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After Leaving Puerto Rico, First Day Of School In Hartford

It’s 7:00 am, and Joemar Class is dressed in his new Bulkeley High School uniform. His older brother William already finished school in Puerto Rico, so he’s still asleep in the bedroom the two boys share with their father.

Lea esta historia en español. / Read this story in Spanish.

Like any new ninth-grader on the first day of school, Joemar had ninth-grader emotion.

“Nervous," he said.

He’s not used to school in Hartford. He’s used to going to school in his pueblo of Florida, used to seeing his friends, used to having class in Spanish. So, yeah, he’s nervous.

“Nervioso,” he said, this time in Spanish.

We first met Joemar in mid-October in the San Juan airport. His father, Guillermo Class, had sold his car to buy plane tickets to get his kids and fly them up from Puerto Rico. The devastation on the island was too much.

Now, the boys are settling into their new home in Hartford’s South End. Barely a week later, and, using his wife’s car, Class drove 16-year-old Joemar to his first day at Bulkeley High School. After a short ride, he got out in front of his new school. Inside, he met Gretchen Levitz -- the school’s program director.

“I see you have a new uniform,” Levitz said. “You look great. You ready for a good first day?”

Then he met a couple of teachers.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Guillermo Class livestreams on Facebook as his son Joemar is given a tour of his new school.

“Hello,” they each said in Spanish. They asked where he’s from, they told him they were happy to see him, and it all seemed to take the edge off. Then, Levitz took him on a quick tour of school before classes began -- to the cafeteria, her office, the school store, the library, the nurse.

As he walked, we meet 11th-grader Shevaun Green. Wearing a junior’s standard jacket and tie, Green said he knows the situation Joemar Class is walking into. He came to Hartford last year from Jamaica. He feels at home now. But he remembered being scared at first. Everything was different.

“I saw a lot of different kids, and I was like, what kind of kids are these?” Green said. “A Jamaican boy came to me and said, ‘Oh, they’re Puerto Rican.’ And I’m like, that’s the first time I’m hearing that some kids are Puerto Rican. He said, yeah, there’s a lot of them up there. And they’re referred to as Latino sometimes.”

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Shevaun Green (left) says he knows the situation Joemar Class (right) is walking into. He came to Hartford last year from Jamaica.

But that different feeling -- that’s normal in a school that has a total of 19 languages spoken.

“We have so many students here from other countries that come here new every single day,” Levitz said. “So it’s nothing like he’s the only one. And we expect more and more, especially from Puerto Rico, and we’re ready for everybody.”

And, though he may feel like the only new kid from Puerto Rico in the school, he isn’t. Levitz said Bulkeley has 17 new students from the island this month alone.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
A poster calling for donations for Puerto Rico outside the band classroom in Bulkeley High School.

Eventually, Joemar settled into class. As we left, his father -- Guillermo Class -- summed it all up.

“You could tell he’s a little nervous,” he said. “But, at the same time, he’s looking forward to it. He was really excited. He was asking about, don’t forget tomorrow, 7 o’clock, and wake up with the alarm.”

And with that, a week after he brought his kids back to Hartford where they were born, Guillermo Class could check another thing off the list. More than a month after Hurricane Maria turned his life upside down, Joemar Class is a student again.

This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director. Then, in 2022, he became a senior enterprise reporter.

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