Category Archives: hollywood high school

A Vietnamese Lunch

I remember my first day of high school — mainly, the noise.  Three-thousand adolescents shouted in more than forty languages. We had a large population of immigrants and no single racial heritage constituted the majority. I spent a few days blitzed by the contrast to my previous school — immaculate campus, overwhelmingly White, academically outstanding, college prep. But even though I was intimidated by Hollywood High, I felt a magnetic draw, and gradually my experience began to shift. In this new environment with so many diverse folks, the usual judgments of adolescence fell away. We spoke different words, wore different clothes, ate different food, followed different customs…and I found it absolutely liberating.

I signed up to tutor other students in math and English. In my previous school, I was not admired (a vast understatement) for my Olympic-Caliber-Nerd status. But Hollywood High surprised me. Every time I helped students understand an algebra problem or read an assignment in English, they felt a heightened sense of belonging and a shot of confidence. What I didn’t expect was that I’d feel the same way. As their self-esteem grew, so did mine. In this new environment, tutoring was viewed as valuable, and I began to thrive.

I remember one girl from a small village in Vietnam. She struggled with geometry word problems. Her issue was the language, not numbers or geometric concepts. Together, we listed the words and phrases commonly found in her level of math, with definitions in both of our languages. She aced her next test. The following week, she brought me a gift — a meal from an old family recipe. I have no idea what it was, because she only knew the ingredients in her  language — a dialect filled with vernacular specific to her rural village. That day, I learned the powerful bond of sharing food cooked from the heart, offered from the heritage of an immigrant girl navigating a new world.

Circumstances were harsh for many immigrant students. Some lived in impoverished homes, or on their own, or with relatives who didn’t want them, or on the streets. Looking back, I realize how many were in desperate need of an intervention. At the time, the thought never crossed my mind. We didn’t question each other’s circumstances.

Today, several decades later, I’m deeply concerned about how the USA will recover from the previous administration’s approach to immigrants. I find it heartbreaking to imagine the weight of fear that immigrants have been forced to carry on their shoulders. They left a place of extreme hardship, for a land that offered possibility. We are their hope, but they are also ours. I wish that all people who are hostile to immigrants had tasted that girl’s special dish, cooked the night before by her grandmother, a recipe passed down from several generations. I’ve never known a finer gift.

Now, my heart goes out to those who were barred from entering the land that was supposed to be their sanctuary. With the ICE raids that took place, I grieve for families torn apart, for parents and children separated and shattered, a frightened and bruised group in need of immediate care. Together, one by one, we can reach out and make a difference in the life of a child, an adolescent, an adult — a future nurse, professor, artist, sales clerk — or possibly the owner of the finest Vietnamese restaurant imaginable.


Amy’s Novels:

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable

Caroline Black, 15 years old, leaves her wealthy prep school for her local high school, which opens her world. At Hollywood High, she finds a large immigrant population speaking over 40 languages. Although frightened  and intimidated as she navigates this new territory, Caroline thrives in the diversity of her new school.


Caroline Black, 10 years later, navigates her first year of training as a therapist. Chapters in her treatment of a talented but troubled young man are interspersed with chapters of her own personal history. This book explores how the individual and community mutually influence each other, and the importance of becoming your own full person. 

Visit Amy’s Author Page to read reviews, check out the first few chapters, purchase a novel.

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Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, Chapter 1

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable

By Amy Kaufman Burk


Caroline Black worked her way to the front row. She chose the center seat, and clasped her hands on the battered wood. Trying to contain her nerves, she studied the scarred surface. Daisy and Nick Forever. Jack Daniels for President. Daisy and Todd Forever. Algebra Sucks. Daisy and Larry Forever. Several hearts with initials. A large hand, loosely fisted, exceptional detail, middle finger extended. Caroline swallowed dryly, appalled that so many kids had carved up school property, but more appalled by her own admiration: the fuck-you artist is talented with a knife.

“Is this desk taken?”

Caroline looked up and shook her head. The girl smiled shyly, and slid into the next seat.

“I’m Kayla Davidson. I’m new.”

“I’m Caroline Black. I’m new, too.”

They shook hands.

“I’m from Massachusetts,” Kayla offered.

“I’m from Laurel Academy,” Caroline answered.

Kayla raised an eyebrow. “Is that a sovereign nation?”

The bell blared, and thirty kids scrambled for their seats. Ten quiet seconds, then conversations resumed: summer jobs, hairstyles, outfits, girls hugging, boys giving each other high fives, a few couples kissing passionately. A tall, skinny, blond boy jogged to the front.

“Teacher’s late. Shut up and listen. Behind the gym, after school. Mexican, cheap. Hawaiian, top quality.”

Caroline and Kayla exchanged looks of utter incomprehension. The room filled with hisses, boos, and scattered applause. The boy bowed.

