[lg policy] New York: At Stuyvesant, Interpreting Parent-Teacher Night

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 20 15:00:24 UTC 2010

At Stuyvesant, Interpreting Parent-Teacher Night

Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times

Published: March 19, 2010

They were too old to be high school students, but not old enough to be
the parents. They were lingering near Room 236 at Stuyvesant High
School, a group of 20 young people, all of them Asian, standing
awkwardly together, waiting for the moment when their peripheral but
crucial role would become clear to the main characters at the event,
the vaunted parent-teacher night.
Two big signs at the school entrance, one written in Chinese,
explained their mission: Parents in need of interpreters could find
them by Room 236. (Teachers supervised the writing of the signs, noted
Harvey Blumm, who coordinated the event, “so we’d know they didn’t
say, ‘Go find a bathroom and stick your head in it.’ ”)

Sally Liu, 26, a university graduate student in film, came because she
knew what it was like to be lost in a sea of English. Lin Lin Cheng,
who is 18 and studying paleontology, had some extra time during her
spring break. And Ying Lin, 19, an undergraduate interested in
business, had always wanted to see the inside of Stuyvesant. At every
school, the parent-teacher conference has an “Alice in Wonderland”
feeling — men and women contorting their bodies to fit undersize
desks, transported back to a time when they cowered before the
judgment of teachers. But the Stuyvesant event is a confusing
adrenaline sport on top of that, a mad rush in which strivers race to
sign up for meetings with in-demand teachers who will tell them
everything they need to know about their children’s academic careers,
provided it can be done within the three-minute limit.

For parents who do not speak English — at Stuyvesant, perhaps 5
percent to 10 percent — the process is all the more discomfiting.
Stuyvesant, a school of 3,200 students, has seen its Asian population
soar to 70 percent, which inspired Mr. Blumm to start asking for
volunteer interpreters. Students interpreting for their own parents
could be less-than-reliable sources. “You have to watch the parents’
facial expressions pretty closely,” said Gary Rubinstein, a math
teacher at the school.

He Qiu Hua, a mother of two who moved to New York in 1992, walked
quickly from floor to floor the other night, clutching a sheet of
paper with room numbers on it and sticking closely to Ms. Cheng, who
came to New York last year from Wuhan, China.
Once inside a math classroom, Ms. Hua stared intently at Ms. Cheng as
she interpreted the teacher’s words: The second quiz was not as strong
as he might have liked; her daughter was very quiet; he would like to
hear more from her in class.

The concern on the younger woman’s face was evident as she
interpreted, her head nearly touching Ms. Hua’s. They looked like
longtime collaborators, not women from provinces 1,000 miles apart who
had met a few hours earlier. Ms. Cheng admitted later that she could
not help but try to protect her new friend from some of what she was
hearing. There is a Chinese word for quiet that has especially
positive connotations for girls, she said — its meaning is closer to
ladylike — and that was the one she chose.

In a meeting with a science teacher, Ms. Cheng’s face subtly lighted
up as she told Ms. Hua that her daughter’s lab work was strong.  Ms.
Hua and her husband, both from Fuzhou, had worked hard to open a
Chinese restaurant on Avenue M in Brooklyn — so hard that she had no
time to study English. When each of her two children started third
grade, she took them every Saturday to classes in Chinatown, where
they studied — and did homework for — coursework a year ahead of their
public school grade’s. (Those trying to solve the frustrating shortage
of black and Hispanic students who score high enough on Stuyvesant’s
entrance exam might start by taking a look at whatever magic happens
in those Chinatown Saturday schools.)

Ms. Hua was proud when each of her children got into Stuyvesant, but
still expected the best of them, and worried she was not getting it.
“Are they on Facebook or doing their homework on the computer? My
English isn’t good enough for me to know,” she said to her daughter’s
biology teacher, who could only nod sympathetically. When the two
women parted ways, Ms. Hua had a lot on her mind, and Ms. Cheng felt a
little homesick. “She reminded me of my own mother,” Ms. Cheng said.
“Like all mothers, she worries.”

Ms. Hua, who had not managed to talk to every teacher she wanted to,
intended to return on Friday to finish up. Ms. Cheng, a dutiful
daughter to someone else’s mother, assured her she would be there to



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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