Sang Le balanced a cardboard turkey on his head and squirmed restlessly in his low chair waiting, with his classmates, for the teacher.
Turkeys made of pinecones and construction paper dangled from the ceiling. The children sat in a small semicircle facing a globe and a small map depicting ships sailing for America from various parts of the world. Pictures of Pilgrims and Indians stood on the blackboards eraser shelf. The morning's lesson was on Thanksgiving.
Sang Le, 6, is one of America's newest pilgrims. He left his native Vietnam last spring in a boat built by his grandfather, hoping to escape oppression and seeking freedom in a new land. But the traditional American feast clebrating freedom and survival is still strange to him, like just about everything else, American. $"The turkey, he makes something to eat," Sang said, reciting foods that he has learned make up the Thanksgiving dinner. He has never had turkey, he said, but he does remember eating duck at home in Vietnam.
Sang's 8-year-old brother, Minh, who is more fluent in English, defines Thanksgiving literally.
"I ask my friend for something that I need. He gives it to me and I say thank you," Minh said earnestly.
The children are students at Carole Highlands Elementary School in Takoma Park. Grace Boyer, who teaches English to foreign students, says her job is to try to give meaning to American holidays and customs.
"We try to give them the idea that there is something in their experience -- the same kind of thing that happened to them," she said. "They know about coming here and they know about people who helped them. They also know about the Pilgrims and the Indians." p
The day before Thanksgiving, Boyer said, members of the class planned to dress up in costumes for their ouwn Thanksgiving feast. "I will be the Indian because I was the one was here," she said.
But the poignancy of the first Thanksgiving for the area's Southeast Asian refugee children is probably more acute for Americans teaching them than for the children struggling to understand what Americans eat that day and why.
"I think it has affected us more," said Sylvia Willoughby, an official from the Prince George's County schools' international student office. "For us it is a day of work, a big meal and watching the football game. But the stories of what happened to (these children) and how they got here, it really tears you apart."
Presently, there are four Vietnamese students at Carole Highlands Elementary. The total number of foreign students at Carole Highlands, many of them Southeast Asian, has more than doubled from 13 last year to 27. County officials have been told by Social Serivces agencies to expect another 100 families from Southeast Asia to move into Prince George's before Christmas.
With Boyer leading them, the children sang a song. "There Are Many Things I Am Thankful For," and discussed what it meant.
"Mother and father," said one student.
"Toys," said another
"School, said Sang.
At Broad Acres Elementary, a Montgomery County school in nearby Silver Spring, a large class of kindergarten and preschool children prepared fruit salad and green beans for part of their Thanksgiving feast that day. The children milled around excitedly, as teacher and aides helped them don feather headbands or Pilgrim hats -- big black hats with tin foil buckles for the boys and close-fitting white bonnets and collars for the girls.
Earlier in the week, the children built a "Mayflower" out of blocks and paper sails, complete with steering wheel. They also built a "Pilgrim house" with painted logs and thatched roof. They stood in line to enter a gaily decorated Indian teepee in one corner.
"We try to bring it right to a 4-year-old's level," said teacher Joan M. Sommer. "We try to teach that everybody has something special about themselves."
During the week the children has acted out the voyage of the Mayflower, playing the parts of Indians and Pilgrims making a home in the new land.
"We talk about people coming to a new country and we relate it to people taking trips." Sommer said. "We talk about people who come to a new school and don't know anything and about the people who helped them. We try to keep it on a very concrete level. You can't theorize with a 4 year old."
Seung Tae Yi, a boisterous 5-year-old from Korea, had helped to make green beans for the dinner.
"We put butter on the beans, make it softer," he announced. Asked what Thanksgiving is, he said with bright confidence, "I come to the class and eat."
Who are the Indians?
"The Indians have feathers," he said looking around at his costumed classmates.
And the Pilrims?
"The Pilgrims have big hats with buckle on hat."
Quyhn Tran, 5, from Vietnam, looked out from under her white bonnet, an almond-eyed Pilgrim.
"I'd be Pilgrim," she said glowingly.
What is a Pilgrim?
"I don't know."
Nhing Khamphaman, 4, from Laos, another tiny Pilgrim, was a bit confused by all the activity.
"What was the ship called?" her teacher asked.
"Mayflower," she responded in a tiny voice.
And where were they going?
"They were crossing the street."
And who did the meet?
"The doctor helped them."