MAHOPAC, N.Y. - About 50 passengers are halfway through their trip. Sitting arm-against-arm, they are being shouted at periodically by the captain at certain landmarks, ensuring them they’re on the right path. Veering around a nondescript body of water, they inch closer to their final stop. The possibilities awaiting them on the other side of the water; the ideas of religious freedom, political equality and economic stability, reinforce their resolve, making the “unpleasant” conditions of the vehicle worth the voyage.
“Once upon the ocean you will be held to United States’ law. I will ensure that you are not a trouble maker,” the captain shouts. He warns that in the past, passengers have been detained and sent back to their home country.
As the sun glints through the windows and reveals finger-tracings of smiley faces, names and other doodles, it’s almost enough to shatter the carefully curated illusion the social studies teachers of Mahopac Middle School’s class 8A have put together for the students. Even with the stream of familiar images flickering by (the body of water is Lake Mahopac and the area dubbed Boston Harbor is actually Mahopac Chamber Park) the captain, English teacher Nicholas Oliverio has stayed in character, down to the antiquated timepiece he pulls from a chain in his pocket. The kids, dressed in the traditional garb of their designated country of origin, play along for the hands-on lesson known as “Immigration Day.”
In a modernized society it’s likely that the brittle reconstruction of this reality is a text alert away from being shattered. The harsher reality is that not every child of the world has the privilege of sitting in a climate-controlled school bus, listening to their teacher spout factoids in a fun outfit, with the weight of their cell phones tugging on their pockets. Not currently and especially not when the children’s ancestors made the real trip. That is a piece of the perspective teachers are hoping for them to gain through this exercise. As the bus pulls back up to the school, the Statue of Liberty comes into view, they recognize her immediately as one of their assistant principals, Anna O’Connor, who in her 19th year at the school has been given the honor of donning the costume for the first time.
“I think the experience is wonderful because when you’re teaching immigration it needs to be more than words in a text book and through this experience the kids get to understand it, experience it and connect with it,” O’Connor said still wearing her costume. “And especially in today’s times with our candidates who are running for president, there is a lot of talk about immigration, so now the kids can make a connection and they can understand the historical aspect of it.”
After not being cleared for their annual trip to present-day Ellis Island due to elevated threat levels issued by the Department of Homeland Security, this is how the teachers met the challenge of marrying the past and present in an interactive way.
It’s not the first year they’ve had to, either. Social studies teacher Lisa Napolitano, and primary organizer of the lesson, credits a creative team of teachers for coming up with this alternative in 2011, when they didn’t make the trip for similar reasons. Four years later, threat levels are once again elevated and the national dialogue spurred by an increased volume of refugees fleeing Syria makes the lesson just as relevant.
The administration at Mahopac Middle School is OK with national issues being broached in the classroom.
“That’s what Common Core is about,” O’Connor said. “It’s about making those connections to real life.”
To deepen the connection, children were asked to do some genealogical research into their ancestry and find out when their family members made their journey to America. Kieran Walsh-Montuori and his father, Joe, were able to find the manifest of the SS Mendoza, the 1910 ship that carried Kieran’s great grandfather, Luigi Montuori, into the United States from Naples, Italy. The manifest includes the passengers’ ages, known relatives in the country and occupation. Although due to the photocopied image and the wear and tear that comes with time, Montuori was unable to make out Luigi’s listed occupation, but after comparing it to other legible occupations on the list, speculates it involved farming.
The students came to Immigration Day prepared with cards of their own containing such information. Much of it gleaned from research like Montuori’s. Some children have first generation immigrant parents or grandparents that they could ask personally for details. When facts couldn’t be dug up, the kids were allowed to take some creative liberties, Napolitano said. Some factors such as how much money they have on them at the time of arrival determined whether they are allowed into the country or are turned away.
While the kids were on the bus, teachers transformed the school cafeteria into a replica of Ellis Island. The area was complete with a station for medical testing, psychological testing and a citizenship test as well as informational stations such as the list of common “push-pull factors” that motivate people to relocate to the United States. There was also a board full of quotes from immigrants after they saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time.
A student representing Italy, Gabrielle Lama, explains push-pull factors are what drive people to leave their countries. “Religious freedom and getting out of poverty,” were common factors for her Italian ancestors and are also common presently for parts of the world such as Syria and Russia she said. “It matches almost exactly because people are leaving because of terrorists and things. It’s interesting to see how that relates to us now and how it related back then.”
After initial medical inspections like eye examinations and lice checks, some students are turned away and sent to psychological testing or interrogation, especially if they admit to acts such as polygamy or having a job already within the country. At the time, Americans feared immigrants taking jobs, so they may have been turned away if they already had one, Napolitano explained.
One student, wearing a spot-on Italian-inspired outfit, was pulled aside almost immediately by the school’s police officer Thomas Lewis. After exiting the bus after it was reported he caused “trouble on the boat.”
Several students ended up at the interrogation table (manned by Napolitano) simply because they didn’t understand the questions being posed to them in a foreign language. A situation Napolitano said was intended to be as confusing as when people come to America and don’t speak the language. Napolitano allows them to be helped with some words to prod them along, as immigrant aide societies would have sent translators to Ellis Island, Napolitano said.
“It’s an authentic learning experience. They go through the corrals of what Ellis Island would be,” said Mahopac Middle School Principal, Vince DiGrandi. “They get the feeling of confusion of what the true immigration experience would be like,” DiGrandi said. At the end they have a gigantic celebration where the kids and families make foods that are culturally relevant to them, he said.
Napolitano said the idea is that once they get through into the country they have a big celebratory meal when they’re reunited with family and friends and are allowed to stay in the country.
Amy Sayegh, a parent and volunteer, has had three children go through the middle school and said they all loved the Immigration Day experience. Her son Alex, is dressed in hijab to represent his Jordanian heritage. After everyone was processed at Ellis Island, they enjoyed the meal she brought of hummus, sour yogurt and Arabic bread, as well as the meals the other students brought.
“I’ve had family come through Ellis Island so I think [Immigration Day] is a wonderful idea,” she said. “We have conversations at home about real issues and it makes it real for them to understand what’s going on.”