Putting Education to the Test


Simon Lee remembers the obscenities his classmates gleefully taught him, knowing he would repeat them without comprehension. Yolanda Chavez remembers her teacher’s frustration. Marta Arevalo recalls feeling depressed, lost and alone. Dmitry Orlov thinks of the Saturday morning Bugs Bunny cartoons that doubled as his English class.

Childhood immigrants to California, they all started school without bilingual programs. They were set afloat in a sea of English with few linguistic lifeboats, an experience they now recount with a mix of pain, pride and occasional humor.

It is an experience that also provides a flavor of what school life will be if June’s anti-bilingual-education initiative passes--although the measure would give students help that Lee and the others did not get: a year of intensive English instruction before being transferred into regular classes.

Most of the seven Southern Californians interviewed for this story said they would vote against Proposition 227. Yet in their sometimes sad, sometimes funny classroom tales can be found ammunition for both sides of the fight over bilingual education.


“I remember being very scared,” said Chavez, who emigrated from Mexico when she was 5 and started first grade at a Catholic school in Los Angeles that had few Spanish-speaking students. “I was sitting in this classroom, and the teacher was saying things to me I didn’t understand.

“I think it was a very painful experience, when I look back at it. But it did work. And I always did well in school after that.”

Chavez went on to get a graduate degree in public policy from Columbia University and is now chief of staff for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles).

“I learned very fast, because I had to. In a couple of months I was able to communicate,” said Chavez, who is not even sure her first teacher knew she didn’t speak English. “She didn’t understand why I didn’t understand what she was saying. I realize she just thought I was slow.”


Chavez’s mother took note of how quickly her daughter picked up the language of the family’s adopted land. When Chavez’s U.S.-born younger sisters could not read English after several years in a bilingual program, her mother pulled them out. “She said, ‘Well, this is not working,’ ” and sent them to schools where they were taught in English.

Still, Chavez opposes Proposition 227. “I think it’s poorly written,” she said. “Bad public policy.”

Arevalo will also vote no--with considerable passion. One can almost detect a shudder when she speaks of her school days after arriving from El Salvador at 11.

“It was sink or swim, and I sank for a while,” said Arevalo, regional director for the California Latino Civil Rights Network, a statewide nonprofit group that promotes Latino civic participation. “I can never forget that period in my life. I was completely lost.”


She attended a Catholic school in El Monte. Her classmates teased her for not speaking English. She had no friends. The straight A’s she had earned in El Salvador turned to Ds and Cs.

“I felt like a failure,” Arevalo recalled. “Sure, I learned conversational English the first year. But I still had to learn academic English, and that took me a long time.

“For a year or two it was extremely difficult to go to school,” she added. “And if it had not been for an extremely supportive family, I probably would have been a dropout.”

At the end of sixth grade, an older student approached her and started speaking Spanish. The girl’s words are imprinted in Arevalo’s memory: “I heard it’s been hard for you. I speak Spanish. If you ever want to talk, you can come to me.”


“I just felt saved,” Arevalo said. “And she’s my best friend to this day.”

Fractured English Led to Humiliating Laughs

Chavez and Arevalo didn’t get bilingual instruction because they went to Catholic schools. But even in California’s public schools, only about a third of students with limited English ability are enrolled in formal bilingual programs, often because there aren’t enough qualified bilingual teachers to go around.

There were no Korean instructors to help 11-year-old Lee when he emigrated from South Korea. His English vocabulary consisted of “hi, bye, yes and no.” He heard so much Spanish outside of home that he initially mistook it for English.


At the Monterey Park elementary school he briefly attended, one of the first terms his classmates taught him was the “F-word.” He and his brother tried to look it up. “It was not in the English-Korean dictionary. So I thought we misspelled it. I didn’t know what it was for a long time.”

One phrase he learned and then parroted to everyone--including a male teacher--was “Oh, my sexy lady.”

Aside from some informal English tutoring from one of his teachers, Lee was pretty much on his own linguistically, he recalled. It didn’t take him long to understand what his instructors were saying, but there were rough moments at the Anaheim junior high school he attended after moving to Orange County.

When he stood before the class and gave a book report in the seventh grade, the class erupted in laughter. “One kid just fell off the chair laughing,” Lee said. “The teacher laughed too. It was horrible.”


And there was the time he and his classmates were asked to name the college they wanted to attend. “Habadu,” Lee replied instantly.

The class fell into uncomfortable silence. No one could understand him.

