to add to their anxiety.
I hate that I’ve had to change my behavior because of external forces. But I want the kids to know that bike shop is a safe place.