It began as a spirited exchange between friends, the kind usually forgotten by lunch. But it ended in fierce blows after Habti Alemseged thought another student at his Seattle school hurled a racial slur at him.
“I am a black African,” said Alemseged, an 18-year-old who fled his native Eritrea, a newly independent country north of Ethiopia. “But he called me a
n—– and said, ‘You can’t sit at my table.”‘
Alejandro Alcantar, a native of Mexico, said he would never use that word. He had called his classmate a Negro, the Spanish word for the color black, he said.
Both teen-agers, recent arrivals to the United States who attend the Sharples Bilingual Orientation Center, spoke through school translators.
“Don’t mistake me for being a racist. We Mexicans are not racist,” Alcantar said in a voice full of emotion.
But to Alemseged it was a racial slur, a slap that rocked the ears with the resounding crack of a bullwhip.
Alcantar later said: “It was ignorance. I didn’t know.”
Seattle has changed, and with it, the schools. Over the past decade, the city’s population of residents speaking a language other than English at home has risen to 75,122, or 15.4 percent of Seattle’s residents.
That compares to 56,829 people, or 13.8 percent of the population, in 1980, according to census reports.
In the Seattle School District, demand for the bilingual program has nearly doubled over the past decade, rising by 81 percent from 2,874 students in 1981 to 5,197 in 1991. The district’s current bilingual budget is about $8.5 million, a mixture of federal, state and local money.
All told, district students speak 75 languages and dialects.
At Sharples, gestures and demeanors are often as strong as the spoken word and can be misinterpreted as disrespectful or aggressive by another group.
“I try to tell the Russian kids (who love horseplay) they have to remember their body language and their culture,” said Russian instructional assistant, Janine Magidman.
Asian boys facing off against Hispanic boys recently said they felt the way the young Latin Americans socialized with Asian girls was too aggressive and not acceptable in their culture, said Phil Pruzan, a Sharples reading teacher. “There’s a lot of reasons for conflicts, but it is usually cultural and not based on skin color,” he said.
“The fights are mainly because of a lack of communication,” said another Sharples teacher. “A Hispanic person pronouncing the words ‘sheet’ or ‘beach’ can get into trouble because people hear something else.”
The district offers bilingual education at 22 elementary schools, seven middle schools and nine high schools. Students with limited English skills may spend up to a third of their day in these classes.
When immigrant students arrive in Seattle they are sequestered into one of five orientation centers for a semester before moving on to traditional schooling. Sharples is the only secondary school orientation center.
“In 20 percent of the cases, we’re getting students who have never been to school before or missed schooling in their own primary languages,” said Art Kono, director of Bilingual and Compensatory Education Programs.
At Sharples, English is the common thread. Fluency can determine his or her social standing, said Sharples Head Teacher, Barbara Moore.
On a recent morning at the center, Myhuong Dang, a Vietnamese instructional assistant, settled an argument between a Vietnamese boy and the Russian girl that the boy had just insulted with several unwelcome attempts at the phrase “I love you” in English.
“Learn English for the girl, but learn just what the teacher tells you, no more,” Dang admonished the mortified youth.
For some students, adopting the language is as far as they are willing to assimilate.
Abdia Ali, 17, and sisters Hana, 16, and Mumino Issa, 17, call to mind graceful swans as they walk through the hallways of Sharples wearing colorful, flowing dresses. Tall and lithe, their heads can be seen above the crowd draped in long, rainbow-colored scarves.
As is the custom of orthodox Muslims, their bodies are swathed in cloth, leaving visible only dark eyes and hands on which the fingernails have been burned with henna to permanently dye them a rich chocolate.
Ali’s parents died in war-torn Somalia and the Issa sisters left their parents behind when they came to the United States. The teens said the moral support of relatives will help them retain their customs.
“It is my religion, and I will dress this way forever,” Ali said through an interpreter. “I don’t mind that people stare at me as I walk, laughing at me. I have a very strong mind.”
“This is my culture,” Hana Issa said simply.
Ali said she wants to be a writer because in any other profession she would have to adjust her dress to American styles.
The three said they adhere to the Muslim custom of praying five times daily. This presents a logistical problem because religious observances are forbidden on school property.
Ali’s family has asked school officials to authorize two 10-minute breaks in which she would leave school property and find an alleyway or abandoned storefront entrance in which to pray.
