“My husband said, ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it’s good enough for my kid!’” How My All-American Schools Remained All-English

When I first began teaching in an Episcopal school in 1973 it became clear that I could develop any kind of liberal arts curriculum I desired. Indeed, such creativity is what rich kids’ parents demand of their kids’ teachers. As a German Lit and History double major who had spent a bit of time in both Germany and France, it seemed normal to me to suggest that I add some kind of introductory level lessons in German and French for my dozen 7th graders. The principal allocated a bit of money for me to buy children’s magazines and some easy books, and away we went. The kids loved the crazy German grammar and played with the French sounds happily every day. One of the kids, Suzanne, had been to France a few times and she told funny stories about what made French people like us and different from us. I made up fun lessons, the kids learned words and phrases, and I enjoyed myself a great deal.

Moving to rural Northern California two years later, I was immediately overwhelmed with managing a class of 40 6th graders, so I didn’t think about adding another language until my second year when I was assigned to teach the forty kids in the 7th and 8th grade. I asked my superintendent if I could have some funds to purchase the same subscriptions for German and French magazines. The response was a surprise to me.

The school superintendent was dumbfounded. He was shocked. Why on earth would I try to teach these poor hardscrabble children even one other language when they hardly knew English? Even kids whose parents had good jobs didn’t need this kind of thing. It would confuse them and do nothing to help them get a job in the future. He let me know that he was the one in charge of the district and school (it was a 2 school district with 7 teachers in one school and 30 teachers in the other), and he would not allow this kind of departure from a curriculum of basic skills that served the students by giving them what they really needed in the United States of America. Furthermore, he said, German was doubly suspect. The superintendent knew I was a good American but even talking about teaching an enemy language such as German might raise doubts about my patriotism in the local community. We had many WW2 vets who still hated the ‘Krauts.’

I didn’t heed the superintendent’s politically savvy warning, so foolishly, I decided to test the waters with some of the more involved parents. When Mrs. Fisher came to school to watch the flag football team I was coaching, I opened the topic.

“What would you think about teaching Foreign Languages to the kids, Mrs. Fisher?” I asked respectfully.

“Well” she said, “ I’m not sure. What language was you thinking about?”

“I thought I could give some introductory lessons in both German and French to help them get ready for high school and college entrance” I replied.

Mrs. Fisher thought for a moment and then said she wanted to check with her husband since they were a tight knit and religious family. I said thought this was a good idea too. The next day, I saw Mrs. Fisher again.

I said, “Hi Mrs. Fisher. I wonder if you got a chance to speak with your husband about foreign language instruction?”

“Yep,” she replied. “We don’t think there’s no good reason to talk like different foreign people. Besides, we are Christians and as my husband said, ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it’s good enough for my kid.’”

I wasn’t ready for this one. But I smiled and said thank you for talking it over at home. And I dropped the topic for a few years.

When I was appointed principal of my third elementary school in a different district, I had the great good fortune to work for a creative and interesting man who held the office of superintendent there. He urged us as school leaders to take on new curriculum that we believed in. I shared my hope for an elementary school that introduced several languages to students, and he supported the idea. When I shared my prior experience in a more rural district, he suggested I focus on Spanish since that would appear more practical and might garner greater support. He was willing to increase the attendance boundaries at my school and add a Spanish-speaking teacher for every other grade.

From a financial perspective, one of the strengths of my idea to add Spanish speaking teachers to my elementary school was the fact that the district would not have to add any more teachers to the payroll than English only speaking teachers. You had to have a teacher for every group of 35 kids anyway. So why not improve the curriculum by hiring more highly skilled teachers? In this way, I could win a curricular improvement of huge importance, integrating Spanish into the normal school day, while not paying a dime for the improvement. From a political standpoint, this change would give parents a choice, a key political issue of the times. Parents would be able to choose a Spanish integration track or not. From my perspective the presence of another language in the school would create the kind of impact I hoped for.

