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Putting Education to the Test

The Bilingual Debate: Immigrants recall with pain and pride having to learn English. Most are leery of Proposition 227.


Simon Lee remembers the obscenities his classmates gleefully taught him, knowing he would repeat them without comprehension. Yolanda Chavez remembers her teacher's frustration. Marta Arevalo recalls feeling depressed, lost and alone. Dmitry Orlov thinks of the Saturday morning Bugs Bunny cartoons that doubled as his English class.

Childhood immigrants to California, they all started school without bilingual programs. They were set afloat in a sea of English with few linguistic lifeboats, an experience they now recount with a mix of pain, pride and occasional humor.

It is an experience that also provides a flavor of what school life will be if June's anti-bilingual-education initiative passes--although the measure would give students help that Lee and the others did not get: a year of intensive English instruction before being transferred into regular classes.

Most of the seven Southern Californians interviewed for this story said they would vote against Proposition 227. Yet in their sometimes sad, sometimes funny classroom tales can be found ammunition for both sides of the fight over bilingual education.

"I remember being very scared," said Chavez, who emigrated from Mexico when she was 5 and started first grade at a Catholic school in Los Angeles that had few Spanish-speaking students. "I was sitting in this classroom, and the teacher was saying things to me I didn't understand.

"I think it was a very painful experience, when I look back at it. But it did work. And I always did well in school after that."

Chavez went on to get a graduate degree in public policy from Columbia University and is now chief of staff for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles).

"I learned very fast, because I had to. In a couple of months I was able to communicate," said Chavez, who is not even sure her first teacher knew she didn't speak English. "She didn't understand why I didn't understand what she was saying. I realize she just thought I was slow."

Chavez's mother took note of how quickly her daughter picked up the language of the family's adopted land. When Chavez's U.S.-born younger sisters could not read English after several years in a bilingual program, her mother pulled them out. "She said, 'Well, this is not working,' " and sent them to schools where they were taught in English.

Still, Chavez opposes Proposition 227. "I think it's poorly written," she said. "Bad public policy."

Arevalo will also vote no--with considerable passion. One can almost detect a shudder when she speaks of her school days after arriving from El Salvador at 11.

"It was sink or swim, and I sank for a while," said Arevalo, regional director for the California Latino Civil Rights Network, a statewide nonprofit group that promotes Latino civic participation. "I can never forget that period in my life. I was completely lost."

She attended a Catholic school in El Monte. Her classmates teased her for not speaking English. She had no friends. The straight A's she had earned in El Salvador turned to Ds and Cs.

"I felt like a failure," Arevalo recalled. "Sure, I learned conversational English the first year. But I still had to learn academic English, and that took me a long time.

"For a year or two it was extremely difficult to go to school," she added. "And if it had not been for an extremely supportive family, I probably would have been a dropout."

At the end of sixth grade, an older student approached her and started speaking Spanish. The girl's words are imprinted in Arevalo's memory: "I heard it's been hard for you. I speak Spanish. If you ever want to talk, you can come to me."

"I just felt saved," Arevalo said. "And she's my best friend to this day."

Fractured English Led to Humiliating Laughs

Chavez and Arevalo didn't get bilingual instruction because they went to Catholic schools. But even in California's public schools, only about a third of students with limited English ability are enrolled in formal bilingual programs, often because there aren't enough qualified bilingual teachers to go around.

There were no Korean instructors to help 11-year-old Lee when he emigrated from South Korea. His English vocabulary consisted of "hi, bye, yes and no." He heard so much Spanish outside of home that he initially mistook it for English.

At the Monterey Park elementary school he briefly attended, one of the first terms his classmates taught him was the "F-word." He and his brother tried to look it up. "It was not in the English-Korean dictionary. So I thought we misspelled it. I didn't know what it was for a long time."

One phrase he learned and then parroted to everyone--including a male teacher--was "Oh, my sexy lady."

Aside from some informal English tutoring from one of his teachers, Lee was pretty much on his own linguistically, he recalled. It didn't take him long to understand what his instructors were saying, but there were rough moments at the Anaheim junior high school he attended after moving to Orange County.

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