The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America

The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America

by Daniel Connolly


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250083067
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 854,739
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

DANIEL CONNOLLY speaks fluent Spanish, and, for more than a decade, has reported on Mexican immigration to the U.S. South for news organizations including The Associated Press in Little Rock, and The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. The winner of numerous journalism prizes, he has received grants and fellowships from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the International Center for Journalists and the Fulbright program. He lives in his hometown of Memphis, TN.

Read an Excerpt

The Book of Isaias

A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America

By Daniel Connolly

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Daniel Connolly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08307-4



Summer 2012: About nine months before graduation

Isaias spent the summer before his senior year working with Dennis and his parents on painting jobs, and in one house in Germantown, a well-to-do suburb, he used his cell phone to take a picture of himself in a mirror, then posted it on Facebook — his glasses off, a serious expression, his head haloed by light streaming from a window behind him, his shirt paint-spattered. After school started, he continued to do painting jobs on the weekends.

One day early in the school year, Isaias hurried to the vocational center near Kingsbury High to speak with Corey A. Davis, an instructor. Isaias sometimes ran from place to place, and he arrived sweating and tired, as if he'd just completed a race, Mr. Davis recalled. Isaias told him that he needed permission to sign up for the audio recording class. No problem — Mr. Davis agreed.

The class was optional, and Isaias wanted it badly. He'd sit behind an actual mixing board with knobs and sliders, learning to create songs and sound effects. He'd listen to NPR for ideas on how to edit radio stories. Every day, he would walk from the main high school building to the vocational center, and he'd stay there for about three hours, working contentedly.

But for many other Kingsbury students, the start of the school year would bring not contentment, but long hours of sitting in a gymnasium with nothing to do.

* * *

August 6, 2012, the first day of Isaias' final year of high school, dawned with a clear blue sky. The electronic sign in front of Zion Temple Church of God in Christ sent drivers a message of hope in golden scrolling letters:


A mile or so away at Kingsbury High, blue police lights flashed and an officer blocked traffic to protect students as they walked from the residential neighborhood of brick homes, crossed North Graham Street and made their way onto the school grounds. A crowd of kids milled around outside, dressed in white uniform shirts. Girls squealed as they recognized friends. "You're so gorgeous! You're so gorgeous!" "Maria!" A father pulled a red pickup truck to a stop, accordion-heavy norteña music playing, and a child got out. A few feet away, in front of the school, Principal Carlos Fuller, a bald, strongly built man with coffee-colored skin, shouted at a student and gestured with a small two-way radio that let out bursts of static. He greeted a boy in a wheelchair. "You have a good summer?" he asked. "Yeaaah!" the boy replied with a big smile. Mr. Fuller sent one kid straight to the office for a violation of school uniform rules. He slapped hands with other boys. "Looking good, baby, looking good."

Mr. Fuller walked into the school, passed a JROTC instructor running the metal detector check, strode into the front office and stepped to a microphone. His voice crackled over loudspeakers throughout the building. "¡Bienvenidos escolares y campeones! Welcome, scholars and champions! What's up? This is going to be a great, great year!"

Mr. Fuller spoke only a little Spanish, but he made an effort, especially on the announcements. Several teachers spoke the language fluently. On this first day, Mr. Fuller talked about class schedules. "Some of your schedules may have holes. Some of you guys may not have schedules at all. Teachers, please look for your temporary schedules."

He finished with a flourish: "That being said, at the school of scholars and champions, where every day it is the sole mission of every adult in this building that at a minimum, 90 percent of our children will be proficient on all of our assessments. At a minimum, 60 percent of our children will be advanced. All of our children strive to make 30s on the ACTs. ¡Que tenga un buen, buen día! This is going to be a great, great day, a great week, a great month, a great year! Thank you."

On nearly every other day that followed, Mr. Fuller attacked the morning announcements with similar enthusiasm. In a nod to the small number of students from the Middle East, he'd often start with the Arabic phrase "sabahu alkhayr," or good morning. He would clasp and unclasp his hands, opening and closing his eyes. Sometimes he'd abbreviate the last part about test scores and say, "Where every day is 90-60-30!" He'd offer life lessons: "Please surround yourselves with positive people! Every decision you make will have a positive or negative consequence. Whether it is positive or negative depends on you." He'd occasionally mix in ACT vocabulary words like "zephyr" and "yen." Even when he was having a bad day, he tried to bring excitement and energy.

Mr. Fuller made his morning announcements shortly after 7:30 a.m., but school wasn't close to really starting. The messy process of registration continued, and guidance counselors were still scrambling to put together class schedules.

Students killed time in homerooms throughout the building as a multiethnic line of parents and teens formed in the front office and stretched into the hall. A white man consulted a cell phone, a little Hispanic girl in pink with a pacifier played inside the office, an Asian father accompanied a teenaged son, and a black teenaged boy waited with his mother and two little boys. Following the announcement, dozens of other students and their families filled out registration forms in the school library, though registration had officially taken place the previous week.

