The sometimes heated debate over Proposition 203 and bilingual education has caused me to reflect on my own experience with English as a second language.

America is a nation of immigrants, and my parents were no exception. They both came from Germany, met and married here, and while they each picked up a little English on the job, I was raised in a household where only German was spoken.

In fact, I learned most of my first English while playing with the neighbor kids. Later, when I started school, my mother, who was still struggling to learn the language, would help me with my homework. This led to some interesting pronunciations, much to the delight of my classmates.

In life there are many opportunities to feel mistreated — to start blaming other people or circumstances. To feel like an outsider. And a person who feels left out is more prone to take everything as a slight. I suppose those first stumbling attempts to speak English and the response it evoked could have started me off in that direction. But what their laughter did was inspire me to work harder.

I wasn’t by any means an honor student — any of my teachers would testify to that. In fact, I remember explaining to Mom that those F’s meant I was doing “fine.” And this wasn’t exactly a high-dollar education, either. Of the six different grade schools I attended, two had one room and one teacher. But in spite of my failings in the classroom, I figured out early on that to get ahead, a person has to be able to read, understand and communicate in English.

This was only reinforced by my earliest working experience. When I was 8 years old, I had a job selling newspapers. I learned pretty quickly that the better informed I was about the day’s headlines, the more papers I could sell. If I read the article, my chances of selling the paper were that much better. Read, understand and communicate.

Those early years conditioned me for the “real” world. The better conditioned a person is to deal with the real world, the better they can adjust to it. Sure, it can be real brutal — that’s life. We didn’t have much, and so I never expected much. I think this was beneficial, though it sure didn’t seem like it at the time.

Character is an accumulation of a whole lot of little things, but I’m certain that the experience I had in adapting played a large part in determining mine.

Now what do my experiences more than 70 years ago have to do with bilingual education today? Well, everybody is pretty much in agreement that all children should have the opportunity to realize the American Dream. And that’s really all that the American Dream is: Opportunity. A fair chance. What you do with it is up to you.

A good education is a big part of this “fair chance.” This is more true today than ever before. And the ability to read, understand and communicate in English is the cornerstone of a good education. So, the sooner a child can start to learn the language, the better. To withhold this or delay it in any way does a real disservice to the child whatever his nationality.

After all, young children have the best chance to adjust; it is much easier for them to learn anything, whether it’s a language, playing the piano, or kicking a soccer ball. If you start early enough, you’re dealing with a small vocabulary, a few words to learn and a few simple rules to obey. The later you start — for whatever reason — the more frustration you’ll encounter.

Ask any adult who’s ever tried to learn an instrument or a language. In some cases, this frustration, this feeling of being left back and left out, can start to divide the people. Soon everyone starts looking for reasons to have a chip on their shoulder. What we have then is a society of exclusion and not inclusion.

In a way, this whole debate is a slap in the face to Spanish-speaking children. It says, “you can’t learn as fast as the others.” Just a quick look around at the generation of successful Hispanic-Americans in their 30s, 40s and 50s who didn’t have bilingual education disproves this.

Look, if the problem is not enough teachers, then let’s get more teachers. I think you’re probably just as tired as I am of reading how Arizona ranks last in this or that educational survey. We need to change that, and right away.

However, separate but equal isn’t the way to go. The only people who benefit from that are the “professional go-betweens” who make their living off of the language divide and would dearly love to keep it as wide as possible.

I’m not asking anyone to reject or neglect their heritage. I’m proud of my German ancestors, and my children are equally proud of their German and Russian roots. As I said before, America is a nation of immigrants. This has always been one of our greatest strengths. We shouldn’t allow it to become a weakness.

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