This is pretty much the only English that Christian Garcia knew as he walked into Judith A. Resnik Elementary School for the first day of classes Monday:
He could say his ABC's and, if he tried really hard, he could sometimes remember that people here say "yes" when they mean si.
It's not surprising. Christian, who is 8, arrived in the United States with his mother two months ago from Spanish-speaking Guatemala. Because his teacher, Debby Fleming, speaks almost no Spanish, it was clear from the start that she and Christian were in for a challenging first day.
"Do I have a friend who speaks Spanish and English?" she asked, looking around the classroom for a student helper. Up stepped 7-year-old Kevin Meza, whose first task was to find out if Christian had brought his lunch. He hadn't, so the two boys and the rest of their table got up to mark their lunch choices on a list.
Seeing a second group go to sign up, Christian misunderstood and followed them. "You can sit down," Mrs. Fleming said, smiling at him. But Christian looked bewildered. "Go, seat!" she said, pointing toward his desk. Eventually, he figured it out.
A Familiar Scene
Millions of kids across the country have some idea of what Christian was feeling on his first day in an American school. Nearly one in every five U.S. students is an immigrant, having moved here from another country. The Washington region has the nation's seventh-largest immigrant population. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where Christian is in school, students come from 165 countries and speak 122 languages.
Christian and his mom share an apartment in Gaithersburg with his grandmother, who has been in the United States for many years. His father drives a delivery truck in Guatemala and hopes to join the family one day.
In Guatemala Christian attended a Catholic school whose students wore uniforms and said prayers. At Resnik, the Beach Boys' "Be True to Your School" blares over the loudspeaker and student-deejays kick off the morning announcements with "Heyyy, Resnik! It's Manic Monday!"
Christian likes Resnik, especially the playground, which he called bonito (beautiful) and muy grande (very big). But the language barrier dominated his first day. So many puzzles. He was chosen line leader but didn't know to go to the front of the line until Kevin whispered in his ear. Kevin was born in Silver Spring, but his mother is from El Salvador and his father is from Peru, and they speak Spanish to him at home.
Five other kids in Christian's class also speak Spanish and can help him. And he was given a children's Spanish-English dictionary. When Mrs. Fleming wanted him to draw, she opened the dictionary to the word "picture" (dibujo). She also taught him the English word for amigo, pointing to her mouth as she said "friend." She peeked over his shoulder often and found that, by copying off the blackboard and the other kids, he was keeping up.
Getting off the school bus Monday afternoon, Christian dashed into his mom's arms. He described his first day in a flood of Spanish.
"I will bring the dictionary [home] tomorrow," he said in Spanish. "The teacher told me to ask you to buy me a box for the pens. . . . I will bring my food every day except Friday, because I did not like the food there -- the beef was flavorless!"
"Did the teacher help you?" his mother asked.
"I asked her, but she almost never understood me, only a few words," he replied. "Kevin helped me."
The only thing Christian didn't like about his first day, he said, was that "everyone spoke English and I did not understand. That's why I want to learn -- and fast."
-- Fern Shen and Luz Lazo
of school, helped along
by classmates including
Juan Carlos Umana, in blue T-shirt at left.Christian
gets lunchtime help from classmate