On common ground

Samuel L. Banks runners Kayon Spencer and Christel Mukendi have formed a bond as both continue adjusting to life in the U.S.


Kayon Spencer and Christel Mukendi became such close friends during the cross country season that the Samuel L. Banks teammates ran together so they could support each other. Neither strayed far on the race course.

They crossed the finish line together once, grasping hands. The gesture symbolized a bond between the two 16-year-olds who met in the Banks locker room in September and soon discovered they had much more in common than sports.

Both had immigrated to the United States as middle-school students. Spencer came from Jamaica five years ago to live with her father and stepmother. Mukendi arrived a little over a year ago from Zambia, where she and her four siblings had been refugees after escaping a civil war in Congo in which their parents were killed.

Mukendi and her siblings came to the United States with help from an international relief organization. While Spencer hasn't experienced a childhood marked by such tragedy - she talks to her mother in Jamaica every day on the phone - she had as much difficulty as Mukendi assimilating into the American teenage culture.

At first, each girl had trouble fitting in, struggling with the language and feeling unsure of her surroundings.

"My first day in middle school was tough, because I didn't understand the whole set-up when I first came here. Only one girl was being nice to me," said Spencer. She spoke English but had trouble deciphering American accents and idiom.

Mukendi didn't speak a word of English, only French and Swahili.

"I was feeling lonely. You don't know how to speak English and there are all these people in school, but you find yourself by yourself. I wanted to learn this language. I want to be like them. I want to talk like them," said Mukendi, who spent a few months in middle school before moving to Banks last winter.

When Spencer and Mukendi began learning each other's background, they found understanding, compassion and solace in each other. They shared the same values, as both are religious and driven to succeed in the classroom and in sports.

"We call each other sisters now," Spencer said.

Spencer, a junior who plans to be a child psychologist, and Mukendi, a sophomore considering obstetrics, now speak fluent English. Both are honor students. They have lots of friends and are two of the top runners in the Lions' emerging cross country and track programs.

In the fall, Mukendi finished 23rd in the Class 1A state cross country championships and Spencer was 51st - the top girls finishers in the three-year history of the varsity program at Banks, one of the schools created by the division of the old Northern High School.

Last week, Mukendi ran second in the 3,200 meters and Spencer was third in the 800 meters at a regular-season city indoor track meet at the Fifth Regiment Armory.

While team captain Spencer is in her second season of track, Mukendi is in her first. Mukendi has advanced so quickly in cross country and track that Lions track coach Rashi Pinkney predicts she will win a state title before she graduates.

Mukendi did so well in her first cross country race, a small city meet, that she was initially disqualified, said Lions coach Carol Ansell, because officials had never seen her before and did not think she could compete with the other top runners without taking a shortcut. That discrepancy soon was sorted out and her finish stood.

Pinkney and Ansell praised both girls for their coachability and dedication to the team. Because they never had the chance to compete in sports in their native countries, they appreciate the experience in ways most of their teammates cannot.

"They understand and recognize the purpose of opportunity," Pinkney said. "When they see an opportunity, they understand they are blessed with that opportunity and they are going to take advantage of it. They are very honest and they don't want to miss practice. I do feel that they understand the fact that they have an excellent opportunity, one that they would not have gotten at home."

Although they only crossed the finish line hand-in-hand once - Ansell informed them it could get them disqualified - they remained otherwise inseparable.

"It gives you energy," Mukendi said, "when you're running and you slow down and you know you have somebody there to encourage you: `Come on, Christel. Come on.' I think Kayon's trying to run hard and I don't want to let her down or let the team down, so I just focus and run."

Ansell, also Banks' athletic director, said the girls' efforts have been instrumental in the Lions' growth as a team.

"Their leadership skills set a standard that brought everybody else up, including our boys," Ansell said. "Everything that comes out of their mouths, it's just what a coach always hopes for. They're just the perfect role models for the rest of the kids on our team."

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