CALDWELL, NJ — The sixth graders at Grover Cleveland Middle School experienced "coming to America" through Ellis Island in the school’s 2016 Immigration Day on Feb. 5.
The morning snow on Friday delayed the makeshift immigrants’ “arrival” at Ellis Island, but history teacher and event founder Mike Teshkoyan said the weather added a little more authenticity to the day.
“It actually was good: it gave them a little obstacle, so it wasn’t easy for them, it’s not a clear path to America, so this put them through their paces,” said Teshkoyan.
The event was initiated in Teshkoyan’s history class, but the first official grade-wide Immigration Day was held in 2007, with all of the sixth-grade teachers creating the sights and sounds of the experience and a number of parents, this year more than 25, who act as processors and observers.
The noise level in the auditorium, hot and full of people not sure where they should go next, accentuated as the immigrants arrived for “processing."
“We’re trying to get as realistic conditions as possible, so if they wait in line or have some struggles, it’s exactly what an immigrant did,” said Teshkoyan.
Numerous forms of clothing that represented the students’ home cultures were evident in the crowd. The school reported that the countries represented this year included Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Great Britain and several countries that were not part of the Ellis Island era to ensure that every child felt represented in the overall experience.
Many of the students brought in family artifacts and heirlooms. After a video depicting what immigrants experienced on their journeys to Ellis Island, the students were sent to processing where they were questioned about their health, professions and work skills. To make the experience more realistic, several students were deported or sent to “sickbay.”
At the end of the day, no one was deported for good, and everyone was sworn in as a citizen of the United States and able to begin their lives in a new country.
Teshkoyan said the kids are what made the event possible.
“I think they did a really good job assimilating into character, some kids never broke character,” said Teshkoyan. “We are looking for authentic answers and research, and we’re very proud of them.”
Speaking with the students showed how deep their research was, and the backstories they created. Immigrant Kevin O’Macateer, said the beginning of the day was slow, was from Ireland for the day.
“I was on the seventh boat so it took a while but it was still fun,” he said, who said that he would likely settle down and start looking for a job now that he “arrived” in America. “I used to be a tree cutter for five years, so probably something outside.”
Joining O’Macateer in the Oath of Loyalty was fellow immigrant Nicola Dellapenta, who had just “arrived” from Italy in search of a new occupation.
“I came to America for better jobs,” said Dellapenta. “I am a carpenter.”
After their arrival and processing, the immigrants were welcomed by the Statue of Liberty and then ate from the foods each student supplied, which reflecting their native lands and included spaghetti and meatballs, eggplant parmesan, Irish soda bread, mashed potatoes, shepherd’s pie and cabbage among other cultural dishes and deserts.
Teshkoyan said the annual event is all about the students learning about their individual heritages from family members and feeling like real-life immigrants, rather than simply reading about them.
“As a history teacher, we’re always trying to put them exactly in the shoes of the people we study so they can say, ‘hey I really understand now what my relatives went through to get to this country and appreciate their struggles’, to come in with very little and leave their homes,” said Teshkoyan. “They do family trees, they research family recipes, bring in authentic food, so it really connects them. It’s a whole month of really understanding their culture and being proud of their culture, and really understanding their family history.”
All photos were taken by Joe Ricci at Grover Cleveland Middle School's Immigration Day.