Glaring at Gottlieb Felber from behind thick, steel-rimmed glasses, the "immigration officer" growled, "Where are you from?"
"German," answered Felber, lowering his eyes. Then, just as meekly, he responded "spinner," to the woman's barked query of "What did you do there?"
It was Ellis Island all over again yesterday in a unique Montgomery County learning experiment, part of an interrelated arts program that finds interesting ways of applying the arts to school subjects.
Yesterday's role-playing workshop took place at the Connecticut Park Center in Silver Spring in a county that is becoming increasingly diverse with immigrants, many of them refugees, from dozens of countries.
Workshop directors Marilyn Lieberman Klaben and Nancy Harris in this case had combined drama and history to teach 30 fifth graders from Bells Mill Elementary in Potomac about U.S. immigration in the early part of the century.
Felber was really 10-year-old Todd Lichtenstein, a fifth grader at Bells Mill, who pretended to be a newly arrived immigrant in the year 1910.
The woman behind the desk was Muriel Seigel, a retired budget analyst dressed up in a white smock to play the immigration officer whose job it was to make life as difficult as possible for the newly arrived.
"Let me see your passport," Seigel said. "Will you look at that picture? It doesn't look like you to me," said the woman, who then called another "immigration officer" to come and look at the document.
"Ah, the picture was probably taken on some homemade contraption," the officer said. "Let him in. We need spinners."
Some of the children who participate in the workshops are newly arrived immigrants themselves or have parents or great grandparents who arrived on Ellis Island at the turn of the century.
"My grandmother almost got sent back because she had an eye disease," said Josh Weinstock, 10, who played the role of a 25-year-old Russian immigrant named Stasha Mikov.
"But my grandfather, he was at Ellis Island, too, he saw her crying and came over to her and said, 'What's the problem?' A porter told him what the problem was and my grandfather told him that as soon as he got a job and made some money he would take care of it."
Harris said the key to making the Ellis Island experience work is to make it as real as possible. The students dress up in scarves, hats, shawls, long dresses and overcoats. They carry their belongings in baskets, pillowcases and battered suitcases. They also carry homemade passports that have their fictitious names, birth dates and pictures.
Klaben opens the workshop by shouting, "Passengers of the SS Rose line up. You are entering Ellis Island." She herds them into a classroom made to look like Ellis Island, with a medical station, a waiting area and booths to exchange money and buy railroad tickets. Here, as part of the role-playing, the kids are shouted at, questioned, examined by a doctor and made to stand in line for long periods, although eventually they are sworn in as new citizens, true to history.