When I volunteered in my daughter's kindergarten class, I remember feeling kind of sorry for the kids who spoke only Spanish. The school was plenty welcoming -- it was 60 percent Latino -- but the kids who didn't speak any English obviously seemed a little isolated. And even though the teacher did her best to include them in the lessons, to translate as much as she could without losing the other students, I imagined they felt like most of the stuff being talked about didn't really apply to them.
A few years later, when I accompanied her fifth-grade class on a field trip, it wasn't the Spanish speakers I felt sorry for. It was the kids who couldn't speak Spanish, like my daughter. The Spanish-speaking kids were, of course, by now completely fluent in English. They understood everything the teacher and tour guides said, and they revealed no accents when they spoke. But they could also slip gracefully into a second language, a private channel of their own where they could share comments and jokes that neither the teacher nor the non-Latino kids understood. Now my daughter was on the outside.
It reinforced what my wife and I had thought all along, that it's a shame that the schools can't invest as much time teaching Spanish to English speakers as they must in teaching English to Spanish speakers. Now, I know schools have no extra money for anything, but it's really a shame to leave the English speakers out because, at least in the California I live in, Spanish is not a very marginal language. It's not something from another country that immigrants have to leave behind. It's a common language in my town. It's spoken in stores and banks, hospitals and job sites, the DMV and the PTA. And like my daughter on that field trip, it's a channel I'm ignorant of. I'm the clueless one.
I should say, like my daughter was. You see, now that she is in high school, she has wised up and taken Spanish as an elective the past three years. So she can get back in on the conversation. Unlike her old man, whose high school French isn't doing him any good at all.