By Sue Botos
What does it mean to be an American? Rocky River Middle School Spanish teacher Lil Clark gave her students the opportunity to think about that question. Then 12 of them had the opportunity share their answers with new American citizens during a naturalization ceremony on Friday at the U.S. District Courthouse in Cleveland.
During lunch at Mad Tex in Rocky River after the ceremony, Clark explained the idea came about when she and gifted coordinator Susan Forbes were discussing ways to expose students not only to languages, but other aspects of various cultures.
A native of Cuba, Clark said she and her family were featured in a local newspaper when they became naturalized Americans. She added that her students often asked about her experiences as a new citizen. “We thought, How cool would it be to come to a ceremony?” she recalled.
Clark then gave her eighth-graders the optional assignment of writing letters to be presented to the new citizens after the ceremony. In the notes, they explained what it means to them to be a United States citizen.
“We thought just a few would be interested, but we got quite a few letters,” Clark stated. Then, 12 students were chosen, by lottery, to take part in the ceremony.
The students were seated in the front row of Judge Nancy Vecchiarelli’s courtroom. They were not just observers, but answered citizenship questions posed by the judge. “We got so many kudos about how smart the students were,” Clark recalled.
Before their courthouse visit, the students learned what it takes to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. To be eligible, a person must be at least 18, have lived in the country for at least five years, have no criminal record and have a basic knowledge of English, U.S. history and politics. After filling out an application for citizenship, and passing an interview and test, the person can take an oath of allegiance to the United States during a naturalization ceremony. Once the oath is sworn, the new citizen receives a naturalization certificate.
After the ceremony, the students presented the new citizens with their letters and American flags supplied by the Daughters of the American Revolution. “They were all so touched by the students’ welcome,” Clark said. She noted that almost 100 people representing countries from all over the world took part in the proceedings.
Forbes also arranged for the group to tour the courthouse. Stops included Vecchiarelli’s chambers, the jail, law library and courtroom, where each student had the chance to sit on Vecchiarelli’s bench and in the jury box. Forbes noted that the tour gave the group a look at the variety of jobs offered at the court, such as interpreters and court reporters. “They were really amazed at the building and the views it offered of Cleveland,” she said.
The students commented that they were impressed with what the building held. Liam Smith said he enjoyed seeing where his mom worked. “I liked the main court, that was my favorite part. My mom is an attorney and does a lot of work here.”
Others were awed by the scope of the library. “The amount of books there was insane,” Lizzy Kysel commented. They also enjoyed one of the librarians’ collection of live parakeets.
Kat Martin commented that it was inspiring to see so many people reach a goal they had worked so hard to achieve. She said that her father was born in Canada, and has dual citizenship with the United States, something she plans for herself. “This showed me what my father did and what I will do (in Canada),” she said.