Jewish World Review March 17, 2005 / 6 Adar II 5765
Warning to the Reader: Memory is not the mere recollection of fact, as anyone who's tried to record his memories will know. As in a dream, the landscape alters. Childhood emotions recollected may be heightened or softened, lost or found.
I was five years old when I started public school, so I will not swear it happened just this way. But the memory of that day comes back whenever I have a particular kind of cheese sandwich, my equivalent of Proust's madeleine. The other day the memory was triggered by a story in the Wall Street Journal. ("Reports Warns Influx/of Hispanics in South/Creates School Crisis.")
My five-year-old's world had centered about the kitchen in back of the store, where the language was Yiddish, but I was about to enter a different world and a different language now. My mother took me to the trolley that day and told the driver where to let me off. "You be nice to them," my mother had told me, "and they'll be nice to you."
But I could sense something fearful behind her assurances. She didn't have to get on the scary-looking trolley with the mean-looking driver. Or wonder how to reach the cord if you wanted to get off, and whether you'd pull it too soon or too late. Better not to do anything at all and call attention to yourself, but then you would keep riding forever . . . .
At school, when the bell rang, I found my class and tried to follow what the teacher was saying. I didn't get her every word or maybe most of them; her diction, her clothes, her stiffness were all new to me, and I couldn't help staring. She kept addressing someone named Y'all, and telling us to do things, but I had no idea what was expected of me. In the end I settled for watching the other kids and trying to copy whatever they did, though not very well.
Everyone seemed so . . . cold and distant. Then the bell rang and I went off to wait for the bus. I knew just where to stand but it didn't come. I waited and waited and . . . .
Then another lady was talking to me. She was saying school wasn't over after all, and it was time to go back. I hesitated. She said she'd spoken to my mother, and knew just what was OK for me to eat and what wasn't kosher.
When we got to the big empty, light-green room with the benches, one of the cooks came and set down a cheese sandwich made with soft white bread and a little carton of milk. I don't think I'd ever seen one that small, and everything tasted wrong. We never used mayonnaise on anything but salads at home.
But it was good after the first bite. Hunger is the best sauce. The taste of it remains in memory, strange and assuring at the same time. It was a different world, but not a threatening one. I was being looked after . . . .
The story in the Wall Street Journal began: "The U.S. Hispanic population is growing fastest in the South, and a report to be released today warns of a looming educational crisis that is breeding a new form of segregation."
The report, out of a think tank at the University of Southern California, finds that states like Arkansas, Georgia and North Carolina are far outpacing the national average in the growth of their foreign-born population. And that the children of immigrant workers are putting unprecedented pressure on public schools in those states.
For example: Lilburn elementary school, outside Atlanta, has seen its percentage of Hispanic students go from 14 percent in 1997 to 48 percent of its total enrollment (1,100) this year. In 2001, 21 percent of its fourth graders failed or barely scraped through a test to determine whether they were ready for the fifth grade. The poor showing, says the school, was because so many students had problems with English.
The principal and teachers at Lilburn got busy applying for grants, learning how to teach students who have only limited English, setting up classes before and after school for the neediest kids, starting a parent center where mama and papa can learn English and also study civics and pick up computer skills . . . .
This year, all of Lilburn's fourth graders tested well enough to get into the fifth grade thanks to extraordinary programs that need to become ordinary if this country is going to make the most of its human capital in the future.
The story in the Journal offers ample ground for both concern and hope. It's full of percentages, test scores and comparisons. It tells of failures to beware, successes to cheer and programs to be started. But in the end, as in all education, the memories now being formed will depend on what happens between one teacher and one child.
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