We Are America

Voices of the Nation's Future

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Photo ofJhekcarry Mam

At the age of 5 years old, I entered kindergarten. I had just arrived in America after coming all the way from Cambodia. I was obviously not proficient in English and only knew basic conversation words and phrases such as “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and “I want to go home.” My mind was filled with an overwhelming mixture of excitement and nervousness. I honestly did not know what to expect.

Towards the end of my first day of kindergarten, the teacher told us students to go grab our “bookbags”, but I did not know what a “bookbag” was. I only knew the word “backpack.” I mean, my bags didn’t have any books in them. As a five year old, not understanding my teacher, I panicked. I began to ask my classmates what a “bookbag” was. But they all ignored me, some laughed at me. I felt like a complete idiot and extremely frustrated. In retrospect, I could’ve used common sense and just looked at what the other students were getting, but being in an unknown environment, my young mind went blank. 

I went home that day “bookbag”-less with a flustered mind. My sister, who was waiting to pick me up from the bus stop, quickly questioned why I didn’t have my backpack. I didn’t answer and instead began balling my eyes out. After calming down, I told her about what happened and how the other kids made fun of me. She looked straight into my puffy red eyes and said, “So what do you think you should do about it? Are you just gonna sit here and cry?” My sister was never the sweet type. But I have always appreciated how she helps me overcome my problems by encouraging me to take action rather than just comforting me.

That summer I was forced to attend summer school because I had started school in the United States in June, soon after we arrived. During that summer, I decided to reflect on what my sister had said to me and I turned my frustration towards my classmates and their mockery into motivation. Those moments of humiliation in that kindergarten classroom had lit a spark within me and it drove me to want to be better in everything I did. Summer school was actually pretty great. I met people that shared the same struggles as me. We were all immigrants trying our best to fit in with all the other Americans. I quickly excelled in math as everything was just numbers and equations which was something that my brain could easily process. That summer I also took extra time aside from summer school to study English by reading some English books. I remember most of all “The Cat in the Hat”. I also spent my free time watching American television including “Sponge Bob” and “Little Einsteins” to improve my listening and speaking. 

My English quickly improved. In that one summer alone I was able to gain the ability to speak English like a native. Unlike many immigrants, I didn’t have an accent and I tried my best to sound “American.” Entering first grade, making friends became significantly easier as I could communicate with my classmates much more effectively. No one has made fun of my English ever again. I was finally fitting in with everyone. I became one of the top students in my grade and was praised by my teachers for my excellence in math. My confidence immediately rose and that confidence made me perform even better in school.

By the time I got to third and fourth grade I was able to get advanced in math and proficient in ELA on the state tests. I came to a realization that I owed most of my success to my sister who inspired me to take action when those elementary students made fun of me. Elementary school taught me a great deal of lessons, but the greatest one was to never let people bring you down. Turn frustration into motivation and you will achieve success.

© Jhekcarry Mam. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person's teacher.