Courage? Follow the Yellow Brick Road
New York Times
June 14, 2006
By MICHAEL WINERIP
DIANA SENECHAL is a first-year teacher of immigrant students at I.S.
223, a middle school in Brooklyn, and maybe, if she'd been more experienced, she
would have known better than to have her students perform "The Wizard of Oz"
when they were so new to this country and spoke so little English.
They arrived at I.S. 223 talking 24 different languages and not knowing a soul.
About the only thing they shared was a shyness of speaking English aloud.
Ms. Senechal figured, what better way to give them confidence than to have them
sing and dance in an hour-and-a-half-long musical, for three performances at the
end of the school year, in the big auditorium, before a thousand strangers?
Her students weren't so sure. As Shamsul Huda from Bangladesh, the Tin Man,
said, "I'm scary to do it."
Rehearsals started in January, and it was slow going. Sergio Sanchez, from
Mexico, the lead Munchkin, was so shy, he kept running away.
"The funny thing about Sergio, he loved running away," Ms. Senechal said. "We
were rehearsing in my room and he just stood outside for an hour; he wouldn't
In the auditorium, he hid behind the curtains. Still, Ms. Senechal did not give
up. "It's a positive pattern," she explained. "He hides but wants to be here."
Laura Fronczak of Poland — Glinda the Good Witch — kept refusing to sing her big
solo. She'd have a giggling fit and announce, "Miss, I can't sing today," and it
was like Marlene Dietrich wanting to be alone; there was nothing Ms. Senechal
could do, except wait, for weeks. "When Laura finally sang," Ms. Senechal said,
"it was such a big event, I called her parents."
Some complained that Yasser Arafath, the Cowardly Lion, was mumbling.
But Ms. Senechal said: "He'll be fine. Yasser has a very, very quiet spirit. He
seems shy but is very strong and steadfast."
Camila Tavarez, from the Dominican Republic, didn't want to be the Wicked Witch
of the West, so Ms. Senechal cut a deal. "I said, 'You don't have to be an ugly
witch, you don't even have to be green, you can be a beautiful wicked witch.' "
Several girls wear scarves for religious reasons, and Ms. Senechal chose one,
Asfara Begum, from Bangladesh, to be Dorothy.
Dorothy with a head scarf? "Did you notice her smile?" Ms. Senechal said. "She
has a radiant nature."
Rehearsals went on daily for five months, using the 37.5 minutes that usually
gets spent on test prep and tutoring. The principal, Gertrude Adduci, got it
right away. "The Wizard of Oz" — it's about them," Ms.
Adduci said. "If you're new to this country, you need courage."
THEY did. In mid-May, the two chorus lines were still banging into each other
during "Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead." It was obvious that Jesse Canete, a
member of the Lollipop Guild, had never been a dancer back in Mexico. "Jesse,
start on your right foot," Ms. Senechal pleaded. "No, no, this is your right
foot," she said, wiggling a right foot at him.
The day before the premiere, she still had one Munchkin and one Winkie costume
to sew. In dark moments she wondered if she'd taken on too much, but she never
let the students see that. What they saw was how much she cared. "Miss talks to
us like we're relatives," said Shamsul the Tin Man.
People who teach English classes for immigrants aren't required to speak other
languages, but if, like Ms. Senechal, they do, it helps them understand how a
new language is acquired.
Ms. Senechal is 42 and not a typical first-year teacher. She has a doctorate
from Yale in Slavic languages, is fluent in Russian and Spanish, speaks French
and Dutch, and has studied Lithuanian, Croatian, Latin and Greek. She came to
I.S. 223, in the Borough Park neighborhood, through the city's Teaching Fellows
program, which recruits people who have had other careers.
"One way I pick up language is through memorization of music and poetry," Ms.
Senechal said. "For me, the arts are an important inroad into a language." The
Wizard also gave her a perfect story line.
Sergio the Munchkin said moving from Mexico to Brooklyn, "it's like we come over
Education is a big reason their families sacrificed. The Tin Man's father owned
two stores in Bangladesh; here, he's a laborer. The Wicked Witch's mother was a
lawyer, and cleans houses here.
Students interviewed said this school was better than the ones they had attended
in their native lands. "This is a high education place,"
the Tin Man said. "A lot of more satisfactory things than in Bangladesh."
Ms. Senechal sees a school that takes poor children — 100 percent get free
lunches — and provides opportunity. This is why she has no faith in the federal
No Child Left Behind law, which labels I.S. 223 a failing school. While I.S. 223
students in every racial and ethnic subgroup made their testing goals in
English, math and science, the law requires 95 percent to be tested, and on the
English exam, the school was 7 students short. "That makes us a failing school?"
she said. "Nonsense. Remarkable things happen at this school."
Ms. Senechal watched her students working together to get the English words
right for the play.
"Emeny?" said Laura the Good Witch.
"Enemy," said Yestak Haq, the Scarecrow.
"Emer-rolled City?" Laura said.
"Emerald," said Shahwar Bibi, the lead Winkie.
The teacher saw signs of Americanization right before her eyes. On the afternoon
of opening night, Asfara — sporting a blue gingham pinafore, ruby slippers, a
stuffed Toto and braids — decided not to wear her head scarf. "This is quite a
development," said Ms.
Senechal, who made her call home before the performance.
"My mother says, 'All right, it looks nice, I can do for a day, that's O.K.,' "
Asfara reported back.
The show started at 8 past the hour, just as on Broadway. Ms.
Senechal was stationed in front of the stage, and to avoid distracting the
audience, crawled between the sound board stage left (she'd put microphones on
several actors, including Yasser the quiet- spirited lion) and a laptop stage
right that projected a huge image of Mohammed Tanim, the Wizard.
If the truth be told, the beginning, in Kansas, was flat, the students' accented
English hard to understand. But the moment Asfara, her braids swinging in the
air, looked her stuffed dog in the eye and said, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not
in Kansas any more," the play soared, the singing and dancing carrying the show.
At the end there was tons of applause, woo-woos, cameras flashing and two
curtain calls. Dorothy gave Ms. Senechal a bouquet of flowers, and then the cast
and director gathered for juice and cookies.
Ms. Senechal knows this Brooklyn stage is the closest most will get to Broadway.
But that was never the point. Like the great and powerful Oz, she gave them a
peek at what they are made of. The Tin Man hopes to use what he discovered to
become a scientist, the Lion a computer specialist, and Dorothy an engineer.