“Most of you know me from ninth grade, and I expect your vote for class president. But I see two mysterious ladies. I’m Kurt Christianson.” He lifted Caroline’s hand to his lips, then reached for Kayla.

“No, thank you,” she murmured, withdrawing her clenched fist. “But a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Ah,” Kurt leaped back, “a shy damsel!” The class burst into laughter, which immediately hushed as the teacher walked in.

“Hello, Sir,” Kurt bowed again. “I was just leading the class in the Pledge of Allegiance.”

“How patriotic.” The man pointed to Kurt’s empty seat. “I’m Mr. Cohen. Welcome to Hollywood High School. This is Honors Sophomore English. Anybody think they’re in the wrong class?” Two boys and a girl raised their hands, and Mr. Cohen motioned them to the front. “The rest of you, fill out these information cards for the administration.” He handed a stack to Kayla. “Take one and pass it on.”

“I need a pencil,” called a boy from the third row.

“Here,” a girl with brown braids handed him a shiny new pencil, perfectly sharpened.

“Thanks,” he smiled.

“Grow up,” she shot him a withering look, and turned her back.

“What’s the date?” asked a girl from the left. Caroline glanced over. In spite of the ninety-degree heat, the girl wore a thick black turtleneck and tight black jeans, along with black lipstick, black eye shadow and long black hair.

“September 4,” a boy with light brown dreadlocks down his back.

“I mean the year,” the girl cracked her gum.

“What are you, stupid?” Dreadlocks smirked.

“No, moron, I’m a poetry aficionado. I’m organizing Poetry Night. I’ll recite Sylvia Plath, and you can recite the calendar.” She blew an impressive bubble, which exploded in her face.

“Both of you, lose the gum and the attitude.” Mr. Cohen spoke evenly.

“1973, and nice shot.” Kurt grinned as the girl fired her gum into the trash can. “Want to see a movie on Saturday?” She flipped him the bird, and the class laughed.

I can’t believe…in front of a teacher! Caroline’s green eyes darted from student to student, gauging the classroom. Her hair hung loose down her back, catching the light, turning from wheat to gold to blonde. She moved her head slightly, scanning each person, a two-second emotional x-ray. Edgystaccatoangrylive wire…she landed on Kayla…scared like me…and Mr. Cohen…calm, in absolute control. Caroline’s anxiety dropped a few notches.

“What’s your name?” Mr. Cohen zeroed in on Kurt to begin roll call.

“Kurt Christianson.”

“And you?” nodding at Brown Braids.

“Sharon Greenberg.”

“You?” he glanced at Dreadlocks.

“Kevin Sherwood. People call me Dreads.”

“Dreads it is.” Mr. Cohen checked off his name, and looked at the girl in black.


The class broke into laughter. “Her name’s Andrea Krause.” “She only wore blue in ninth grade.” “She changes her name every summer.” “Last year she was Picasso.”

“Settle down.” Mr. Cohen didn’t yell, but the room was instantly under his control. “How is it you all know this girl’s name?” He pointed at Pencil Boy.

“We’ve all been in school together since kindergarten. Except for the two girls in front. And for the roster, I’m Mort Holloway.”

“Glad to meet you, Mort.” Mr. Cohen turned to Poetry Girl. “How’d you pick the name Elvia?”

The kids snickered, and she glowered.

Mr. Cohen looked over the group. “It’s her name. Her choice. Everyone will call her Elvia.” He addressed the girl. “You don’t have to answer my question.”

“It’s okay,” she shrugged. “Elvia is a combination of Sylvia and Emily, for Plath and Dickinson. And my blue period is over, so Picasso doesn’t work anymore.”

Dreads raised his hand. “I have an announcement. Presto placed seventh in the state surfing competition.”

“Presto…” Mr. Cohen scanned his class list.

“Egbert Petrovich.” A short, muscular boy with a spectacular tan spoke up.

“You prefer Presto,” Mr. Cohen made a note.

“Wouldn’t you prefer Presto if you were named Egbert?”

Mr. Cohen laughed. “Point taken. Congratulations, Presto. Take a bow.”

The boy jumped up and raised his fists, as though acknowledging a crowd at the beach. The kids laughed.

“Really mature,” Sharon muttered, tossing her braids.

Mr. Cohen finished roll call and collected the information cards. “Last chance to speak up. Anyone else think they’re in the wrong class?” He paused, then wrote on the board: The nondescript man turned out to be a lion in the classroom. “Let’s start with everyone’s favorite: grammar.” He paused, and the kids waited. “Ladies and gentlemen, get it out of your systems. Let’s hear some objections.” The room filled with hisses and boos, while Caroline and Kayla exchanged a mortified glance. “Excellent,” said Mr. Cohen, to an immediate silence. “Now, who can find the adjective?”

“I think I’m in the wrong class,” Kayla whispered to Caroline.

“I think I’m in the wrong galaxy.”


*Click on the link to buy Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, to read reviews, to  check out the next few chapters.



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