Then the teacher figured it out. Lee meant Harvard. Once again, he was greeted with laughter. “It really hurt me,” he said. For several years after that, he kept his college ambitions to himself.

Lee chuckles now when he recounts many of these anecdotes. He is a survivor and would go through it all again.


“It made me a better person, more sensitive of, and understanding of, people who are not fluent in English or culture,” said Lee, who did get to Harvard, where he earned a law degree. “It made me more strong. Just being able to stand up on my two feet. I got more confidence. . . . I can take on a lot of challenges in life.”

He nonetheless believes that Proposition 227 is a bad idea. Children, Lee said, should be able to choose English immersion if they think they can handle it and, if not, they should have the option of a bilingual program.

“I was not really that shy,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid of making a lot of mistakes or having people laugh at me. But for some kids it may be very hard, especially at a sensitive time when peer [image] is almost everything.”

Orlov, a 17-year-old Santa Monica College student, says he was prepared for language difficulties when he arrived from Ukraine six years ago.


“What’s the big deal?” he asked. “You are in America. You are expected to speak English. You knew when you were going to come here you were going to have a problem because you didn’t speak English.”

He arrived in summer and planted himself in front of the television set until school began. “Saturday morning was the biggest English class,” he said with amusement. “Bugs and Daffy.”

At his West Hollywood public school, Orlov received English instruction a couple hours a day with limited-English students of all ages and then returned to regular classes.

“I sort of took the philosophy that a lot of people told me,” Orlov said, “that for kids [language] just comes. And it is true. English was the easiest thing I ever learned, easier than Russian. With TV and everyone around you, there’s no way of missing it.”


He still has problems with spelling and grammar but favors the Proposition 227 approach. “You’ve got to take care of it right away,” he said of conquering English. “I’m glad that happened to me. It’s better that way.”

Language hurdles were more troubling for Manuel Rodriguez, a San Diego police sergeant who left Mexico for Los Angeles and then San Diego when he was 7.

‘You Really Think You’re Dumb’

“I think having the difficulties you have gives you a low self-image,” he said. “You really think you’re dumb.”


He received no help with English at home and, during most of his early years in school, none of his teachers spoke Spanish. As a result, Rodriguez says there is much he missed. “A lot of the basic things you learn in the second, third, fourth grade didn’t really come through.”

As an example, he says it wasn’t until he was in junior high school that he realized he should capitalize proper names.

He calls the move to eliminate bilingual education unfortunate. “Intellectually, you can talk about how people should speak English, and that sounds great in theory,” he said. “But you set up a lot of kids for failure.”

At the same time, he added, “I don’t believe you carry them through 12 years of bilingual education, because I don’t think that’s a good approach either. They need to be proficient in the language of the country they are growing up in.”


Jeannie Pak decided that she didn’t like English even before she got to this country at age 13. “It was too different” from her native Korean, she said. “I dreaded coming to America.”

She began at a Downey public middle school, where she was in English as a Second Language classes. The instruction was in English, only at a slower pace than normal.

“Sometimes you zone out because you don’t know what they’re saying,” said Pak, a UCLA junior.

Like Arevalo, Pak felt isolated during her first year in school. “I couldn’t make friends,” she said. “I would cry myself to sleep.”


She used her Korean dictionary a lot, picked up English from the American-born teenagers at her Korean American church and got so bored in the slow-moving ESL classes that she transferred into regular courses the next year.

She has seen the type of language instruction she wishes she had had: dual immersion, in which part of the day is devoted to English and part to the native language. But Pak believes that even the program typically taught in L.A. Unified--transitional bilingual education in which the emphasis is on native-language instruction--would have been better than what she went through.

‘You Seem to Pick It Up at That Age’

Ann Lau’s views are shaped by her experiences in Hong Kong, where her Chinese refugee parents placed her in an English-only school when she was 9.


“After three months, you seem to pick it up at that age,” said Lau, a computer consultant who immigrated to the United States in high school. “You learn a few words. You kind of guess what the teacher is saying without knowing the full thing. . . . It wasn’t really a bad experience,” she said.

Indeed, it worked so well for her that when her children were born in this country she deliberately taught them Chinese and not English--on the theory that they would easily learn English when they started school.

“I was afraid [that] if they learned English first, they would refuse to learn Chinese,” Lau said.

She is unsure how she will vote on Proposition 227 because neither supporters nor foes are pushing the type of language instruction she considers ideal: immersing children in English but from the beginning also teaching them their native tongue as a foreign language.


“The way bilingual [education] is taught [here] is not the way it should be,” she said. “I’m saying: Do both.”