Other Somalian girls at Sharples say resisting cultural assimilation is admirable but futile.
The long dresses limit movement and become clinging rags in the rain, they said. That and peer pressure will eventually bring Ali and the Issas around to the American way of doing things.
“We used to cover like that,” said Yasmine Hassan, 15. “But when the time came for us to (change) we began to wear jeans.”
“(The dress) is a part of our culture, and we cannot forget,” said Shamso Sheikh, 18, who wears traditional Muslim garb after school and on weekends.
Hassan added: “We don’t leave our prayers, that is too important. But in our dress and some music, we like American.”
Lunch time at Sharples takes on the look and aura of a United Nations assembly as children speaking in myriad tongues jostle each other for a place in line.
But once the students sit down, the lunchroom resembles a segregated restaurant. Mexican children take up two tables toward the back of the cafeteria. Somalians and Ethiopians, neighbors at home, sit at tables far apart. On the other side of the cafeteria near a side door, the Vietnamese take up a table or two while the Cambodians and Laotians eat near the entrance.
“It is easier this way because we are all Vietnamese,” said Xuan Thao Duong Nguyen, 17, as she and eight others welcomed a visitor to lunch with them.
In contrast, teachers make a deliberate attempt to seat youths of different races alongside one another in the classroom.
Many students said language barriers prevent them from mixing with other races. The Vietnamese students said that Russian sounded closest phonetically to their own language, and the African dialect and accents were hardest to understand.
But Sultan Mohamued, the instructor for Somalian and Ethiopian languages, said sometimes racism divides the students. Immigrant children soak up American culture through television and newspapers, which sometimes do not accurately portray people of color, he said.
Also,, students are sometimes warned by friends and family to avoid certain races because of fear of violence, Moore said. “We want them to unlearn stereotypes brought from their own country,” she said.
“There’s no harm in the students dividing themselves into cliques. However, these divisions can turn into hostilities and possibly violence – not always – but we know they do,” said Paul Burstein, a University of Washington sociology professor who has written on the subject of race.
School security officials say they are responding to more complaints of fights between racial groups, but say they don’t keep track of the incidents by race. At the same time, ethnic gang activity is increasing throughout the district, they said.
They point to rising Samoan and black gang activity in the southeastern portion of the city and West Seattle, and the Latino presence in the North End, Burien and Highland area.
“Students begin to look elsewhere for acceptance, and they turn to gangs,” Moore said.
Within ethnic and racial groups there are divisions. Some students from the former Soviet Union are adamant that they be known as Soviet Ukranians, separate from the Russians. Eritreans become incensed when attempts are made to identify them as Ethiopian because their native home was once part of Ethiopia.
And as tensions escalate between different groups at home – the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, for example, – that tension makes its way here.
Al Sugiyama, vice president of the Seattle School Board, warns that educators must deal with intraracial conflict, especially among Asians where there is a clear difference between being American born and foreign born.
Some teachers say immigrant students are pushed into the regular classroom too early. Most students leave the bilingual program after one semester, about five months, although they continue to get special language assistance.
“How do you expect us to have students who are 13 years old functioning at the 8th-grade level in one semester when they came to us at pre-kindergarten levels,” head teacher Moore asks.
Kono, director of bilingual programs, said it would be impossible to extend the orientation period to a full year because Sharples is already too crowded, enrolling about 320 students when it has room for only 300.
Exceptions are made to extend a student’s stay at Sharples if school officials decide the student is unprepared for mainstream schooling.
But some experts believe students should be placed directly into the regular classroom, figuring students learn best when immersed in the new culture.
Still others want bilingual curricula that teach limited-English students in their native language and English simultaneously. These advocates say current teaching methods patronize students advanced academically in their own language but find it difficult to progress in English.
“The curriculum is often remedial,” said Deborah Perluss, an attorney with Evergreen Legal Services. “Kids should develop reading and language proficiency in their own language so they are not constantly playing catch-up.”
Evergreen is negotiating with the district to expand its bilingual education program.
Jose Juan Ledesma, 19, attended Sharples after arriving here from Mexico 21/2 years ago. The Ingraham senior said teachers there did not try to find out his individual academic needs.
The budget for bilingual education has not kept pace with the rapid immigrant growth, Kono said. It would be impossible for the district to create curricula in tune with a student’s previous schooling and also hire enough instructors to teach it, he said.