On the surface, Harout Metspakyan came prepared for his new life in an American school.
Several weeks before he started classes at Le Conte Junior High School, the newly arrived emigre from Soviet Armenia accompanied his American cousin, Jack Chngidakyan, to a crowded store in Hollywood. In the narrow aisles, Jack, a short, curly-haired youth, picked out a new wardrobe for his ganglier 14-year-old cousin, selecting a black pseudo-leather jacket, military-style trousers with pockets over the knees and a gaudy pink-and-white "Pismo Beach" T-shirt. The new clothes, Jack assured him, would help Harout "look like all the other kids."
New clothes, though, did little to ease the confusion of Harout's first days at the Hollywood school. Harout, who had come to Los Angeles in September, was amazed to find that most students were not at all like him. Some of his classmates were giants. Others were shrimps. "One-half are too big, and one-half are too short," Harout marveled.
What most overwhelmed him was the daily presence of hundreds of other immigrant students. The majority of the school's 1,970 students are foreign-born. As he walked through the school's dim corridors, Harout stared wide-eyed as he passed Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Mexican, Korean, Chinese and Filipino students--many with language and cultural needs as pressing as his own.
By his fourth day at Le Conte, Harout had only started to take the most tentative first steps in the acculturation process that faces every new foreign student. The slow and thorny process of meeting and co-existing with students from other nations--let alone befriending them--is made even more difficult by the tendency among family and friends to pressure new arrivals to stay with their own.
"When they first show up, you can't expect a new arrival from one country to become instant buddies with someone from somewhere else," said Joan Bravo de Merillo, the school's English-as-a-second-language coordinator. "Not until they've picked up a fair amount of English do they even start to try and communicate."
Language is the most immediate way for immigrant students at Le Conte to find common ground with their counterparts from other countries. In Harout 's mathematics class, a Korean student from Paraguay gave answers in Spanish to a companion from El Salvador while a Romanian immigrant student asked a Mexican teacher's assistant how to say Don't forget in Spanish.
"They keep lists of words that they've learned," said the teacher's assistant, Santiago Gomez. "No matter how hard they try to hide it, you can tell they're fascinated by each other."
Still, fascination is blunted by suspicion and ignorance. In history class, Salvadoran and Guatemalan students bridle at Armenian students' assumptions that they are all Mexicans. In return, the Armenian students quickly grow angry when Latino students describe them as "Russians."
The warnings to stay with one's own often come in code. Harout's cousin Jack warned him repeatedly to stay away from gang members. "I tell him to stay with us," Jack said during a nutrition break. "With Armenians."
During his first four days of school, Harout used his precious minutes of freedom during nutrition and lunch breaks to cling to the few students he already knew--his cousin, his sister, Marine, 13, also a new student, and the few Armenian students he had already met.
Harout and Marine came to Los Angeles with their parents and grandmother. The family emigrated to the United States from Soviet Armenia in the wake of demonstrations and riots over the area's strained relations with the central Soviet government. Once they arrived at the Hollywood apartment where they are staying with relatives, Harout's parents urged him and his sister to rely on fellow Armenian students in their first days at school.
Harout and his cousin meet almost every lunch period daily near a carob tree in the school courtyard--the unofficial gathering point for many of the school's Armenian students. There, in the company of students that speak the same language, Jack patiently answers Harout's questions about life at Le Conte, sharpening his cousin's limited English vocabulary. By his fourth day, Harout had mastered only a smattering of English words: Hello. Goodby. Thank you. Pen. Pencil.
Yet, he had already asked one Armenian friend to explain a Spanish word he heard in one of his classes: poco (small). It was a small, positive step. But it was not quickly repeated.
"I would like to have other friends," Harout said.
So far, they are all Armenian. Without facility in English, he can depend only on fellow Armenians to learn how to get around Hollywood, find his classes, understand the homework assigned by his teachers. For the time being, his world is governed by his language. Anyone who does not speak it is an outsider.
"It will become his choice when he knows English better," Joan Bravo said. "Then, it's up to the kids and how they respond to all the pressures on them. We can give them the tools, but we can't tell them how to dig."