Getting through

When bilingual teacher Maria Belden speaks, her students hear the sounds of home

On a dark, threatening morning, Maria Belden stands outside the doorway to her classroom. She is an umbrella. She is a shelter. She is a tall woman, with a bright sweater, a radiant face and a blanket of blond hair.

Her hands are large and soothing. As children file in, Belden reaches down and touches them. She smoothes their hair, cups their chins, grazes their cheeks with her long, slender fingers. No child enters the room unsculpted. It is a kind of benediction.

“Buenas das, clase!” she announces.

“Buenas das, Maestra!” the children chime.

“Good morning, class!” she repeats in English.

“Good morning, Mrs. Belden!” they reply, singsong.

Then they say the month and day. In Spanish — and then English. Then they recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In Spanish — and then English. Then roll is taken: “Miguel. . . aqui! Bladimer. . . aqui! Lupita. . . aqui! Julio? Julio, no aqui? Ohhhhhh.”

The children sit on the carpet. Maria Belden eases into her big rocking chair. She takes a book off the shelf and holds it up as if it were a treasure. The book is called “El Osito Polar,” about a polar bear cub named Lars.

“Laaarrrrrs,” the children repeat.

She begins to read. No, she begins to cast a spell. Her eyes flash, her voice dips and soars. So full of drama, excitement, suspense. The children sit — entranced. After a few more pages, Belden stops. A chorus of groans.

“Maana!” she promises.

In these little minds, can there be anything more splendid, can anything come quicker, than maana? Another day with Maestra, she in her big reading chair, holding the words to this wondrous world?

Howe Avenue Elementary School is on Howe Avenue, not too far from the Arden Fair mall. It is the nucleus of a cluster of aging apartment complexes that host an enclave of Latino immigrant families.

With an enrollment of 730 children, Howe Avenue is the largest es on TV.

This is not a typical, uplifting story of a bright immigrant girl who triumphs over the odds. In fact, Belden floundered. She had no goals, no expectations. In 1968, her family moved to Los Angeles. Her parents held down factory jobs. She worked in a drugstore. She married out of high school and seven years later divorced.

She got a job at Lockheed. Then she met and married Ken Belden, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. The couple moved to Sacramento in 1988. One day she heard a voice urging her to return to school. “The scariest thing I could imagine,” she says, referring to the prospect of school. But the voice persisted. She believes it was God’s voice.

She enrolled in American River College. Then CSUS, where, by chance, she took a class in cross-cultural child development, and saw her life in the textbook. At 38, she decided to become a teacher. “I thought I could make a difference,” she says. “I thought I could make it easier. That I could understand the child who is struggling. Not just from the language. But the whole experience.”

Maria Belden’s first-grade class is a festive extravaganza of colors, words, numbers, books, pictures, costumes. Next to Belden’s mama-bear rocking chair there is a baby rocking chair, blue and sprinkled with yellow stars. This coveted chair accommodates that day’s “Brillante Estrella,” the lucky student who gets to sit up near Maestra, read out loud to the class and be showered with attention.

Most of Belden’s 18 students are from Mexico, with the exception of a boy from Chile and a child from Puerto Rico. All come from impoverished backgrounds. “They seem to be so resilient,” Belden says. “And they are thriving here — despite some of the problems.”

Let’s meet a few of the children.

Here’s Lupita, a pixie with a heart-shaped face who was once so unsure of herself that she used to drape her coat over her head and remain stubbornly bunkered inside. Now she is one of the best readers in the class.

There’s Carlos, once so angry and upset he was disruptive. Now he’s calm, settled, even confident.

And Laura — pretty and bossy, with her emphatic ponytail and hand-on-a-hip manner. On the occasion of a reporter’s visit to class, Laura was assigned to be his compaera. Squished together at the same table, she raised his hand, patted him on the back, read to him the tale of “Mi Objecto Favorito.” Later, at lunch, she bragged to her friends that she was teaching this grown man to speak Spanish. Then she rolled her brown eyes and shook her head.

The parents, too, are involved. And since this class is by choice, the parents at least tacitly endorse the teaching of bilingualism.

“They want English,” says Belden. “But they want Spanish, too. They want academic English. Not playground English. But, in order to do that, you need to teach comprehension in Spanish. Studies show that it takes up to seven years to learn a language. So the sooner they (pupils) learn Spanish, the sooner they can make the transition to English.”

Belden also believes that it is the duty of a school to preserve a child’s cultural vernacular. “By teaching them English (exclusively), you are robbing them of their Spanish,” she says.

It’s a viewpoint without much consensus statewide. A recent Field Poll indicated strong support for the measure to end bilingual education.

The honorary chairman of the Unz initiative campaign is Jaime Escalante, 62, one-time subject of a rousing Hollywood film and now a calculus teacher at Hiram Johnson High School. Escalante’s personal story is every bit as compelling as Belden’s.

He arrived in the United States from Bolivia at age 37, supporting his family by mopping up a Pasadena coffee shop. Later, he got into computers. Then education. “Any immigrant,” says Escalante, “it makes no difference where are from — Cuba, Mexico, a country in Europe — you are a part of the system. You have to integrate yourself into the system. The integration factor is the language.”

Escalante tells this family lesson: He and his wife have two grown sons. His oldest son was 6 and spoke Spanish when the family arrived in California. Since there was no such thing as bilingualism then, the boy was put in an English-immersion class and thrived. His youngest son was born here, and school authorities tried to place the boy in newly mandated bilingual instruction. The Escalantes objected.

Today, both his sons are engineers. Both speak fluent Spanish, and both are versed in their Bolivian heritage, subjects they were taught at home.

Asked, as Belden and others argue, if it’s not true that small children are best taught in their native language, Escalante replies, “I don’t think so. The best age to teach children a language is when they are 4, 5, 6 years old. It’s easy. The kids assimilate faster. It’s better to expose them to a language they don’t know. At home, they will speak their (native) language to their parents. Why emphasize that in school?”

Nor does he believe it’s a school’s obligation to preserve a child’s cultural heritage. “Let’s not confuse things,” he says unequivocably. “Culture you learn at home. You educate at schools.”

The day continues in Maestra Belden’s classroom. Math, crafts, more reading. There is a succession of stamps, stickers, certificates.

Refrains of “Muy bien, mi amores!”

Then it’s done. The children file out the door.

Belden and her husband live in Gold River. She says she is frequently asked, ” ‘Why should we pay for them to learn Spanish?’ “

“I just think they (opponents) are ignorant,” Belden replies politely. “I don’t think they are malicious. If only they could come into a class like mine. But,” she sighs, “I know that’s not possible.”

She turns quiet. Belden is not a bilingual ideologue. She is just a good teacher. That is the one indisputable truth here. Like any dedicated teacher, the joys of her job are the small victories that manifest themselves in a child’s face.

“Seeing Lupita come out of her shell, literally,” says Belden. “Seeing Leslie write stories. Seeing Carlos not be aggressive and angry because he feels he is not as good as the other kids. Now he comes up to me and tells me things he has read in books.”

She smiles softly to herself, her eyes beginning to pool. “To know that I’ve opened up the world to them,” she says. “It sounds so corny, so corny. But once you feel it, you are hooked.”

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