Third graders dressed up in period costume to pass through a simulation of early 20th century immigration
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The spirit of Emma Lazarus’s poem, which turned the Statue of Liberty into a symbol of America welcoming immigrants, hung over Imagine School at Town Center like the mist over New York Harbor on Feb. 7, when the entire third grade participated in a simulated Ellis Island experience.
It was the ninth annual Ellis Island Day at Imagine, adapted from a program on the Scholastic website, and around 100 students were present for the tradition, most of them in costume as turn-of-the-century immigrants. It was appropriately cold and windy in the courtyard that stood in for the deck of a steamship.
After falling silent at the sight of the Statue of Liberty (a cardboard placard held up by a teacher), the immigrants filed inside, steerage passengers waiting to go after those in first class, to four classrooms that served as different stops on the Ellis Island journey: an interview room, a medical examination room, a citizenship exam room and a train station. Having spent the previous two weeks reading “The Orphan of Ellis Island” by Elvira Woodruff, all the students were keyed in to historical details they were now familiar with and eager to recreate.
“The kids really enjoyed the book,” said Heather Overton, 3rd grade team leader. “I think reading the book before doing this makes them that much more excited.”
Those who misplaced their belongings — sacks of personal affects brought from home, a passport, money from their homelands, stuffed pets, doll babies — or made some other error on their journey were sent to the hallway for detainment, where they were interrogated by some of the parent volunteers who were assisting the teachers (many of them costumed like the kids) in running the island.
Unattended belongings were actively snatched by watchful teachers and volunteers.
“They have to be responsible!” said teacher Monique Levy. “You think in Ellis Island people were always nice enough to bring your stuff back?”
“This is not a smiling moment,” said one grave detainee, as someone took pictures of those lined up for interrogation.
“The parents really make this event,” Overton said. “It’s just as much fun for the parents as it is for the kids.”
Once all the groups had cycled through the different rooms — gotten their medical clearance, passed their citizenship exams, bought their train tickets to take them to new lives in a strange land — a “Welcome to America” party saw snacks and juice boxes distributed throughout the classrooms.
“That’s a lasting memory for them,” Overton said. “They really studied for the citizenship test, they got the seriousness of that.”
When asked why their foreign alter egos wanted to leave their homes, the students all shared similar answers: “To get a better education.”
“To be free.”
“To have a better life.”