“That child shouldn’t have been sent to school without a coat.”
My second grade class was heading out for recess when I overheard my teacher talking to another adult. I paused in the hallway. The child without a coat was me. I was only seven but understood the subtext of my teacher’s words. She thought my mother was a bad mom.
I was puzzled and hurt. My mother was a wonderful parent. She was and is nurturing, wildly creative, and playful. My two brothers and I never doubted that we were loved and treasured. Except for sometimes, when Mom withdrew; when she was angry or in pain and didn’t know how to deal with those emotions.
At that time, my mother was still a fairly new immigrant. She had left everything behind in England – family, friends, culture, religion -- to marry my father, an American Jew from the Bronx. She struggled to make friends. Mom was home alone, in an unfamiliar country, with three young children. She loved us, yet didn’t always have the emotional energy to fight with a stubborn kid over taking a coat to school.
My mother had brought more than a suitcase with her to the United States. The British “stiff upper lip” came too. That meant holding emotions in, even when the sadness and feelings of isolation made her shut down.
In my work as a middle grade author, I have touched on depression before. One of the main characters in Takedown has a brother whose depression causes him to pull away from the family, but also to lash out at others. In The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, several bicultural and first generation kids express deep sadness at missing faraway grandparents, at feeling torn between fitting in and staying true to their family’s culture of origin.
I use the phrase “touched on depression” intentionally. It never felt safe to fully immerse myself in a story that portrayed the truth of my experiences. When I was a kid, our family didn’t talk about mental health. Keeping up appearances (another British euphemism for “pretend everything is fine”), was a hard and fast rule. I kept a journal for years, in part to record the sad times, arguments, and my own anger – which were often downplayed by adults with statements like “It wasn’t that bad” and “You take things too seriously.”
That’s why, when Saadia Faruqi and I began to work on A Place at the Table, I was worried. In our book about two sixth graders whose moms are both immigrants, the character Elizabeth Shainmark is loosely based on me. Her Jewish American father travels for work. Her British mother is dealing with depression related to a death in the family, as well as the many losses she faces as an immigrant. Elizabeth’s anxiety that she doesn’t quite belong here in the U.S., yet isn’t fully at home in England (where her cousins refer to her as a “Yank”) – reflects the unease I felt as a bicultural kid.
A Place at the Table opens on the first day of an after-school cooking class. Elizabeth has signed up – and dragged her best friend along – because she hopes to take over cooking dinner at home. There she meets Sara, a Pakistani-American girl who is having trouble transitioning from a small mosque-run school to the local public middle school. Sara hates cooking, but her mother is teaching the class. Eventually, Elizabeth and Sara become kitchen partners and attempt to create a recipe that will win them a spot on local TV.
I had to write bravely, while honoring my family’s boundaries and privacy. My wonderful co-author and friend Saadia helped me navigate this process. In her, I have what my mom did not – a trusted friend who I can talk to about the immigrant experience. Through Sara and Elizabeth, Saadia and I acknowledge for first generation American kids that it hurts to pretend you’re okay, you’re fitting in, you’re doing fine, when the reality is, you’re struggling.
Eventually, my mother did get the resources she needed. When I spoke with my parents about A Place at the Table, we were able to talk for the first time about the stressors immigrant families cope with: culture clash, the language barrier, separation anxiety, financial issues, and legal status.* I was relieved when my mother said she hopes families will see themselves reflected in the book.
That is my hope too. When I was seven, I didn’t understand the pressures and losses that my mother was dealing with. I just knew she was doing her best. I hope adults reading A Place at the Table will gain a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the first generation American kids in their classrooms and libraries. And I hope young readers, especially children of immigrants, will see themselves in Elizabeth and Sara’s story and know they are not alone.
Recommended Reading: First and Second Generation Stories:
I Was Their American Dream, Malak Gharib
The House That Lou Built, Mae Respicio
Bob, Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead
Farah Rocks Fifth Grade, Susan Muaddi Darraj
Drawn Together, Minh Le
Meet Yasmin, Saadia Faruqi
First Generation, Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace
Silver Meadows Summer, Emma Otheguy
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings, Margarita Engle
Video “How Immigrants Shaped the United States TED Talk,” Nalini Krishnankutty
*SBH/Health System Bronx’s Psychiatry Residency Training Program. http://www.sbhny.org/PsychiatryResidency/the-stresses-of-being-a-first-generation-teen/
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Laura Shovan Laura Shovan has over 20 years of experience as an educator, and poet-in-the-schools. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize and her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies. Laura edited Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems for the Maryland Writers Association and co-edited Voices Fly: An Anthology of Exercises and Poems from the Maryland State Arts Council Artists-in-Residence Program, for which she is a longtime teacher. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Laura’s novel-in-verse for children, won the Cybils Award for poetry, was an NCTE Notable Verse Novel, a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, and was included on the ILA-CBC Children’s Choice Reading List, among other honors. Laura other novels for children include Takedown, selected by Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way, and the ALA’s Amelia Bloomer Project List, and A Place at the Table, co-written with author/activist Saadia Faruqi, (Clarion, 2020).