Nearly two hours passed before an assistant principal made an announcement: students who had registered but did not have a schedule should receive a temporary schedule. "All other students that are not registered need to report to the gym." In the gym, students without schedules would wait in limbo. No one could say for how long.

Dozens of students walked into the hallways, past the rows of lockers and under the colorful flags of the world. Metal doors clanked open as students left the main building and walked into the midmorning heat and the buzzing drone of cicadas. They made their way to the gym, where a similar buzz sounded from one of the old lamps overhead.

Only a handful of students came in at first. Then four more girls arrived. Then more. A boy said, "I'm so glad we got here before everybody else did." The trickle became a torrent. The kids climbed up the metal steps and took seats on the maroon bleachers. By the end of the day, I counted 175 students in the gym. The good news was that they had come to school at all. Students routinely skipped school at Kingsbury, particularly on the days that everyone agreed were pointless. Given the severity of this year's scheduling problems, there were many pointless days to come.

In the school gym that first week, the kids whiled away the hours talking, sleeping, eating, lounging and playing with cell phones. One Filipino boy simply sat and stared into the distance, day after day. On Wednesday morning, the third day of school, a river of teenagers in white uniform shirts flowed back to the gym. Only one door was open, and a crowd quickly formed at the narrow entrance like water behind a dam. A tall, muscular young white teacher named Lucas Isley directed the students to points on the bleachers. "If we have a homeroom, down there. No homeroom, no schedule, right here."

This gym adjoined a smaller exercise space that Kingsbury Middle School used. On the other side of a partial barrier, younger kids killed time in a different way: walking in slow circles.

One of the 200 or so students sitting in the high school gym that day was Franklin Paz Arita, a lanky 16-year-old with large brown eyes, curly hair, an open face and a frequent smile. He was born in Honduras and smuggled into the United States as a child. His mother had endured an abusive relationship in California with a man who once threatened to kill her with a sledgehammer. Franklin said years later that he remembered the details vividly: how the man had raised up the weapon and said he'd smash her with it. Franklin was so young that he hid behind his mother, who was holding his baby sister. "My older brother basically had to talk him out of it," Franklin recalled. Meanwhile, an older sister slipped away and called the police. "And since he was drunk, a few moments later he passed out," Franklin said. "And by the time he was up again, the cops were already there."

When Franklin's mother left this man, she and her children moved from place to place before settling in Memphis. Now she cleaned houses and was raising Franklin and his two younger siblings on her own.

Two things motivated Franklin: his faith in God and his love for his mother. He liked math and science and wanted to become a detective or forensic investigator. He played soccer and tried to make money by selling sets of kitchen knives door to door. In the gym, though, he was bored and hot and wasting time.

On the first day of school, Franklin had arrived carrying a green notebook. By Wednesday, he had taken exactly half a page of notes, from when he'd sat in on an English class. He felt cheated — he'd been assigned classes that he had already taken or that he didn't need even though he'd signed up for classes before leaving school in the spring. Though hundreds of students sat in the gym, Franklin knew that many other Kingsbury students had class schedules and were already learning. It wasn't fair.

One of the teachers watching the gym, Mr. Isley, was a 26-year-old from Michigan who had gone through training with Memphis Teaching Fellows, a program for new educators. He had read a book called Teach Like a Champion, which told him that a teacher who found efficient ways to handle classroom chores like passing out papers could save 30 seconds per class period. At six periods a day, that added up to three minutes. Over the course of a school year, nine hours. At 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, he calculated that the kids had sat there for between 18 and 20 hours. He didn't like it.

When the end-of-day announcements finally came on Friday afternoon, I counted 227 kids still in the gym — roughly a fifth of Kingsbury's student body. Their chatter drowned out the afternoon announcements and dismissal. Franklin left, eating a bag of crispy snack fries and planning to set up knife sales demonstrations. He carried the same green notebook as on Monday. In five days of school, he had still taken only the half page of notes. Three percent of the 180-day school year had passed. He'd start school next week.

The number of students in the gym gradually dropped until August 17, the tenth day of the school year, when Mr. Fuller walked into the guidance office and announced, "That's the last of the group! Gym is clear!"

Several factors contributed to the scheduling chaos, including students coming to school days late. But one of the primary issues was a computer problem.

Guidance counselors Tamara Bradshaw and Brooke Loeffler said many of the students who showed up at Kingsbury that August had mistakenly been assigned to another school, Douglass High. The computer records system would not allow the same student to enroll in two different schools. Until staffers at Douglass High formally dropped those students from their school's roster, the computer system wouldn't allow Kingsbury guidance counselors to build a schedule for them. During those first few weeks, schools called one another or faxed back and forth lists of students to drop.

