Give me your tired

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(Host) Recently commentator Edith Hunter observed an innovative school program designed to teach children about the immigrant experience.

(Hunter) “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

They did look wretched, but excited, huddled on the deck of the ship (actually the school hallway). Some held “babies” (dolls wrapped in ragged blankets), some carried battered suitcases, and most wore ill-fitting clothing. They had just caught sight (in their minds’ eye) of the Statue of Liberty! They looked up with expectation, hope and excitement.

These were the 4th and 5th graders at the Cavendish Elementary School, soon to get off the boat to be taken to Ellis Island. There they would confront the arbitrators of their future in the new world. Grandson Sammy is now in the fourth grade and he and his classmates were about to participate in the culminating activity of six weeks spent living the experience of their immigrant ancestors.

Sammy had learned he had roots in Scotland, Russia, Poland, France, England, Ireland, and Germany. Classmates would add other countries to the mix. The statement – “we are all immigrants” – was taking on real meaning.

Then the fun began. Roles were assigned and for weeks each student became either an immigrant or one of the authorities whom they would encounter when they arrived at Ellis Island.

Now, clutching all they had of their past, and dreaming of their unknown futures, they moved forward. One of the classrooms had been converted into the various stations through which every one of them must pass. Would they make it to the Promised Land, or be deported back to the old world which they thought they had left behind?

There were about six of us adult observers. To the children we were invisable. They were totally absorbed in what was about to happen. There were no stars in this production. Each one was a unique individual who had to advocate persuasively for him or herself.

How stern the interrogators were! “Were you ever in jail? What was your trade? How will you earn a living here? Are you an an atheist? Were you ever politically active?”

Those whose answers were unsatisfactory or who failed the medical examination were sent to appeal stations. One woman, obviously pregnant (with a concealed basketball), when asked how she would support herself, pleaded again and again, “I cook. I cook.” She was so persuasive I almost forgot my “observer” status to urge, “Oh, let the poor woman in.”

As the saying goes, they were into this, every last one of them. This was education at its best!

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This is Edith Hunter on Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont.

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