Becoming an American: One Teacher's Story

On the journey that would change her life, the Chapin teacher wore an easy smile and an elegant pink dress, a tiny American flag pinned proudly to its pocket. Her Class 5 students, in their formal uniforms, accompanied her to this long-awaited destination. As the pair of school buses pulled away from East End Avenue and progressed south toward Brooklyn, the group’s exhilaration grew.                                                                                                       

“Are you nervous, Ms. Dibble?” one student asked Jenet Dibble, a Middle School Humanities teacher, as Ms. Dibble and her colleagues handed out snacks and delivered last-minute instructions. Although she did not appear so, it certainly would be understandable if Ms. Dibble had a few butterflies in her stomach. After all, on this very day — May 2, 2018 — she would become an American citizen with all the rights and responsibilities therein. Following 28 years of living in the United States and after an arduous, nine-month-long process, Ms. Dibble was, at last, set to take the oath of citizenship. 

Along with being deeply meaningful on a personal level, Ms. Dibble recognized the outstanding learning opportunity such an event offered her students. Thus, she invited the entire Class 5 to participate in her swearing-in ceremony and to witness the American immigration process up close. 

The Honorable LaShann DeArcy Hall, United States District Court Judge for the Eastern District of New York, was thrilled to preside over a naturalization ceremony that included this beloved teacher, who was born in Malaysia and came to the United States in the spring of 1990 to further her education, working two jobs to put herself through college. 

Stepping off the buses on the sun-drenched morning, the students, Ms. Dibble, Middle School Head Mary Rafferty, a handful of fellow teachers and this writer walked purposefully into the Brooklyn Federal Court Building, through the metal detectors and into several waiting elevators. Once upstairs, all were greeted warmly by Judge DeArcy Hall, resplendent in a flowing white pantsuit. “Good morning, girls!” she exclaimed, welcoming the students into her courtroom. “I couldn’t be more excited. This is such a special day for Ms. Dibble.” 

As Ms. Dibble, who came to Chapin in 2015, and the day’s other immigrants prepared for the ceremony in a different location, Judge DeArcy Hall, who had put on her black robe, used the time for an immersive civics lesson in which the students experienced first-hand how a real trial would unfold in an actual courtroom. Then, with the mock trial under their belts and the designated hour close at hand, the eager students prepared to make their way downstairs to the ceremonial courtroom. An important reminder set the tone: “Two hundred and sixty-one people are being sworn in today,” the judge noted. “Treat the day with the honor it deserves.”

The handsome wooden doors on the second floor opened expectantly. As instructed, the students in Class 5 silently filed into the hushed courtroom and took their places behind the judge’s commanding bench. Six previously selected students stood on the carpeted floor to the right. They would soon play a vital role in the ceremony. A diverse tapestry of people, each seeking a key to the land of opportunity, occupied the seats. Sitting in the center of the front row was Ms. Dibble in her pink dress. 

“All rise,” a court clerk bellowed. Smiling broadly, Judge DeArcy Hall strode into the courtroom and addressed the audience. “One of the greatest privileges I have as a federal judge is witnessing the moment when people like you become citizens of this, our great country,” she began in her stirring remarks. 

“What I see when I look around this room are people from all walks of life… You are from different religions and different nations. Each of you has a different reason for making the United States your home. Each of you has your own story, your own perspective,” she declared, adding, “By becoming a United States citizen here today, it doesn’t mean you need to lose your sense of identity, your sense of self. No, instead, each and every one of you now adds to the rich mosaic that makes this country so great.”

Judge DeArcy Hall spoke passionately about the privileges afforded to citizens of the United States while emphasizing the importance of casting a vote and serving on a jury. “One of the most fundamental rights that you have earned as a citizen is the right for your voice to be heard. People do that in many ways. Some people take a stand. Some people take a knee. And sometimes it is children walking deliberately and silently for 17 minutes.”  

Transfixed, the Chapin students listened intently to the judge’s powerful words and took in the magnitude of the experience. Then, instructing the audience to face the courtroom’s American flag, the judge called on the six aforementioned students to lead the gathering in the Pledge of Allegiance. With well-rehearsed, confident voices, they enunciated each line perfectly. The soon-to-be citizens repeated their words in earnest.

As a last step, Judge DeArcy Hall asked the immigrants to take the Oath of Allegiance. Ms. Dibble raised her right hand and recited the sacred promise in unison with the others. They were American citizens! Watching her triumphant face, and the joyful faces of everyone in the courtroom on this day, it was difficult not to feel a surge of emotion for the country’s brand-new citizens who had worked unimaginably hard and had overcome untold obstacles to arrive at this spectacular moment in their lives.

The students were so touched to share Ms. Dibble’s momentous accomplishment, describing the ceremony as “amazing,” “motivational” and “moving.” One added: “I’m so excited and happy for Ms. Dibble. It was very exhilarating and life changing for her.” Added another: “I felt awed.” 

Afterwards, Ms. Dibble proudly showed off her naturalization certificate to her cheering students and her fiancé, David. When asked to describe what the day meant to her, she reflected, “As an immigrant, the feeling of being an outsider is constant. It doesn’t matter that I’ve lived in this country longer than I have in Malaysia.”

She continued, “To be surrounded by Class 5 students and close colleagues (...) was not only special, it brought a sense of belonging in my heart. How could anyone feel like an outsider when she’s surrounded by so much love and support? I felt blessed and grateful.”

After enjoying a celebratory lunch complete with red, white and blue cupcakes, Ms. Dibble, her colleagues and the Class 5 students — still buzzing with excitement — boarded the school buses for the short trip back to Chapin. 

While Ms. Dibble embarks on her newly imagined life as an American citizen and looks forward to voting in her first election, her students will likely cherish this inspiring and educational day when their teacher’s dreams, and those of 260 fellow immigrants from all over the world, came true in a jubilant courtroom in Brooklyn, New York.

Browse photos from the day below: