The child was 3 1/2 years old when he was hit by a bullet fragment while playing outside his home in Cambodia. A few years later, he witnessed the execution of his father and the slow starvation deaths of four brothers and sisters.
Like many who lived in Cambodia under the notorious Pol Pot government in the late 1970s, he was kidnaped and forced to work in a children's labor camp, planting rice and clearing the shrub-covered land "from when they blew the whistle at 6 o'clock in the morning until dark," he explained through a translator in a recent interview.
With his wet, brown eyes cast on the ground while he was trying to speak about his past, the child said that he was once badly beaten for trying to escape. He said he remembers that he had only one black shirt and that he ate rice with water twice a day, but only if he worked hard enough.
Today the child, who asked that his name not be used, is about 15 years old and is enrolled at a junior high school in Montgomery County where he works diligently to learn the "to do" verb and to master his multiplication tables. Now he remembers, after one year of school in the United States, that his teacher gave him a book to read and homework to do and that "a good teacher said 'hi' " to him on his first day of school.
The number of students like him is increasing in the Washington area, children who have fled the war and brutality of their homelands and are struggling in their new surroundings to overcome psychological trauma and illiteracy.
In most schools, they must fit into regular classes the best they can. But in Montgomery County, 104 of these foreign students in junior high will be enrolled this year in a new program that provides counseling and separate courses in intensive basic reading, math, social studies and English. The first of its kind in the area, the program's aim is to reduce the number of dropouts and help these students adjust to their new surroundings and their past tragedies.
School counselor Wilma Monteil calls the Cambodian youth an "invulnerable" -- a child who has managed to outlive, albeit with great effort and emotional pain, the most gruesome human experiences. She said it is remarkable that after all he has been through, he has found the strength to sit in a classroom and start from scratch. For many, including the Cambodian, the transition has not been easy.
"I was afraid. Before, I don't have friends. I just sit," he said in his quick, broken English. "I am not happy last year . But I am going to school and I am not hungry or anything."
Patricia Ghiglino, a county bilingual family therapist who works with such children in the schools said, "They are anxious, afraid and depressed." Children who have been through wars will isolate themselves from others because "they can't take anymore inside. What they have inside already is enough to process," she said.
Children who witness atrocities at an early age have the hardest time adjusting because "their fantasy level is much higher" and they may not be able to distinguish between real and perceived threats, she said.
Such is the case with a 14-year-old Salvadoran boy Ghiglino is counseling. Five years ago, the boy witnessed a massacre. Now, he has nightmares and does poorly in school, getting in fist fights, disobeying teachers, even threatening to kill his new American father, Ghiglino said. A few weeks ago he tried suicide, first with a pocketknife, then a week later, with a large kitchen knife.
"His self-esteem is very low," she said. When these children "compare themselves with other kids they will do anything not to go back to school because they know they're failures."
The dropout rate among Hispanic and Asian students has increased sharply during the past three years, when a majority of these children arrived, according to the school system's Department of Educational Accountability. While the white student dropout rate in Montgomery County declined by 8.4 percent between 1980 and 1983, the Hispanic dropout rate increased from 4.8 to 10 percent and the Asian student dropout rate climbed from 1.9 to 4.9 percent.
The Montgomery program is aimed at convincing potential dropouts that they can succeed. With about $172,000 in federal funds, the school system has hired a coordinator, two counselors, two teaching assistants and will use additional teachers already working with foreign students to create a program at four junior high schools. While identifying students and reassigning staff continues, the first program already has begun at Eastern Intermediate School. The other programs are expected to begin in the next few weeks.
School officials also hope to ease students' integration into regular classes, since they are with American students only for physical education and elective courses during the program, and to better their chances of passing the Maryland Functional Reading and Math Tests, which are required for graduation.
When the program was tested at Takoma Park Junior High School last year, students showed significant advances in test scores. Of the 13 students who took the functional reading test before the program began, none passed. Seven students passed by the end of the year. On the functional math test, only one student passed the test before the program began; six passed it at the end of the program.
"We had a pep rally at the beginning of school to make sure the students eliminated the word 'can't' from their vocabulary," said Mary Kalandros, a teacher in the test program. "They wanted to learn," she said, and after the initial period, "they knew they could do it."
Mary Sharp, a basic skills teacher at Eastern Intermediate School in Silver Spring, is reminded that these students have sensitive psyches each time the Wednesday test siren goes off and there is a new student in class. "There was a certain amount of anxiety," she said. "I had to explain that, 'no, we have never had a plane attack.' "
Even though they are teen-agers, the students in the program have had very little education. Sharp, and teachers like her, must start a class at the kindergarten level for some, beginning with learning the alphabet. Typically the children know how to add and subtract numbers but not how to multiply or divide, and some have no concept of numbers. But because of their age, they are able to learn quickly and most can expect to be in regular classes in two to five years, according to teachers.
Most students in Sharp's class are encountering foreign peers for the first time, and there has been some racial tension, she said. In these students' lives, "there has been a lot of aggression and an emphasis on us versus them," she said. One solution has been to assign games to identify cross-cultural interests.
"You can almost measure the problems of the world by the new arrivals," said Monteil. Enrollment figures bear her out. There has been increasing number of students from Central America as the political strife in that region has grown in the past few years. Civil war in the past decade in Ethiopia and Cambodia, the resistance to the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in 1979 and the political upheaval in Vietnam are some of the events forcing families to flee their homelands.
In the 1983-84 school year, 938 Vietnamese enrolled in the Montgomery County schools, along with 526 Salvadorans, 259 Cambodians, 73 Ethiopians and 57 Afghans, according to the foreign student admissions office. From these five countries, 213 new students enrolled in the first two months of this school year, a number expected to increase during the year.
The total number of foreign students whose education was interrupted significantly or who were economic refugees with poor schooling has increased from nearly 1,700 in 1976 to 3,525 in 1984. It is expected to jump another 1,000 by 1985, according to school officials. Other school systems in the Washington area are enrolling increasing numbers of students with war-related trauma and little education, according to school officials. Large numbers of Salvadorans have enrolled in the District and Arlington public schools. In Alexandria and Fairfax, the Vietnamese population is the largest foreign group, and the Salvadoran population is the fastest growing. In Prince George's County, the fastest growing groups are Indochinese, Afghans and Ethiopians.
Montgomery educators hope to expand their program, because its successes, they say, are apparent. Peering through the window of an English-language class at Eastern, Monteil points to the 15-year-old Cambodian. "Last year, he was such a sad-looking thing," she whispers. "Now you see him sitting there, doing his work.
"When you break through, when you see a smile, it makes your day."