3rd-graders give mayor third degree

“The mayor’s that black guy!” the boy said, pointing to the painting of John Daniels, New Haven’s first black mayor, that hangs in City Hall.

“That’s not the mayor,” said Minh Tran ’09, as he herded the boy into line.

Local third-graders eager to ask Mayor John DeStefano questions about his tenure and other topics visit City Hall on a field trip Wednesday afternoon.
Esther Quintana
Local third-graders eager to ask Mayor John DeStefano questions about his tenure and other topics visit City Hall on a field trip Wednesday afternoon.

There were many such moments Wednesday, as Tran and a handful of teachers took 50 third-graders from Worthington Hooker Elementary School on a field trip to learn about immigration in New Haven. The all-day affair was planned entirely by Tran, who works with the children at Hooker as a Dwight Hall public school intern.

Tran said he was inspired by the city’s ambitious plan to give undocumented immigrants ID cards to facilitate opening bank accounts, getting driver’s licenses or paying for parking tickets. Tran used contacts at City Hall to set up a field trip for the children, which coincided with the students’ study of immigration.

Besides holding a no-holds-barred junior press conference of sorts with Mayor John DeStefano, mayoral spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga and Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05, the children learned about instruments from Indonesia, dances from the Philippines and tae-kwon-do from Korea: all part of Tran’s efforts to teach the benefits of a multicultural, immigrant-friendly society.

Before DeStefano’s visit — a surprise even for Tran — the children were led into the aldermanic chambers, where they played alderman for an hour, covering the placards with their own names. Mayorga then fielded questions from the students, many of which strayed from the topic of immigration.

“Does the president have a daughter?”

“How many doors are there in City Hall?”

“Are there any secret spots behind the pictures?”

“Is the mayor a bully?”

“Does the mayor cook?”

“I’ve never had the mayor’s cooking,” Mayorga said. “Who has a question about immigration?”

A few more substantive questions emerged from the students’ boundless curiosity and random inquiries. A boy named Nico described the Border Patrol agents he sees from the roof of his family’s other home in New Mexico, while a second child asked for more details on the city’s ID card plan. Another asked where his mother could pick one up, to which Mayorga replied that the cards will be introduced in July.

In a later interview, Tran said this question had particularly impressed him because it meant the student had been connecting what he had learned from class with his own life.

Eventually, Mayorga was interrupted by the mayor himself, prompting gasps and feverish hand-waving from the students. DeStefano bobbed and weaved through the aisles with enthusiasm.

“What do all these people have in common?” he asked, pointing to the paintings of white male mayors adorning the walls of the chamber.

“They all have beards!” one child offered. DeStefano gave a half-nod, clearly hoping for a different answer. He finally got it.

“There are no girls,” a girl said.

“That’s right — no girls!” DeStefano said. “And what are you going to do about it?”

This sent the students into a frenzy, with cootie-fearing boys screaming “No female presidents!” and one girl pumping a delighted fist in anticipation of her eventual ascension to the White House. Though the students did not give DeStefano an all-out grilling — no one asked about the recent police scandal or his failed bid for governor — they were able to tell it like it is.

“I just want to tell you, if there were no women in this world you wouldn’t be here,” one girl said, a comment that left DeStefano speechless.

But DeStefano also answered several questions that actually dealt with immigration.

“Should the President make it easier to get across the border?” one student asked.

DeStefano said he thinks it is a good idea.

“I think it’s important that we are a kind of place that lets everybody in,” he said. “It’s like ice cream. I like different flavors.”

“I like pistachio,” a student said.

After the discussion, Mayorga said she was impressed by the students’ questions and their frankness.

“These are contemporary issues that affect us all, and it shows they are aware of the initiatives that the mayor is supporting,” she said. “And children have the ability we seem to lose as we get older to be frank about anything.”

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