Zan Malik
Zan Malik

Six students at a Sandy Springs high school recently read a book written in a language different than the one they’ve spoken since birth.

The English prose of Homer Hickam’s memoir, the “Rocket Boys,” presented unique challenges for the students at Riverwood International Charter School who are part of the English to Speakers of Other Languages program. Their teacher, Mrs. Mary Schmidt, handed them a copy as part of the first Sandy Springs Reads, a community-wide event focusing on a specific novel.

Hickam’s story is a distinctly American tale. It’s set in the rugged terrain of Coalwood, W. Va., a mining town with a way of life that’s coming closer to an end with each load of coal pulled out of the mountains. One night in 1957, the Soviet-launched Sputnik streaks across the October sky, a gut-punch to the country’s confidence. Suddenly, students are given thick stacks of math and science books, batons to carry in America’s Space Race.

Angelica Gonzalez

Homer “Sonny” Hickam Jr. forms the Big Creek Missile Agency and, along with a group of other boys, begins to build rockets. The missile tests anger his father, a foreman who sees the only path for his son leads to the coal mines.

Schmidt said the ESOL students initially had some trouble overcoming their own difficulties with the English language and American history. But they began to relate to themes in the book.

Hesham Abdulla, a junior at Riverwood, said when he lived in Yemen, he was able to drive a car when he was 11 years old. When he wanted to get his license here, he had to wait until he was 16. Even when he’d turned 16, his father insisted he wasn’t ready, he said.

“He wouldn’t let me take the test and I went behind his back and got my license,” he said, smiling. “I came back to the house and said, ‘I got my license.’ He was shocked.”

Other students also struggle with their parents’ expectations and the dreams they have for themselves. Their parents’ expectations are formed by their own cultures and ideas about success.

Wally Fofona

Wally Fofana, a senior, came to America when his father pulled him from his home in the Ivory Coast, West Africa.

It was like pushing the reset button on his life. Before he came to the U.S., he was getting ready to attend college. The talkative young man, who wore a shirt depicting an 8-bit pixel soccer team, wants to go home. Soccer isn’t as important in America as it is in West Africa, he says, but it’s what he loves.

“My dad wants me to stay here,” he said. His parents want him to finish college or join the military. Parents, he said, want the best for their children. He wants to give them his best. “If you choose to be a good person in life, it will be. If you turn around and go the opposite way, you’ll be a nobody. My dad’s a great person.”

Samantha Del Barrio

Zan Malik, a junior raised in Pakistan, says without hesitation he wants to be a psychiatrist. His parents want him to study computer software and have asked if he’d travel to Canada this summer so he can learn more about it. Zan said he will go. If it turns out he likes computers, he says he won’t mind changing his plans. Zan said he liked the ending of the book where Sonny’s father hugs him.

“The end leaves something in your heart,” he said.

Clarissa Alverina, a freshman from Indonesia, said her family wants her to be a doctor, but she knows biology is her weakest subject. She says happiness is more important than money, but she’s not sure what would make her happy. “I have no clue what I want to do,” she said.

Hesham Abdulla

Angelica Gonzalez, the child of two Mexican immigrants, said she pushes herself in school and tries to face challenging subjects with determination, in the same way Sonny had to pick up advanced levels of science and math. She wants a car. She wants a good life.

“I want to get a good job and not have to worry like everybody else does, like having to pay for this or that,” she said.

Clarissa Alverina

Samantha Del Barrio, a sophomore from Mexico, connected with Sonny’s father accepting and understanding him. Samantha says her mother doesn’t try to push her in any one direction, but just wants her to be happy and tells her she’ll have her back no matter what.

“Whatever I choose to be when I get older, I’d like for my mom to feel proud of me,” she said.

Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of