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Gaithersburg High School tackles immigration through art

Alone on an empty stage, Gaithersburg High School student Joanna Lum steps into the spotlight. She slowly and evenly recites her lines, in the character of a mother named Keiko, who immigrated to the United States from Japan with her husband and child.

“The Americans would make fun of us, call us FOBs. That means fresh off the boat,” she says. “But we came by plane.”

Lum, 16, plays a main character in Gaithersburg High School’s fall drama production, “Rowing To America: The Immigrant Project.” The production is a set of seven one-act plays about characters who are immigrants and emigrants from different countries, ranging from Europe in the 1870s to modern America.

Lum is herself an immigrant, who came to the United States from Hong Kong with her parents two months ago. She now lives in Rockville.

“Our background is almost the same,” she said of her character, Keiko. “At first I feel like it is a bit hard to get used to new things,” but friends and teachers helped her, Lum said.

Gaithersburg High School drama students rehearse a series of one-act plays at Seneca Valley High in Germantown, Md. on Friday, November 9, 2012. Joanna Lum, 16, portrays Keiko in a short titled 'Homeland.' (Tom Fedor/The Gazette)

Gaithersburg High School Principal Christine Handy-Collins said she wanted the school to perform a play that would include a diverse cast and reflect the school’s own population. One of the play’s strengths, she said, is that it addresses “topics that are inclusive of many nations.”

“We’re hoping the community will embrace it,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

The school’s drama director, Gaithersburg resident Julie Bourque, worked with Handy-Collins to choose the production. Bourque said she was surprised to see almost 50 students try out.

“It’s not a well-known show, so it’s hard to spark that interest,” Bourque said.

The company of about 25 students has been rehearsing in a classroom while their school’s auditorium is under construction. They are preparing to perform the play at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown.

“Kids who are new [to the company] are really into it,” she said. “We have kids who got off books a lot faster than I thought they would, and really embraced their roles.”

One of the new students, 15-year-old Montgomery Village resident Christa Villaviza, said she came to the U.S. from the Philippines four years ago. At a rehearsal at Seneca Valley on Friday night, she said her friends pushed her to try out for debate team and similar clubs that involved public speaking, but she never felt comfortable.

“I wasn’t confident about my accent,” she said.

Now, she is the understudy for three different characters, and said being in the play is “good practice” for her.

Sitting next to Villaviza in the auditorium, Lum said she decided to try out for the play when her ESOL teacher suggested it.

According to Dana Tofig, spokesperson for Montgomery County Public Schools, Gaithersburg has the second highest percentage of students in ESOL classes out of the county’s high schools. More than 10 percent of the school’s 2,008 students were enrolled in ESOL classes for the 2011-12 school year. The school with the highest percentage is Wheaton, with 17.1 percent of its 1,240 students in ESOL. Students in MCPS come from 163 countries and speak 134 languages, according to the school district’s Web site.

“It’s pretty well known that Montgomery County is becoming a much more diverse area,” Tofig said. The county has devoted more resources to ESOL classes in recent years in order to meet student need, he said.

Handy-Collins said Gaithersburg High School has embraced its diversity. Students who graduate from the school often tell her that their college is less diverse than Gaithersburg High School, she said.

“They are shocked to realize that the whole world is not like this,” she said.


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