Erick Morales said he was a violent boy when he first came to Montgomery County from Guatemala three years, ago unable to speak a word of English. But now, with help from special bilingual counselors at his school, his priest, his girlfriend and his poetry, he said he is "trying to get everything in place."
One of Morales' poems, titled "The Land," won the school system's first writing award for non-native English speakers this year, part of an effort throughout the school system to encourage and recognize writing. It is a poem about his homeland and about his changing attitudes, he said.
"These are deep feelings," Morales, a 17-year-old sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said during a recent interview.
Morales, his mother and two siblings, left Guatemala in 1981 shortly after their house burned down. His father, a house painter, had been living in the United States for two years.
Morales is one of more than 130 Guatemalans in the Montgomery County public schools this year, many of them fleeing poverty and the mounting civil violence in that country. Like them, and hundreds of students in similar situations from other countries, he receives special English-language classes and bilingual counseling, which is part of the county school program to help students adjust to their new lives. This year, the county adopted a program to speed that adjustment, which offers intensive basic skills classes and emotional counseling to junior high students who come from war-torn countries and who have received little education.
Morales said he was encouraged to stay in the United States and to fight out the period of adjustment, rather than to return home, which he wanted to do. "I couldn't stand anything," he recalled. "I just didn't feel right . . . about the place, the people, the language. . . . I was afraid in the beginning. I was afraid of people listening to me."
He is no longer afraid, he said. Rather, he is excited about his work at the school's career center, where he is learning to be a printer in the hopes of printing his own book.
He has written more than 250 poems, most of them in Spanish, and about 20 songs. "The Land" is his best example in his new second language.