To most of the students in George Tittmann's class at Arlington's Claremont Elementary School, New York City was little more than a musical advertisement on television or a backdrop for dramatic car chases.
Tittmann's students are all recent immigrants, but unlike past generations of newcomers whose first glimpse of the United States was the Statue of Liberty, most of these students arrived via the West Coast.
But with a lot of help from Tittmann, his family in New York, the school staff and hundreds of people who bought raffle tickets, the children surveyed New York from Miss Liberty's crown as part of a jam-packed two-day trip to the Big Apple.
The 24 students in Tittmann's class are all foreign-born; most arrived from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the past three years. When they arrived here, none spoke English.
But their English proficiency has progressed rapidly, enabling them to enter Tittmann's intermediate HILT (High Intensity Language Training) class for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.
Last fall, Tittmann suggested that the students save nickels, dimes and their other spare change for a trip at the end of the school year.
"I told them I'd be like the bank, and they could bring in what money they had saved or earned" from odd jobs, Tittmann said. "I told them that if we had enough money to go to California, we'd go to California at the end of the year. But if we had only enough money to go to Washington, we'd go to Washington."
By March, the class had tentatively decided to go to New York, but their savings were only $300. So plans for the big raffle began: Tittmann provided a pocket stereo, a school secretary donated an afghan and another person got a gift certificate from an antiques shop.
Soon the students had solicited donations from most of the people in the neighborhood near the school. After school and on weekends, Tittman loaded as many students as he could fit into his van and drove them to other areas of the county and to nearby shopping centers to solicit donations--25 cents each or five for $1.
Tittmann's students got a lesson in economics as they raised the funds and kept track of them as they prepared for the trip, principal Ann Fenton noted.
Eventually the students collected $802, enough for 20 students to make the trip. (Four students did not take the trip because their parents wouldn't let them.) "There wasn't any student who didn't go because of a lack of money," Tittmann emphasized.
But the $40 allotment for each student was only enough to pay the Amtrak fare and the cost of a few admission tickets. So Tittmann called on his family in New York to provide room and board for the students, himself and three other teacher chaperones.
Last Tuesday, the group left the school at 5 a.m. for what Tittmann described as a "smash Americanization." For the approximately one-third to one-half of the class who will attend intermediate school next year, "I thought the trip might make a big difference in their lives," Tittmann said.
When they arrived in New York, the group was met by Tittmann's sister, Christine, who had a van to carry the sleeping bags to Francis and Sue Tittmann's house on Long Island.
After that, it was a whirlwind, nonstop adventure: Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, F.A.O. Schwartz and a stop at Central Park for lunch--provided by Christine Tittmann.
Then the group rode the subway and finally a boat to reach the Statue of Liberty. Next it was back to Tittmann's parents' house for a backyard cookout, followed by a late-night trip to see the movie "Star Trek II."
"It (the late movie) was a little much, but I figured, what the heck, it's one of those frivolous things kids don't often get a chance to do," said George Tittmann.
After breakfast at Tittmann's parents' home, the group was off again: to Fleet's Cove beach for a swim (most didn't because of the cold water), to a fish hatchery, a sail boat marina and lunch with their teacher's 94-year-old grandfather, Gottfried Tittmann. Then they headed back into the city for an ear-popping trip to the top of the Empire State Building and the 6 o'clock train to Washington.
The students' reactions were much as their teacher had predicted:
"I was surprised at how tall the buildings were," said Huan Huu Nguyen, 12, who arrived from Vietnam three years ago. "They're bigger than the buildings in Washington and Virginia."
"I was surprised that his Tittman's parents, sister and grandfather would do everything so nice for us," remarked Inthawa Sounviengxay, 12, who arrived from Laos two years ago.
Sourasack Phonemany, 12, who arrived from Laos two years ago, said "my heart kept pounding and I was so scared at the top" of the Empire State Building.
Others talked about the precision of the Rockettes, catching a horseshoe crab and seeing their first sunrise as the train made its way to New York.
Vieng Phet Sisouvong, a 13-year-old Laotian who has been in America for two years, expressed his sentiment in an essay: "New York is the most interesting place in the world. . . . I think the Statue of Liberty was beautiful. For 75 years the Statue of Liberty has stood on Liberty Island in New York harbor as a symbol of freedom. . . . New York is interesting to me because people from all over the world have found freedom there."