Lowell Students Pen ‘We Are America’
LOWELL -- Lowell High English as a Second Language Social Studies teacher Jessica Lander has been teaching her semester-long Seminar on American Diversity for the past three years and has seen her students blossom into assured, intelligent and thoughtful leaders who engage each other in academic debates about various social justice issues that have been significant in American history.
She has also made these bright young students published authors for at least three of the previous five semesters by compiling their essays into books that have been used as reference materials in high school classrooms nationwide.
This year, her students wrote “We Are America,” a collection of stories about their lives that illustrate the country’s diversity. They wrote about moving to America, encountering discrimination, developing self-acceptance and a class trip to Montgomery, Alabama.
“My kids are part of that history. They’re part of that story. Their families, those histories, are part of the larger history of America. It’s all of these little pieces that make up our understanding of what diversity in America is,” said Lander.
The Sun sat down with four senior students -- Lucie Rwakabuba, Diane Chikulu, Ezequiel Nunez and Philly Marte -- who took Lander’s class and contributed to “We Are America.”
Rwakabuba and her fellow students could not believe it: They were all going to contribute to a whole book by the end of the semester? They soon found that the assignment was easier than they thought.
Rwakabuba’s own story, “A Masked Paradise,” details experiencing racism for the first time living in the United States. A white student told her that her skin was “dirty,” a statement which led to Rwakabuba internalizing self-hate about her skin color. The experience made her realize the historical plight of African Americans. As someone who had grown up in Africa, she was unfamiliar with African American history.
Rwakabuba found the assignment to be a positive experience that bonded all of the students together.
“We all go through different things but understand the struggle even if it’s not the exact same thing,” she said.
Chikulu was born in a Zambian refugee camp and lived there until she was 17. As a refugee, she felt as though she did not belong. Chikulu had a difficult time at school there because of her weakness in English and the local language. She experienced isolation from her classmates, who were native Zambians and called her an insulting term used to refer to refugees. In her story “Belonging,” Chikulu reflects on the challenges that she and her family faced in Zambia and during their eventual move to Lowell.
Composing her story meant grappling the challenges that she has come across in life that she had never processed. Chikulu says that as she went through her story during the numerous editing stages, she realized for the first time how much she had gone through in her short life.
Writing down her story made Chikulu realize the strength that people have in sharing their separate experiences.
“One story is not that powerful, but when we come together and make a book I think it was much more powerful,” she said.
Nunez, who was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated with his family to the United States when he was 13, wrote about how living in Lowell made him realize “the beauty of so many cultures.”
He titled his story “Journey to Heaven” to emphasize his love for the city he calls his home. Living in Lowell gave him a sense of belonging, safety and happiness.
Then he went to Alabama, where he witnessed firsthand the landmarks of slavery and the civil rights movement. He says that he felt great discomfort as a young man of color walking the streets and that he compulsively felt the need to look behind his back to scan for danger, which is something he says he has never had to do in Lowell.
“When I came back I felt so relieved,” he said. “I love Lowell.”
Marte spent much of his childhood moving from place to place, but something that helped him make connections in each location was his father’s bodega, where he met people of all different backgrounds.
Taking Lander’s class opened his eyes to the history of bigotry and discrimination in the United States and moved him to write “We Still Have Work To Do.”
The class trip to Montgomery made Marte realize that. He marveled at the beauty of the city but recoiled upon realizing the deep, dark and ugly undertones of it all. The architecture was beautiful, but many of the gorgeous structures he saw were landmarks of slavery. It was a harsh reminder to Marte that the “black spot of United States history” was not so far removed from the present.
Marte knew when he wrote his story that what he and his classmates were writing was the true definition of diversity. It can ring in someone’s heart and remind them of their own lives. It can teach a lesson and tell a larger story.
“That’s what America is,” he said. “A big collection of different backgrounds and different ideas... It might not be clear but everyone has their own story.”