Sabrina Balram, 18, clutches the microphone like a lifeline. She sits before a roomful of teachers, two members of the Board of Regents, school administrators and NYSUT staff to tell her story about coming to the U.S. from Guyana – alone. Tears squelch her voice. The room is silent, respecting her struggle. When she is ready, she says she has not seen her father for three years. She is trying to learn where a question mark, or a comma, goes. She talks about how she arrived here not speaking a word of English. How she stood in the airport staring at people, watching and listening to their American words.
"Those tears are in every high school," says Jean-Michel Dissard, director of the documentary "I Learn America," which has just aired on the screen at the special event at NYSUT headquarters. "Those tears are our tears. They are who we are. Those tears are the tears of our great grandparents." Dissard says he made the film as a tool for those who work with immigrant students.
"How we fare in welcoming them will define who we are for years to come," he says. "These kids aren't issues; they're assets." He asks teachers and administrators to "think about the choices the school has made to be welcoming."
Balram is one of five students who shared their stories during the post-film discussion. The teens attend New York's public schools. The came to the U.S. from Korea, Pakistan, Guyana, Haiti and Vietnam. Behind them, in a corner, is an American flag they later unfurl for photos, beaming in front of the stars and stripes.
The students say they want to be the voice for immigrant children who are learning in America's public schools, just like the ones featured in the documentary. Some left their countries because of unrest, war, troubled families or family job relocation.
"I didn't see my mom for four and a half years," says Mah Rukh, from Pakistan, now a student in East Greenbush. "It was horrible. I can't just think of that moment." Her mother came to America first, then her brother, before she herself was able to come. She stayed with her grandparents while waiting.
Liz Otero, Albany Public School Teachers Association member and an English as a New Language teacher, says about 70 immigrant children attend Meyer's Middle School, where she teaches.
"Some haven't been to school. Many speak several languages," she says. Working with immigrant students prompts her to reevaluate frequently: She recently gave out an assignment, and while a student understood basic English, he did not know what a paperclip was.
Larry Drew, Albany PSTA, teaches family and consumer science, and finds that immigrant children "persevere more." Public education is the greatest educational system in the greatest country, he says, and "They take it!"
Balram, who is in the Shenendehowa district, says a teacher helps her with her life story, with her school work, to speak English, to write, and with preparing for tests. "If she has to stay after, she will," she says, breaking out into a wide grin.
Carms Serge Clerveau, from Haiti, says his teacher helps him with homework "and when I don't feel happy at all I go and talk to her." He says many families are counting on him to succeed, and he is here "because of soccer and God."
"I came here when I was 10 years old and did not speak a word of English," Regent Betty Rosa reveals. "I have in the fabric of my experience not speaking English." She recalls those times as being a source of both pain and joy.
Regent Kathleen Cashin says when she and Regent Rosa "take a vote and go against everyone in the room, we do so with your in mind." The crowd erupts in applause. "I'm here to salute you. You are loco parentis. What could be more important than that?"
NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino came to America from Argentina at age 9. "It was sink or swim," she says.
Teacher Patrice Delehanty, Shenendehowa TA, teaches English as a New Language and English Language Arts for immigrant children.
Some of her students are here because their parents work for Global Foundries, an international chip fab company, while others are Students with Interrupted Formal Education who left school in their countries in order to work. One of her students is from Iraq and had been living in a bomb shelter.
She recalls when students attended the Festival of Nations at the Empire Plaza, where some of them performed. Shenendehowa also has its own festival, which includes an international fashion show and student performances. "We have so much fun," she says.
Someone asks the students to name the hardest thing about transitioning to America.
Eun Jung Lee, from Korea, says figuring out the difference between "A" day and "B" day at her Shenendehowa school is very confusing.
Student Uyn Duong, from jungle-laden Vietnam, doesn't hesitate: "The weather. The snow is so slippery."