When Hollywood High School throws a dance in the cavernous, underground gym that doubles as a nuclear fallout shelter, a crowd is usually guaranteed.
Soon after the doors were flung open on Valentine's Day night--revealing a basketball court festooned with red crepe hearts and pink and white streamers--the hardwood dance floor was pulsing with student revelers.
Another crowd was gathering in the gym's grandstands. But most of those who climbed into the upper rows were boys, afraid to descend and join in the hunt for dance partners.
It was not that they were shy. A 10th grader who called himself George Ramirez was bold enough to lead four friends down toward the dancers. But they lingered at the edge of the crowd.
"We gonna dance," he insisted in broken English, "but first we got to get ladies."
That was all he said--and that was the problem. Like most of the boys in the grandstands, the El Salvadoran immigrant and his friends were new to the United States and its language. They didn't know enough English to flirt and cut in properly.
From the first day they show up for classes at Hollywood High, foreign students are thrust into a world of social confusion. Entering a school where 40% of the 2,050-member student body has arrived within the past three years, immigrants must not only adjust to the clipped language and strange mannerisms of Americans, but also to the presence of equally stunned emigres from other nations.
"This is probably the most heterogeneous environment they've ever seen," said Steve Sloan, who heads the school's intensive English program for foreign students. "Most of them come from countries where they're just like everyone else. Suddenly, they're meeting kids from nations they've never heard of before. You can almost hear the stereotypes shattering."
Stereotypes may shatter, and the intricacies of English may eventually be mastered, but few immigrant students manage--or even want--to break through the social barriers that keep them with their own. Most come away from Hollywood High with a little more knowledge about the way others live. But only a few blend in enough to make lasting friendships.
Some immigrants have an edge in that they already know another student whom they can latch onto during the first rocky weeks. Those who come without friends often force themselves on the first person who speaks their language.
Mary Dedyan, a 16-year-old junior from Soviet Armenia, saw it happening last August on the first day of school. "You get on the public bus and there are all these scared kids who don't know anybody," she said. "The new kids come up to you and if you help them out, they keep coming back for more help. Anybody who's gone through it doesn't mind. I did the same thing when I started."
In class, the newly arrived have no choice but to interact. In the English as a Second Language program, where most immigrant students start out, classmates from around the world are forced to depend on each other. Armed with only one textbook on "American Social Encounters" but with nothing to show them how to relate to each other, they proceed awkwardly, often jolted forward by a teacher's intervention.
When Lorraine Trogman gives her class instructions in English, she rarely repeats herself. "That way, the kids who don't understand have to ask the other kids who do (understand) what I said," she said. "It's fascinating to watch them piece it together."
But outside of the classroom, the enforced spirit of cooperation withers away. During morning nutrition breaks and at lunch, student emigres stream toward the school's open-air quad, dividing along ethnic and national lines. When the sun is high, groups of Nicaraguans and Salvadoran immigrants may cluster under the branches of a ficus tree, while a neighboring jacaranda shades Korean students.
As the months pass, and students come to recognize each other in class, the groups exchange nods, then greetings. Eventually, a few friends may split off from their groups and join each other for lunch. Sometimes it happens consciously; more often it is accidental.
In the case of Deng Han, a 17-year-old Cambodian refugee, it was simply mistaken identity. Day after day, Deng's dark complexion and stringy black hair attracted the nods of Central American students who thought he was one of them. One day, David Italiano, a Salvadoran emigre, greeted Deng in Spanish. Deng could only reply to Italiano's "Como se llama?" with helpless shrugs.
Classmates in a beginning English class, Deng and Italiano were soon conversing in the little English they both knew. Since then, they have become fast friends and lunch partners. "We are all the time together at school," Deng said. "He tells me when other people are using bad words on me. One bad guy, he cursed me in Spanish. David told me what it meant and he told me the words to say back."