The first day at Brooklyn International High School (BIHS), my first United States education experience, was different from what I would refer it today. I arrived in NY with my family from Thailand in June of 2008. With the limited English language I had learned in Thailand; I found life in New York wasn’t fun and easy at all. During summer of 2008, I was told from people who have been here ahead of my family that I have to continue my education in New York public high school, which later I learned I would be attending BIHS in Brooklyn.
Before the fall semester of 2008 started, I had to be in summer school to prepare myself for learning in a new language, the United States education system and getting used to a new type of environment. The Karen family, who lived in the same apartment where my family lived, guided us to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), New York resettlement office to find me a summer school. IRC helps refugees from many countries, diverse ages and life background and support us to go through a process: I would call it “Building a new life”. Steps to build a new life starts from learning English, learning about the transportation system (subway), learning about going to the hospital, making an appointment, contact a bank, apply for social security card, state ID card, apply for public assistance and search for job/school.
At the 2008 IRC Refugees Youth Summer Academy, I was a high school student and studied with friends from all around the world. It was then when I learned what high school actually is: it is not the same high school you see in movies at all. For example there are no mean or jealous girls or boys in the hallway all the time. High School to me is to learn to study, learn to have fun, learn to love each other and learn to know who you are and to reach what you dream of.
I have to say, I did not get perfect English from the IRC summer academy. That was not actually the primary purpose of the program either. All subjects they taught were scary to me, subjects were all taught in English and I missed school for two years in the refugee camp, so those were almost like new things in my head. In fact, the primary purpose of IRC summer academy program is to help us, young refugees who have left our homes and come to new country to overcome challenges and know how to solve them - not to solve the challenges for us but to teach us how to solve it. My success at the IRC summer academy was I became a learner about my environment, adaptability and learned how to build new friendship with friends from countries I had never heard about before. More importantly, I learned to overcome myself. I think these are the most powerful tools I need in order to survive and succeed anywhere, everywhere I go.
In September of 2008, I started my first year of high school at BIHS as a “freshman” (9th grade). I did not know what a freshman actually was (I thought it sounded like fisherman, and was too confused why older students were calling us “fisherman” and we called them “seniors” if they are not that old?). I did not like it, first year at this school. The school with almost no rules, we called teachers by their first names, and almost did not have to use Mr. or Ms. in front of their names. We could bring food in the classroom and dating, make up, coloured nails and hair and jewellery were allowed? Then how can students live with discipline and limitation?
Being the only student who speaks Thai as the first language in school gave me the advantage to learn English faster than others. I was able to understand different accents and pick up English faster than I thought I would, but it was not always good. I missed the opportunity to enjoy my culture and traditions from my home. I missed the encouragement to express my culture to others. But the reason I think BIHS is the best place in the world where I could be right now, is not because there is not a lot of rules but because of the supports and help I can find from the BIHS community and because it is a place where everyone can find out who they are (later, I learned that it was me who sat at the corner and did not do any reach out, there are plenty of places in school where I can share my culture.)
By the second semester of sophomore year (10th grade), I learned why rules are not the most important thing in the school. Rules are not the most important factor in school because they make us only think in terms of “have to do it” not “want to do it”. Because of support and understandings from BIHS community, it makes me think that the truth is “I want to be good here and I want to do good things, while I am still in this house not because I have to but because I want to.” If anyone at BIHS especially the “freshman” says they do not want to be in BIHS, I would not be surprised, because for us to love this school we must first find the difficulty and then we will know why this school is so supportive. And One day they will know that they are lucky to have a chance to grow in the BIHS.
Receiving unique ways of teaching and exploring subjects from teachers in BIHS helps us understand about schoolwork better. Teachers teach us slowly and lay their trusts on us that we can do it. Students at BIHS have been in this country, the USA, less than four years and English is not our first language. So, everyone is new and everything is complicated for us. Learning what we have to know from school is not the only thing we need to know now but we must learn to “survive” in this country as well.
Together with support from the IRC, BIHS community, other organizations and supporters (the list is really long) and of course, my friends and family, I was able to figure out, what I think I want to become. I want to share this story from my school with everyone because I think it is important that we often talk about the positive aspects and the help that we get, rather than recognize only what we need or miss. Any change for good, starts from small, passionate and positive movements and it must also often be talked about what we have so there will be enough encouragement and powerful will-power to keep fighting for good.
Photo: Brooklyn International High School students won the award of second place at the Social Expo event, topic of "Human Rights" at New York University May 2011.