When Jeanette Herbert calls the roll at Glen Forest elementary School in Fairfax County, the names of the participants sound more like the members of a United Nations conference than a fifth-grade English class.
Among those studying the mysteries of the present perfect verb tense are Van Diep from Vietnam, Marebel Pedreanz from Venezuela, Samina Ghafoor from Pakistan, Jinhee Lim from Korea, and Sandra Zafiropoulos from Greece.
They are part of a student body that includes representatives of 50 different countries who speak 24 different languages. Nearly 10 per cent of the school's 645 students are learning English for the first time and more than 20 per cent of them are foreign-born.
Currently, Korean and Spanish-speaking children are the largest foreign-born group within the school at 5829 Glen Forest Dr., but as always, Glen Forest's international set is as mixed economically as it is culturally. In Herbert's English as a Second Language ESL classes, the daughters of Vietnamese 7-Eleven clerks sit next to the sons of Iranian Embassy officials and try to master the complexities of a language whose roots are as cosmopolitan as their own.
"The English language is funny sometimes, it doesn't always follow the rules," Herbert tells one beginning ESL class.
Her students so far has mastered enough to greet her observation with a chorus of "No kidding" and "I don't get it."
The children in Herbert's class learn their new language through memorization and repetition, vocabulary games and freewheeling discussions that introduce them not only to new words but novel American fads as well.
The intricacies of skateboarding, for example, came under discussion in one class recently. In another, the conversation became more abstract. "Mrs. Herbert," Sophia Zlatkov said thoughtfully, "a lot of people here think that men and women can do same things in equal ways. Do you?"
Herbert smiled and tossed the question back to the class, which came up with a variety of answers in a number of syntaxes.
Written essays also help to stretch the authors' vocabularies as well as giving the students a chance to clear up any misconceptions they think their readers might have.
"I come from Bulgaria," wrote Sophia in one essay. "This is small country with eastern coast in Black Sea. Bulgaria is about as big as Tennessee (sic). I know that you think: This is dumb country.It's only as big as Tennesee (sic). But this is not the way it is."
For the most part, say their teachers, the foreign-born students seem to adapt to their new culture with alacrity. "It's lonely at first and scary," said Linh Doan, a 10-year-old from Vietnam. "But everyone is friendly and try to help."
Glen Forest's cultural variety seems at times at odds with the image traditionally associated with Fairfax County, where diversity in some areas seems to be defined by the number of colors in which the neighborhood split-level is available.
But the school, which is tucked into the eastern corner of the county near the Arlington and Alexandria lines, has found itself in recent years at the center of a number of economic and cultural cross currents. Economically, the school draws its student body from a luxury, high-rise condominium, a public-housing project and the middle-income houses and apartment buildings in between.
School officials are not sure why Glen Forest's cultural mix is equally diverse, but attribute much of the influx to word of mouth. "I think when people come to this area, either to work at their embassies or as immigrants, other members of their community who were here before them tell them about us," said Glen Forest principal Joseph E. Rucker.
In fact, Rucker said, the school tries to celebrate the cultural diversity in its classrooms and parents of American-born students cited the international milieu as a positive attribute of the school in a recent questionnaire.
The ebb and flow of different nationalities in the school sometimes reflect the tremors in the international situation as well. "You could tell when the energy situation was heating up," one school secretary recalled."All of a sudden a number of the Saudi children were being withdrawn because their parents were being sent home."
The American-born students at Glen Forest seem to enjoy their roles as aides to their non-English speaking classmates and there are few of them, it seems, who cannot count to 10 in at least one other language. "They're quiet at first," said Denise Valco, 10. "But when they learn to talk English, the ones from other countries are usually better than us."
There are times, however, when teachers have to think fast to accommodate the inevitable cultural clashes. Sixth-grade teacher Charles Whitfield remembers a day when he asked each member of his class to bring in a dessert representative of a different country. One of his Vietnamese students, he said, brought in a native dessert that the rest of the class found inedible.
"Nobody wanted to hurt his feelings, though," Whitfield said. "So we sent him down to give Mr. Rucker a sample and then while he was gone, everyone stashed theirs."