It's early Monday morning – lunes – in winter, just past six, on both sides of the border, and in a small house in Bonita, the family of 11-year-old Jovanna Venegas is up and about, father Jose, mother Julia, and Jovanna, a slight pretty brown-haired girl, getting ready for the school day, both Monday and lunes. Jovanna dresses in a plaid school jumper and green school sweater and square dark shoes with laces. She eats a skimpy breakfast, a muffin with chocolate milk, while her mother prepares her lunch, a sandwich, a container with carrots, cucumbers, and jalapenos.
Her father begins his day, nearly 30 years at this business of raising his four girls, of whom Jovanna is the last to live at home. (California home, with its comforts, where the Venegas family moved 16 years ago from Tijuana after President Lopez Portillo nationalized the banks, this California house with its huge, overbearing mortgage!) In a short while, he and Jovanna will be making the ten-minute drive down the 805 to 5 to cross over into Tijuana. Cool early February morning, mist rising off the bay, and to the east, where the sun is just easing its way over the mountains, gold bleeds across the already lightening sky. A bit of a chill in the air when you step outside. But you know that the day will warm up enough to chase the chill away.
And there’s the city ahead, straddling the southern hillsides, looking almost as though there were no barrier between this highway and its particular streets. If you have lived there and moved north, you sometimes muse as you drive toward it on what life was like in those days. The old days. When you didn’t have to make this drive every day. Still, not a lot of traffic heading south this time of morning. It’s the lucky ones who commute south.
In the northbound lanes the lines at the San Ysidro border crossing are long. You can imagine the urgency mixed with fatigue, the rush and the holding back in the drivers and passengers in those vehicles. Monday-morning rush hour charges the hearts and nervous systems of tens of millions throughout the country, but here, at the border, there’s an exquisite layer of torture and exhilaration added to that already blood-pounding mix. Not just to get to work on time, not just to begin the workweek, five days, counting this same morning, that lie ahead, with all of their duties and hard labor and passions and rewards and errors and problems and tortures and blindness and insight, hopes and fears. Not just rush hour on a Monday — lunes! — but rush hour at the border. To have to cross an international frontier to get to work each day, now that should be placed on a list of ordeals sometime to be erased by an international tribunal at the U.N.
But for the Venegas family, rolling south each workday, it’s just an easy easing of brakes, winding slowly between the concrete barriers on the roadway, and entering their old hometown. Jose owns a photography studio in a shopping center on Agua Caliente across from the country club, a business he has operated for almost 30 years.
But before he goes to his studio, he takes the loop onto the Ensenada highway and drives west on this narrow corridor between the international border fence and the barren hills and ravines immediately to the right and the ramshackle poor neighborhoods of Tijuana to the left.
Up and around the dangerous curve where just as you catch a glimpse of San Diego to the north and the sea directly west the road pitches south toward Ensenada — memorial crosses stand at this curve, a notice that some drivers turned sightseers didn’t complete the curve — and at the bottom of the hill you turn off to the right where the exit for Playas comes up quickly. Three minutes later and the car rolls to a stop at the curb next to the upper school of the Colegio Ingles.
Jovanna attends the fifth grade at one of the two buildings that make up the campus of this private bilingual school just a few blocks due east of the ocean. Her parents admit that they first chose the school mostly out of convenience, when one of Jovanna’s older sisters was attending another school around the corner from Colegio Ingles. In the crazy schedule they adhere to — over the border to work, back across to live — one trip for two girls made sense. But now that her sister has graduated, Jovanna continues at the Colegio. Julia Venegas sees the advantages of this. The courses are taught mostly in English. Though Jose objects to the fact that the curriculum is Christian-oriented rather than Catholic, he acquiesces to his wife’s desire to keep Jovanna enrolled. (Julia, born Catholic, is now Christian, one of an increasingly large number of converts of Mexican origin.) So the Venegas car takes the same route each day for the rest of the week, Wednesday to miercoles, Friday to viernes, and back again across the border. South to school in the madrugada, back across la frontera in the evening.
Light — luz, light — is light, though, isn’t it? And the dark, obscura, sombra, it’s the same in San Diego as it is in Tijuana. You find the same morning light in Playas — five blocks south of Border Field State Park — pouring in through the windows where Jovanna stands at attention and prepares to participate in the opening morning exercises in the upper school and the same morning light in Imperial Beach, or along route 75 along the Silver Strand, or up in La Jolla or over in Mission Hills. The same. IguaL Evenings overtake you with the same obscuridad, yes? iSi!
American light plus Mexican light taken together equals more light than on either side of the border.
And Jovanna, who switches back and forth from English to Spanish so easily, holds that double light in her mind.