As I shared this idea among teachers and parents, I got a lukewarm response. It sounded like more work or more foreign influence.

Teacher Louisa asked, “Does this mean we have to learn Spanish? How many more courses to I have to take to satisfy all these new ideas?”

One of the dads complained, “Who are the kids going to talk to? I don’t want my daughter talking to any Wetback.”

Another parent complained, “I don’t want my kid falling behind because he has to learn math in Spanish.”

I persevered and found a model school to visit in another town, a university town about 3 hours south. I arranged for substitutes at my own school so that several teachers and a parent could accompany me to see the school and visit with the principal. Bilingual teachers taught every class. They all spoke both Spanish and English. And the kids, looked and acted just like our kids except they spoke two languages easily. The older kids wrote two languages. In our meeting with the principal, I was shocked. This older woman told us she had been transferred to this school but didn’t agree with the model of education. She thought it was a form of child abuse to confuse children this way. She tried to close the program but the parents came out in droves to protest so the program continued. She complained that many of the children of the faculty at the university were in the program and those people always got what they wanted, even if it wasn’t the best thing for their kids. This did not help my case.

I charged ahead that summer interviewing about 20 Spanish-speaking teacher candidates but could not find a single one who would move to the conservative, traditional and deeply “American” rural Northern California town. Even for the few who seemed willing, the subject of a job for their spouse blocked their decision.

“Got any jobs for chemical engineers in the town?” asked one great candidate.

“No, sorry,” I replied sadly. In fact in that poor and depressed area of northern California, there were few middle-class jobs besides teaching. I was not able to hire even one teacher who could teach Spanish.

With the first board meeting the next Fall, I was surprised to see a contingent of parents from my school. They asked to speak to the board and were naturally allowed to do this. These were parents I had worked with to volunteer and support the school and we had a solid relationship. But I was a bit unnerved when the topic of their talk was their deep concern about adding Spanish-speaking teachers to their All American School. The board listened and then asked me to respond. I am proud of my maturity in this instance because as a new principal I had not always acted with such political aplomb in prior board meetings in another district. I thanked the parents for their ideas and let them know I would not make any unilateral changes without their advice. I also invited them to meet me at school to continue the conversation.

Around this time, the Spanish teacher from the local high school got wind of what was going on and called me. She naturally thought it would be a great idea to include Spanish in the curriculum for elementary students, but understood my dilemma. She then suggested that her Spanish 5 students could come for a period each week and give lessons for 20-30 minutes in each classroom in my school. I was thrilled. This move was in effect a cultural end run around the parents’ need for their children to to stay white and English speaking, while preparing for entrance to colleges. This plan would give their kids a leg up on students from other schools when they needed to fulfill their foreign language requirement to compete for college acceptance and the English only parents had been hoisted on their own petard.

Teachers went along with this change sometimes happily and sometimes grudgingly. Two were playful, to my delight and called each other Don Diego and Don Romero. But there was still no requirement to expose elementary children to Spanish or any other language besides English in elementary school. I always thought the kids should know at least two languages and quoted Friedrich Schiller’s aphorism that one doesn’t know one’s own language until one knows another. Quoting a German philosopher in German didn’t go far in my district though, and I soon stopped that. The habit in fact cut deeply across the grain of the local culture in parents and town, and in many teachers as well.

My approach to bringing a foreign language to elementary school lasted for the next two years while I served as principal. And then I was promoted to the central office, and the entire idea was gone in a day. The new principal had been appointed by the board to run a tight ship and “focus on the basics.” The superintendent and the two board members who supported this idea could not do anything further to support my effort to stand against the local culture, and in rural northern California that meant English only. And Basics do not include this kind of creativity by teachers, or foreign language instruction. I think many of the teachers were a bit tired of my ongoing creativity with the curriculum inside their classrooms. It might have been interesting but it was also extra work. So English only is what the principal and teachers delivered.