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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

For these Brooklyn students, prom is a foreign concept

June 26, 2008

By Brooke Hauser
The International Herald Tribune (France)
June 24, 2008

NEW YORK: Ever since 2003, when a leggy Muslim girl from Senegal
named Hawa Kebe immigrated to Brooklyn in the eighth grade, she has
dreamed of going to her senior prom. So when she learned that her
high school wasn't planning a prom, she volunteered to organize one.

Never mind that many of Kebe's classmates at the International High
School at Prospect Heights, a public school that serves newcomers to
the United States, had no clue what a prom was, that there was no
translation for the word "prom" among the 28 languages spoken by the
school's 411 students. Kebe and an informal prom committee of half a
dozen of her girlfriends were determined to spread the word.

"We were just telling the seniors, 'Oh, it's like a party; everybody
has to go,"' she recalled. "They said, 'Why don't we just have a
party?' I said, 'No, let's have a prom because it's better."'

It was the first introduction to what was supposed to be a lavish
last hurrah at Giando on the Water, a popular prom location in
Brooklyn. But for the students, who will graduate Wednesday,
preparing for this quintessentially American rite of passage was more
like a daunting test.

"We've been watching prom on TV," said Lyse Pamphile, a Haitian girl.
"The typical prom has a prom queen and king."

"And the mean girl and the prissiest girl and the girl who wants to
go with every boy," a Venezuelan girl chimed in.

To the average American teenager, prom is an inalienable right. But
until recently, it was a foreign concept for many of the 73 seniors
at the international school, which was founded four years ago and
teaches English and other subjects to immigrants and refugees from
more than 45 countries. And getting ready for prom was at times a
stinging reminder that in many critical respects these students were
still outsiders.

Martha Pyne, a teenage mother from Liberia, couldn't afford the $75
ticket, much less a gown, because she was already struggling to pay
for diapers and day care for her baby.

Chime Dolma and Adon Adon, twin sisters from Tibet, survived a
perilous two-month pilgrimage to India seven years ago, but they were
mortified by the idea of putting on makeup for the first time - or
being asked out on a date.

In the weeks leading up to the big night, seniors flooded their
teachers with questions: How do you spell prom? Was it a graduation
requirement? Would it be held on a school night? Just when the
teachers thought they had cleared up all the confusion, one Chinese
girl admitted that she would bypass the event, preferring to wait for
her college prom.

When it came to prom dates, the most sought-after boy in the class
was Phillip Li, the spiky-haired president of the Chinese Club. Li
worked part time at his family's nail salon, but he dreamed of
becoming a professional break-dancer, or maybe the next Dog
Whisperer, like the dog trainer Cesar Millan on a popular reality show.

Dolma, who had been a nomadic yak herder until the age of 12,
captured the attention of several potential suitors, including Axel
Lessep, a lanky Mexican.

But as the big night neared, panic set in for many of the still
dateless. One Haitian boy tried to improve his odds by asking four
girls to the prom. The tactic backfired when two of the girls
discovered that they had the same date.

What to wear was another fraught issue, especially for the girls,
many of whom gathered in the school on a recent Saturday afternoon to
try on hand-me-down gowns.

That particular day, no one was more ambivalent about the prom than
Dolma, a straight-A student. One minute, she was twirling around in a
beaded scarlet gown; the next, she was wondering if she would ever
wear it. "I'm not really a fan of prom," Dolma said as she slumped
into a plastic chair. "For me, it's not that big of a deal."

The event was a very big deal for Pyne, the young mother from
Liberia. Bouncing her infant son on her hip, her hair cocooned in an
African head scarf, she was inspecting satin gowns and
gumdrop-colored dresses when a ruffled little black number caught her eye.

Unfortunately, it was too tight, and Pyne considered the best way to
lose her baby weight in time to wear the dress. "If I start
breast-feeding," she said, "it's going to fit."

For Kebe, surveying the scene, the prom was nothing short of a
baptism into American culture.

"I know we're coming from different backgrounds," said Kebe, who left
behind her parents and several of her 15 brothers and sisters when
she emigrated five years ago. "But we live here now." Without trying
new things, she added, it would be difficult to survive here.

The Tibetan twins know about survival. Until they were granted asylum
in America five years ago at age 15, the struggle to survive defined
their lives. Their mother died in childbirth even as the girls were
taking their first breaths. During the winter, when food was scarce,
they foraged for mushrooms in the forest and ate fistfuls of grass.
When the girls were 12, their father fled political persecution to
the United States after being arrested for helping a religious leader
build a Tibetan school. The girls took off, on foot, to cross the
Himalayas into India.

Since joining their father in New York, the sisters have excelled in
school. They started their own chapter of Students for a Free Tibet
and earned full scholarships, one to Middlebury College in Vermont,
the other to Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

Last November, their uncle and seven cousins moved into the small
two-bedroom apartment in Queens, where the sisters live with their
father, a part owner of a pan-Asian restaurant in the neighborhood.
When their father lost his job five months later, the girls were
understandably reluctant to ask him to pay for something as
extravagant as tickets to a dance.

Most of the school's seniors apparently felt the same way. By late
May, with the prom just 10 days away, fewer than one-third of the 73
seniors had bought tickets.

A crisis occurred when Dariana Castro, the school's coordinator of
special programs, interrupted a meeting of the prom committee to make
an announcement: if the committee didn't sell more tickets fast, the
prom would be canceled.

A little last-minute politicking saved the day. Latino students began
buying tickets after all the seniors were invited to bring in music
for the D.J. to play. Li, the popular point person for the
Mandarin-speaking students, persuaded many of his Chinese friends to
attend. And in exchange for a prom ticket, Castro arranged to have
Pyne, the teenage mother from Liberia, wash her classmates' hair at a
salon on the day of the event.

The days before the prom were marked by small romantic dramas. To
Dolma's extreme embarrassment and secret delight, Lessep, the Mexican
boy, asked her to be his date for the 13th time just one day before
the event. Finally, she said yes.

On prom night, students arrived by stretch limos and the subway. The
first seniors to set foot in the banquet hall exchanged nervous
glances, eyeing the mirrored walls and chandeliers. As the students
tucked into their salads and roast beef at tables set with white
linen, they started loosening their ties and slipping off their heels.

By the time the reggaetón started, the air was thick with the smell
of sweat, sirloin and perfume. Despite what the prom committee had
learned from watching teen movies, there was no prom king or queen.

In the end, 56 of the 73 seniors bought tickets. A few almost didn't make it.

For most of the night, half the prom committee was stuck in an
ancient white van. It had taken the driver an unexpectedly long time
to collect passengers at eight locations around Brooklyn, and so the
committee members arrived at Giando at 11:05 p.m., less than an hour
before the prom was to end.

The night was an even greater disappointment for Pyne, the young
mother. At the last minute, her prom dreams unraveled. She couldn't
find a baby sitter for her son, and so at day's end, she took the
ferry back home.

Dolma spent some of the evening waiting, too. In the final hours
before the dance, she waited anxiously to hear from Lessep about when
they should meet in the parking lot outside of Giando so they could
walk in together.

She would find him soon enough. Elegant in a navy suit and a shiny
red tie, Lessep beamed when he saw Dolma. "So pretty," he said with a
gulp, patting his heart. "I want to cry."

But as the night wore on, Dolma retreated into shyness, shell-shocked
at the sight of dozens of sweaty teenagers writhing on the dance
floor. The couple sat next to each other, but they barely danced. And
when the music stopped at midnight, Lessep walked out into the
drizzling rain, alone.
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