And a flawless accent in two languages.
Listen to her, look. It’s convocation time, and 200 kids from the upper school are celebrating the holidays of the month. She is marching up to the stage of the large shivery-cold school auditorium (no heat in these buildings in winter, so in class all the students wear their coats and heavy sweaters), paper flowers draped across the front of her sweater. The students have lined up in neat rows, a color guard has marched in with the national flag and a banner honoring Baja California, one of the teachers flips a switch on a tape player, and the students launch into the strains of the Mexican national anthem. And then, much to the chagrin of a visiting pilgrim from New Jersey, they sing a nearly endless song in honor of the state of Baja California. Chorus after chorus (and standing there out of respect for the national colors, the pilgrim thinks to himself. What if all those years ago in the auditorium of the Grammar School on Barracks Street in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, after the salute to the flag and the singing of the national anthem he had had to memorize and sing, even once a week, the state song of New Jersey! And what would it have been? Anything like this long and melodic paean to the glories of Baja California? who knows, who knows? Oh, New Jersey! Oh, lost time!
And then his cover is blown, somebody turns a flashlight on the fly on the wall!
Liz Hernandez, head of the English program at the school, asks the students to greet the visiting writer from Washington, D.C.; all heads turn toward the pilgrim, and he waves, feeling like the “sixty-year-old smiling public man” in Yeats’s beautiful poem “Among School Children,” arguably one of the greatest works of art ever written about knowledge and how we get it, and how we keep it, and how we see it, and the pilgrim, his head swimming with thoughts of Yeats and poetry, says,
and tries to recover his cover. Why would she do that? he wonders. To keep the students on their best behavior, sure. But there’s another reason, he figures. They are getting recognized! recognized for their work in English, someone is paying attention to them, and though that makes kids nervous, it also makes them walk taller, gives them a proper sense of importance. Because who, if not these kids, is important to the future of the city and the region? What if, what if, when he was a student at the Grammar School, some journalist/writer had come to watch him perform his morning exercise? What if in those days when he felt so small and ineffectual, when his dreamworld was so much larger than the actual world through which he moved (in a small circle through his small factory town on the Raritan River back in Jersey), someone had come to watch his progress and record his passage and to listen, with a keen ear cocked, for the music of his language? Why, then, he might have made music!
Look at Jovanna, for example. It’s her turn to recite something appropriate for this almost Valentine’s Day celebration:
- Roses are red,
- Violets are blue.
- Going to school,
- Is super cool....
Her languid U.S. rhythms take the starch out of the more sharply defined accents of the other children who speak in English. Vowels and consonants bump up against each other like boxcars in a train wreck when some of the other children speak.
But then every student in the auditorium launches into the next song, and all’s lovely again in accent-land. Stutterers can sing without a hitch, and children all around the world, not just here in Playas, sing American pop music with all of the liquidity of Mick Jagger imitating the Delta blues. So what do these kids sing? After the super-gooey nationalistic lyrics of the national and state anthems, they leap into an educational TV American-English pop hit.
Every day when you're walking down the street And everybody that you meet Has an original point of view And I say hey!
And the kids really hit it to accent the echoingl HEY!
What a wonderful kind of day!
If we could learn to work and play And get along with each other...
They’re bobbing and weaving, they’re bopping and snapping their fingers, to the theme song from Arthur, and
What a wonderful kind of day! when you can move your hands and feet and hips and shoulders to a sweet and lively little song and show off your English at the same time.
It’s so exhilarating when you can walk into a large space and hear all these kids putting out their voices and sounding something like native speakers.
Which was part of the vision of the founders of Colegio Ingles from the very beginning. Twenty-five years ago Evangelina Contreras de Elizondo and her sister Rita found themselves with school-age daughters and no school that they found satisfactory. So they started Colegio Ingles as a family business, with about 80 children in that first year. Their father. Dr. Ernesto Contreras, is one of Mexico’s leading holistic practitioners, and his Oasis Hospital stands a few blocks away from Colegio Ingles across the street from the bull-ring and literally almost a stone’s throw from the border fence. Evangelina had a bilingual education in her elementary school in Mexico City, and she wanted the same for her own children.
“English is the lingua franca,” Evangelina explains, “the language you need for business and travel and communications worldwide.” So even if she hadn’t been living just a few blocks from the-border with the United States, she would have put forward the same educational plan. Opening first with a preschool program in the mid-’70s, she watched it grow with the city, adding on elementary classes and then the upper grades as the need arose from year to year. In 1987 her husband Eliud Elizondo joined her in the management of the expanding enterprise. Playas de Tijuana, before the road from the eastern part of the city opened in 1969, was a remote village. But once people could drive safely over the steep hill that separates it from the rest of the city, it expanded rather rapidly and now is home to over 20,000 people, many of them middle-class professionals. What used to be a weekend beach neighborhood became a real neighborhood, with its own political representation, its own supermarkets and discount stores, its own Blockbuster Video—and a new Pentecostal Christian church, Iglesia de San Pablo, around the corner from the Blockbuster.
