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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom

 

Safe Landings for the ‘Parachute Kids’


By Amy Issadore Bloom

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

“Eleven,” responded Farud, causing the other students to giggle. I thought perhaps he’d misunderstood.

Then a smile crept to his face, and he said, in near perfect yet heavily accented English, “My father has three wives. You do the math.”
 
Farud was a popular sophomore at the small school where I was teaching part-time. He and his childhood family friend, Shaz, had come from Kazakhstan together. Something about them reminded me of a less offensive version of the Festrunk brothers from Saturday Night Live. I almost expected them to blurt out during class, “We’re just two wild and crazy guys!”

They were among about five “parachute kids” enrolled in the school. The term refers to foreign students whose families send them to live with a relative in this country in order to attend school. Literally, “parachute kids” are dropped here.

Some, like Le and Mei, stayed with over-protective and attentive aunts and uncles. In the case of Shaz and Farud, however, there seemed only to be guardians on paper. They lived with a young “uncle” who traveled a lot. I never met or corresponded with him.

Another student visited them at their apartment and commented, “Those two live like grown men.”

It was true. Farud and Shaz were practically on their own, at just fifteen and sixteen years old. And yet, they did not act like teenagers who’d been let loose in the world. The boys carried themselves with an almost eerily adult-like sense of responsibility—they came to school, behaved like role model students, and didn’t get into trouble on the weekends.

I wondered if this motivation and maturity was nature, nurture, cultural or just a fluke. Or was it simply being raised by three mothers?

They excelled academically, especially Shaz. Timid at first, he gained confidence in our tradition of classroom participation despite having a stutter that, to my relief, nobody teased him about. He had an incredible grasp of political science. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to a secret fear that he might one day ask me a question too complex for me to answer. I’m fairly certain he knew more about world and U.S. politics than I did. Fortunately, he never did, keeping his questions mostly to language issues.

Farud was also a good student, but much more distracted socially. A helpless flirt, he never knew which girl he wanted to date. Most days, he glowed in school. Everyone wanted to be around him. He literally danced into the classroom sometimes, sharing his stash of Hi-Chew candy, something he’d been introduced to by some of our Vietnamese students.

Farud laughed often at my little jokes (and what teacher doesn’t love that). He frequently asked to see photos of my then two-year-old son. I imagine he missed family life. Looking back, I wish I had invited him to spend time with my family.

Despite his popularity and love of the school, Farud could be sullen. He had the ability to change the entire atmosphere of a room when he was “off,” like a dark rain cloud. When Farud was in a particularly long down phase, I asked Shaz about it.

He replied with the familiarity of a sibling, “This is just how he is.”

My concern grew the day Farud shared a literature project with me. It was a hand-drawn comic strip, depicting the main character contemplating suicide. It wasn’t until the following semester, when I co-taught the same literature class, that I understood this was a portrayal of Holden from The Catcher in the Rye. I often wondered why Farud didn’t explain that to me during our chat (where he assured me he was “OK,” which is teen talk for “Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything drastic.”).

Maybe he assumed I knew all about his assignment and the books he was reading.
 
Several years later, when I was no longer teaching at the school, another teacher told me Farud’s father had become a political prisoner. I cannot imagine the fear, confusion and guilt he felt over being so far away.

If I only knew sooner. But really, what could I have done that wouldn’t seem like scripted, artificial concern?
 
I believe what helped Farud through this time was not only being a part of such a close-knit school community, but the literature class where he “met” characters as dark and conflicted as Holden.
 
And while I sometimes questioned the laid-back, causal approach of some of the teachers there, sitting with the kids during breaks and playing guitar, taking them out for cheeseburgers after school, it was probably exactly what Farud’s father imagined.

Issadore Bloom (bloomindc@gmail.com), a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at her blog, www.bloomindc.com.

 


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