Speak American!

Oct 23, 2017 by

A New Jersey high school teacher recently caught hell because on one occasion, while she was teaching, she thoughtlessly admonished students who were whispering to each other in Spanish to “speak American.” Of course, they should have paid attention to the lesson by using the universal language of silence.

She prefaced her remarks with a gratuitous editorial about the link between the nation’s legacy and the sacrifices its heroes made to protect and preserve linguistic purity. Or untoward words to that effect.

The students recorded the episode on their inevitable hand-held devices. That’s another thing they shouldn’t have been doing, but it has been more than overshadowed by the teacher’s comments. And obviously there is nothing in the school’s “discipline code” that discourages students from cell phone fun during instructional time, or if there is, any invocation of it might be misconstrued as retaliation.

If we weren’t so used to asymmetrical responses to real or deliberately imagined taunts by now, the dramatic ramifications of this unplanned confrontation would be hard to believe.

There was a mass student walkout, a plenary assembly of kids with keynote adult speakers, a school board meeting and calls for the teacher to be fired and banished from her profession forevermore.  Students and certain adult opportunists were besides themselves with effusive unquenched indignation. Learning time was lost except for this “teachable moment.”

When people claim their feelings have been hurt, there may be a compelling need to inquire whether they’re being sincere, but there’s often no way of determining whether they are. It may be feigned for effect. Certainly this case is no time for minimization or levity, as has echoed from particular ideological corners. When accusers are right on the merits, they may be excessive in the degree of punishment they demand for their provocateurs.

Firing the teacher would be an appeasement just as wrong as her offense.

Certainly the teacher was way out of line. It’s irrelevant that English is the universal language of commerce and diplomacy and is spoken globally more than any other by most educated people. It’s also not pertinent that non-English speaking adults in the United States are at a crippling disadvantage economically. That’s not what she said.

She practically invited an uprising. She shamed students, whether or not accidentally.  “American” is a nation, not a language, and so she was in effect accusing them of not being patriotic or of not belonging. Many people do that without intent to do harm, though. “America”, which many people innocently use in the United States as a shortened reference to our country, alludes to our Central and South American neighbors also.

Nothing in the news reports about the teacher’s background indicated she had a history of making invideous comments to children. She likely didn’t seek to berate her students. Insisting that she did, many of her critics are expressing pain and a quest for justice. But others may be seizing upon it as an opportune pretext for organized rage and exploitation.

The teacher is reportedly contrite, embarrassed and feels misinterpreted.

Would she have sparked a revolution had she said, “It’s rude to talk in a foreign language around people when you know they don’t understand you and may feel excluded”?  Is it an insult to suggest that in the United States, where there is no “official” language, there is no such thing as a “foreign language.”?

This New Jersey case was made worse because it played into the hands of vile xenophobes and racists who use similar language similar to the teacher’s as code for their hateful innuendos. That’s what ignited the firestorm.  But I don’t suspect she shares their bigotry.

So should she be punished and how?

She should not be sacked. Her career should go forward. Should should write a clarifying letter to her students and their parents. It should be vetted by school and district management. There should be a “counseling memo”-like document placed in her personnel file to be expunged, barring a recurrence, after a year.

The principal should monitor and take corrective action as needed if there are efforts to scapegoat the teacher in future for past violations.

And students and their parents should be given a refresher course on rights and responsibilities. Bagels, cream cheese ( with strict care taken to ensure it hasn’t passed the “expiration date”) and orange juice should be served.

Ron Isaac

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