When I arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic I was nearly 12 years old. It was 1961, well before the value of bilingual education was tested and confirmed.
My father, who had come to the United States first, was waiting for me at the airport. I hadn't seen him in more than three years, but before we finished our first hug, I broke up and cried, "!Que voy hacer aqui, yo no se ingles!" What am I going to do here? I don't speak English!
I arrived at the start of Easter vacation, so my father used the time to teach me the English alphabet and numbers from 1 to 100. Unfortunately, that was about all he himself had learned.
Back on the island, he had run a small store -- a ventorrillo -- out of our home, and when there were no customers, he would put me at a blackboard and drill me in Spanish on a number of subjects. When we walked the streets of Santo Domingo, it was a slow trek. He made me read every sign, every message in every store window. I harbored no poet's dreams. The only question was whether I was to become a doctor or an engineer.
In Brooklyn, my father could offer only the advice, "Do not let the other kids know that you don't speak English."
His logic? If others knew I spoke just Spanish, the Spanish-speaking kids would talk to me only in Spanish -- and the Anglo kids wouldn't talk to me at all.
My stepmother enrolled me in the fifth grade in PS-29. After my father had left the island, I lost interest in learning, and flunked fifth grade once, and was taking it for the second time.
My teacher, Mrs. Senick, put me in the back of the room, where I sat and watched, day in and day out. Mrs. Senick, the poor soul, could not speak Spanish. When my needs were urgent, Puerto Rican students translated.
The picture was clear. The burden was on me. On rare occasions, I raised my hand to answer arithmetic questions. In social contacts, I learned to roll with the faces. If people smiled when they spoke, I responded with a grin and a nod. To speakers with negative expressions, I would offer a commiserative headshake.
Dealing in logistics, I followed the group -- from class to lunch to recess to class. The rules of children's games are simple. Once you learn them, you seldom need to talk. Lessons in color were simple, too: Some Puerto Rican kids taunted me for being the Dominican off the boat; blacks rejected me for being Latino, and whites ignored me because I was black.
To become accepted, I needed to use my hands or my words. I chose words. Games taught me a fundamental vocabulary. My stepmother drilled me on household objects. Summer came soon, and I joined a children's program at St. Peter's Church. We took trips, sang songs and did arts and crafts, all in English. Unlike in class at school, I was helped and encouraged to participate.
The following fall, I started fifth grade for the third time. I was placed with a young teacher who, like me, was in the process of learning. Her name was Miss Blomfield. She cared, and my vocabulary grew. She even called me "Chatterbox."
I learned to couple sounds with actions. When someone said something and went to the water fountain, I said the same thing when I went to the water fountain.
One day I committed an error in a baseball game, and another player said to me, "Bulls---." I was unfamiliar with the word, but the sound carried the message.
The same day, Miss Bloomfield engaged our class in a lively true-or-false quiz. When one student answered "true" to something I felt certain was false, I jumped to my feet and enthusiastically called out, "Bulls---." In spite of such gaffes as I wrestled with my new language, that year I passed my classes.
Today, many U.S. educators absolve the schools of blame for the academic failure of Hispanic children. They point to the family and the community.
My experience warns me from accepting that answer too readily. For me to pass the fifth grade on my third try took support from all three.
-- Jose M. Lopez of Washington has been appointed by President Bush to serve as trial judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. He takes the bench tomorrow.
Hispanic Link News Service