The problems that school year went far beyond Kingsbury. On September 11, dozens of students demonstrated outside another Memphis City School, Carver High, to draw attention to cuts to band and choir programs, lack of air conditioning in sweltering classrooms, and scheduling problems. Seventeen-year-old protest leader Romero Malone told the local newspaper that the chaos affected almost all the students in the school. "Ninth graders had nothing on their schedule but lunch," he said. "It lasted two to three weeks. They made the students go to a classroom where they were watched over while administrators tried to do schedules."

Similar problems had cropped up elsewhere, notably in Los Angeles, where thousands of students throughout the city's public system had to deal with incomplete or inaccurate schedules in 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported. At that city's Jefferson High School, scheduling problems got so bad that a judge ordered education officials to fix them immediately. When I spoke with Mr. Fuller a full month after the start of the school year, he described the technical problems and also said he wasn't happy with how the guidance staff had handled scheduling. (My sense was that the guidance staff wasn't happy with how Mr. Fuller had handled it either.) Either way, he acknowledged it was a mess. "It was a headache. We're still in the process of cleaning up some schedules, which we have to do every year anyway, but we have to do it so much later because we didn't take care of it on the front end."

Registration the following year, August 2013, was far smoother, and Mr. Fuller offered an explanation: the district had expanded the length of time that the guidance counselors worked from 10 months to 11 months, which allowed them to come into school earlier and start working on the schedules.

The problems at the start of Isaias' senior year clearly hurt the students' morale and motivation. I talked with two boys who'd sat in the gym for days. They were mumbly and sullen, and I couldn't blame them. What was their impression of Kingsbury? "That this school boring," one boy said.

Seventeen-year-old Faith Nycole Nostrud went weeks without a real schedule, and her dad said she compounded her problems by not going to school. "If I'm going to be at school, I want to do something," she said. "It frustrates me to come to class and then just sit there the whole hour. It's like, 'Well, I could be doing this at home.'" In October, she transferred to Gateway, a private Christian school that served as a backup for many kids in the neighborhood.

English teacher Philip Tuminaro had once spent the first days of the school year trying to teach. But an ever-changing roster of students made it clear that he had to keep re-teaching the same material. So now he spent the first chaotic days of each school year reviewing material that all the students would need: preparation for the ACT test. He recognized a vicious cycle: teachers didn't teach, so students didn't come. Given the circumstances, he wouldn't come either, and he didn't know whom to blame.

Setting aside the question of blame for a moment, the organizational problems in places like Memphis and Los Angeles reflected a broader social inequality. In the 1990s, I went to the city's best public high school, White Station, and I got my schedule on the first day and went to class immediately. If I had endured weeks of chaos at the start of each year, my parents would have sent me elsewhere. Most adults with educational savvy, money and options would do the same. But many Kingsbury parents didn't have these things. Most didn't complain or pull their kids out of school.

* * *

Isaias escaped the worst of the scheduling chaos, although for some reason he spent a few weeks in precalculus, a class he didn't need. The previous year, as an eleventh grader, Isaias had taken the school's highest math course, Advanced Placement Calculus AB. He had also taken a college-level finite mathematics class and made a B. In precalculus, the teacher let him study for his other classes. Sometimes he coached other students like an assistant teacher.

Isaias eventually got his schedule changed to drop precalculus and take piano, where he practiced in a room full of expensive-looking computer screens and keyboards. That was one of the contrasts of Kingsbury — despite its high poverty rate and organizational problems, many of the classrooms were equipped with new technology, like SMART Board interactive screens.

At lunchtime on the first day of school, the students had streamed out of the main building, into the sweltering heat, up some steps and into the air-conditioned cool of the cafeteria, a space that smelled of nachos.

"I'm so proud of you! Here! Monday!" said Margot Aleman, smiling as she greeted a student just inside the cafeteria door. Margot worked for an outside evangelical Christian organization called Streets Ministries. She came to Kingsbury as a volunteer and was a constant presence in the school. She was in her thirties and often wore multicolored blouses. She continued her greetings. "Welcome to high school, baby! We're proud of you." A tall, muscular white football player with blue eyes and a big smile limped in on crutches. "Cody! Again, sweetie?" Margot said.

Now the kids surged up the stairs about five or six abreast. Some Hispanic boys wore rosaries over their white uniform shirts. One wore a necklace with an image of the Virgin Mary in what looked like a tiny frame.


Excerpted from The Book of Isaias by Daniel Connolly. Copyright © 2016 Daniel Connolly. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue Gold in a Green Town 1

1 Chaos and Hope 31

2 Outclassed 56

3 Rain 72

4 A Deck of Cards 94

5 Horse to Water 104

6 Motivation 134

7 Intervention 158

8 Bianca the Guide 176

9 A Funeral in Mexico 188

10 Victory 206

11 A Locked Door 213

12 Dustin's Destiny 222

Epilogue 234

Acknowledgments 241

Notes 245

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