English is not the first language for the 800 or so students enrolled in Northeast High School’s Academic Learning Program.

Many of them arrive as freshmen, scared and bewildered, with no understanding of American vernacular. They yearn to be known but are unable to speak words that might connect them with any of the 3,000 students at Northeast High, a massive place that teems with life at Cottman and Algon avenues.

I don’t know where they find the courage to enter a big, strange school in a big, strange land. But they hang in there, grow roots, and bloom where life has planted them.

By the time they graduate — about 200 this year — most are fluent in their new tongue. And more than a few become writers of breathtaking prose that aches with bravery and vulnerability.

We learned as much, here at The UpSide, when we invited 2020 graduates from across the region to share their tales of achievement. The submissions poured in, including a deluge from students in Northeast’s Academic Learning Program, which offers foreign-born teens immersion in “sheltered” classes, consisting exclusively of students for whom English is not their first language.

Colorful details, bright memories

Their essays conjure images that haunt and shimmer.

Kenny Kernizan recalled how his cherished Haiti “was crying to me, and saying goodbye” as his family fled the island following the deadly earthquake of 2010.

Victoria Ramos wrote that, as she left Brazil, “tears were jumping out of my eyes by themselves, the airplane flew far away, but my brain stayed there, my arms begged to give my friends and siblings a last hug … We arrived at Philadelphia on Independence Day, [which] made America literally smell like independence — everything was perfect, like a crystal glass.”

Victoria Ramos, Class of 2020, Northeast High School.
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Victoria Ramos, Class of 2020, Northeast High School.

After a grueling passage through Guatemala and Mexico, Herberth Alvarez-Sucup crossed the southern border into America, feeling “as if I could fly, as a bird to her mountain.” And he realized he had not left all of himself behind, because “my heart, kindness, and intelligence have no borders.”

Without language, wrote Vietnamese native Gia Ly, “the only thing that could understand my heart was a dark night.” Finding dear friends and loving teachers at Northeast High “saved me from loneliness; my heart was blooming again.”

Northeast teacher Amanda Fiegel has grown accustomed to the way these young men and women reveal themselves to the Northeast High community, one halting word — then phrase, sentence, and conversation — at a time. But she never ceases to be moved by their determination to master the language of their new home.

“When I wanted to learn Spanish, I spent a month in Spain,” said Fiegel, who has taught English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at Northeast High for five years (and who urged her students to send their essays to UpSide).

“I saw how difficult it is to be true to yourself and emotions, to who you are as a person, to your personality” when speaking a foreign language, she said. “My students have to do that every day. They have so much to say, but without a grasp of English, it’s hard for them to show you who they are.”

But they persevere, finding nuance and similes in their new tongue.

Joseph Chun wrote how, when his first new friend at school, Edgar, approached him to say hello, “his talking was a radio box.”

Joseph Chun, Class of 2020, Northeast High School.
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Joseph Chun, Class of 2020, Northeast High School.

Ervis Tahiraj, from Albania, was overwhelmed by the cacophony of conversations in the halls of Northeast (where over 50 languages are spoken), until he came upon “two girls like beautiful flowers speaking Albanian. I was happy and my heart started dancing. Then I started to make friends, practicing my English. I erupted like a volcano. I started to feel free” and experienced “the sweetest smell of the high school.”

Sedra Adel resolved to study English with ferocity because, without language “my mind felt like a locked-up bird.”

'To roar like a lion’

The students are just as poetic about their pride in how far they have come in their effort to find their place in this country.

Esmat Abd Almawla looked back on who she was as a freshman and wrote, “I see that the girl showed stamina and tenacity.”

Esmat Abd Almawla, Class of 2020, Northeast High School
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Esmat Abd Almawla, Class of 2020, Northeast High School

Dayani Ramos-Ulloa of Honduras wrote of overcoming “the sourness of the English language” and being in a place where “happiness has begun.”

Nga Yee Lam moved past the grief of moving to America, where she wanted “to roar like a lion but no one could hear my feelings” to a view that “America is a starting point of dreamers, not a troublemaker.”

Madina Hakimi arrived in Philadelphia from Afghanistan, a place where “the Taliban had no mercy, as they had no heart.” She found her voice and freedom among friends here by vowing to show “who I was: a person with a strong and kind heart.”

While many graduates from Northeast’s Academic Learning Program plan to attend community colleges, where they can ease into higher education as they continue honing their English, some are charging toward four-year universities at full speed.

Lingarbel Brempong, from Ghana — whose father died of COVID-19 in April and who cares for her chronically ill mother — has been offered a full-ride scholarship to Stanford University.

Nathaniel Asia is off to Duke, the first in his family to pursue higher education — and “without having to hurt my family financially,” thanks to scholarships.

Kishore Owusu, Class of 2020, Northeast High School.
Lifetouch
Kishore Owusu, Class of 2020, Northeast High School.

Kishore Owusu of Ghana will study pre-med at Cheyney University on a scholarship that offers the opportunity for him to attend medical school for free at Jefferson University, if his academic requirements are met. Intizorhon Fataeva of Uzbekistan is headed to La Salle University on scholarship to pursue criminology and justice studies. Kristina Pema of Albania has a full ride to Harvard, where she’ll likely major in biochemical engineering.

Lingarbel Brempong, Class of 2020, Northeast High School.
Lifetouch
Lingarbel Brempong, Class of 2020, Northeast High School.

Many of these kids will stay in touch with the Northeast staffers who helped them find their voices. Fiegel can’t wait to see how they fare. She’s been teaching for 13 years and says her five at Northeast have been the best of her career.

“It’s inspiring to work with these students, a lot of whom have come from nothing," she marveled. "They have a pure, honest desire to be part of this country but are still proud of their heritage. It’s a privilege to learn about their culture and to be part of their journey. They’re amazing.”