Yesterday at Swanson Middle School, the tired, the poor and the huddled masses trooped excitedly past large drawings of a ship and the Statue of Liberty and jostled their way into America.
"Thees line ees too long," grumbled a boy in a wool cap.
"I learned English from zis book," said a tall girl in a head scarf, holding up a Bible written in Cyrillic script and clutching a sepia photo of a bearded man.
As part of an annual social studies and English segment on immigration, seventh-graders at the Arlington school each come up with a character who might have arrived at Ellis Island in the late 1800s and spend several weeks researching the character's background. The day is spent in costume -- Scottish tartans, German dirndls, Russian shawls -- and in character, accent and all.
But yesterday's activities did not focus entirely on the old days. Down a hall, past boxes painted with windows to look like New York buildings and cardboard laundry strung on lines to recall tenement life, some present-day immigrants awaited.
They are also Swanson students. But instead of playing newcomers for a day, they were the real thing. The students, enrolled in the school's English as a Second Language program and representing 15 countries, sat at desks laden with items from their home countries and answered questions from the seventh-graders about their immigrant experiences.
The Ellis Island simulation has been part of Swanson's curriculum since 1993, but the interviews with fellow students began two years ago because of Arlington's large immigrant population. Teachers say it helps the students connect with the diverse population around them.
Most of the newcomers said they had come for a better education and had been scared or shy when they arrived.
When he came from Guinea-Bissau a couple of winters ago, Soufan Mos Ie, 13, didn't have to go through the humiliations of Ellis Island, but he did have a rude awakening. "It was really cold," he said, "and I didn't have a jacket."
Karaca Dokuzcan, 11, pointed at an image of a man on Turkish currency and gave a flash history lesson: "This guy on the money, he fought the war, and we won, and Turkey was discovered in 1923, and he earned the name Ataturk, father of the Turks."
Turkey is different from the United States, Karaca explained to a 13-year-old interviewer, "because you can do fireworks there whenever you want. You can only do it for Fourth of July here."
Cathy Hix, who teaches American studies at Swanson, said the segment fits in with the Virginia Standards of Learning tests, which include the impact that immigrants have had on America. Personalizing the voyage helps bridge the gap between new arrivals and native speakers, she said.
"It shows them that immigration is an ongoing theme," she said. "It's kind of that affective part of education, that we're not just teaching facts, we're building attitudes."
In the past, she said, "we've had stories of kids that literally walked out [of their countries] with nothing . . . . They lived with friends, their father had no job."
Soufan said he liked being interviewed about his homeland. "I feel good, because no one ever knows about my country 'cause it's a small country," he said.
Katie McKenna, 12, interviewed Yerkanat Unurkhan, 11, about the differences between the United States and his native Mongolia.
In America, said Yerkanat, a round-faced boy in a velvet embroidered cap who came here two years ago, "they have a lot of cars and tall people."
Katie, who had taken the name of her Irish cousin, Colleen, said interviewing recent arrivals made her feel "really fortunate that we live here, because they didn't get the educations that we did in their countries."
Dressed as a Russian immigrant named "Alexandra Zhivago," Khulan Batmunkh, 12, interviewed Mario Arevalo, 12, of El Salvador and heard about its hot weather and volcanoes.
"Is the U.S. the way you expected it would be?" she asked. "What surprised you?"
"I thought there would be big buildings, but it's small apartments," he said.
"That's what I thought, too," Khulan said, nodding. A native of Mongolia, she, too, was a new arrival who once spoke only a few words of English. That was three years ago; now she has barely a trace of an accent and has moved out of the ESL program.
Khulan, who wants to be an actress or a model, said she "kind of forgot my language" but is more confident around ESL students. "I don't know why, but around white kids I'm shy," she said. "I feel like if I do something wrong they'll probably make fun of me."
She likes the idea of her classmates learning more about her homeland. "Mongolia isn't a country like Germany or Italy," she said. "It's not a country that you, like, know, or really want to go there." Still, she said, "I don't want people to think it's a stupid country or whatever . . . I want people to respect it."
Yesterday, the students carried babies, violins and other valuables and navigated through the background checks, medical exams, intelligence tests and tricks from dockside hucksters that old-time immigrants faced; most were allowed into America, but a few who couldn't persuade immigration officials (teachers in costume) to let them in were deported.
Going through it reminded Khulan that some things haven't changed for immigrants. "I've seen a lot of people who were, like, doctors in their countries, and they're, like, working in the bathroom or at Subway," she said.
At the end, those who were approved for entry into the United States got to hold an American flag and take a loyalty oath, similar to that taken by naturalized citizens.
Khulan was one of them. "It felt really good," she said, smiling. "I, like, really wanted to be an American citizen, just like other people."