It’s not just an accident of geography that these two new buildings stand so close together. Not only has the infrastructure of Tijuana crept west over the big hill to Playas, but so has one of the most interesting phenomena in modern Mexican society, the growth of Pentecostal Christianity, Methodism, and Presbyterianism. By some estimates the number of Christians in Mexico has gone from about five percent to nearly 20 percent since the end of World War II. (This has had an effect on the Mexican Catholic Church, producing, among other things, a charismatic Catholicism that tries to make traditional Catholicsm more inviting to the young people who have been abandoning the Church for the Pentecostal sects.)
Playas has a high concentration of Christians, thus the new church.
Evangelina and Eliud, for example, met at a Methodist church. And many of these people teach at Colegio Ingles — about half the teaching staff is Christian rather than (Catholic— and many send their children to Colegio Ingles, although the majority of the student population is Catholic.
The school has a good reputation, and a reputation for its particular religious perspective. For some families it hasn’t been easy to enroll their children there. Take the Venegas family, for example. Jose was born Catholic and remains Catholic. Julia was born Catholic but is now Christian. They had a bit of a “discussion,” as Julia puts it, when it came time to enroll Jovanna in Colegio Ingles. Jose wasn’t so sure about it. He wanted a traditional education for his child. But he also wanted a good program of instruction in English and a location convenient to his older daughter’s school. In this case, these latter points won out over tradition.
The school’s growth suggests that a lot of people have been making similar decisions. Colegio Ingles now enrolls over 500 students, from preschool on up through high school — the only grades missing are seventh and eighth, because Rita Contreras started her own school for those grades in another part of town and the family tries to avoid competition, if it can. Like Mexico itself, the school is bottom-heavy with young students. (The high school program has in the last few years only just begun to get off the ground.)
When you walk into the patio of the lower school on Calle Pedregal, you can almost feel the potential of all of the students’ power in the very walls and concrete of the place. You find yourself surrounded on three sides by several stories of classrooms, and you find names on the sides of the walls: looking to the west, it’s “Window to the Sky,” and to the north, “Sing It to the Sea,” the titles of particular courses of study in the series of textbooks chosen by Liz Hernandez. For the past five years, Hernandez has been the driving force behind the school’s English-language program. And over the course of his weeklong stay at the school, the pilgrim sees her as his guide on his progress up and down the staircases from floor to floor, from one classroom to the next, from one building to another, with a tour of Playas thrown in for good measure.
Hernandez, now 47 and a career educator, talks as she and the pilgrim make these rounds. About her transborder family and her own life in education and in English education in particular.
She calls her family’s history “a Mexican success story.” Her father was born in the small central Mexican state of Aguascalientes and moved at an early age to San Diego, where among other things he went to work selling newspapers at the train station. Her mother grew up in Mazatlan and came to Tijuana to work as a seamstress. There she met the man from Aguas-calientes and married him and had three children, two boys, one now a physician and the other a computer expert, and Hernandez, the teacher. She was the middle child, born in Mercy Hospital. In her early years, she spoke mostly English at home with her father.
“Say it in English,” he would tell her when she tried to speak with her mother in Spanish. She attended her first few years of school at San Ysidro Academy and crossed over to Tijuana for third grade knowing scarcely any Spanish at all.
It was at this early age that she discovered the value of language immersion, picking up enough Spanish in a month to keep up with her schoolmates both as students and friends. (Yes, the pilgrim thinks to himself (in English, of course], immersion is the best Way, as most linguistics experts will tell you, especially immersion at an early age since the child’s mind soaks up language like a sponge and learns the rules of grammar and syntax intuitively. And immersion is historically the way that most people who have left a country and a language behind and come to America to make a new life have learned. Immersion has served as the baptism of American citizenship for most immigrant groups. Immersion is the heat atop which the American melting pot simmers, and without it none of us would have mixed with the others in the ways that we need to i'fi order to make a national culture. Greeks would have stayed more Greek than American and Italians more Italian than American and Yiddish speakers more Jewish than American and Serbs more Serbian than American. And who wants to live in a country that’s as balkanized as that, with little tribal wars raging through neighborhoods and cities over the primacy of one immigrant language over another? Imagine it, Chicago becoming something like a tribal crossroads, with language battles going on between the Poles and the Lithuanians and the Mexicans. Or like medieval Belgium, with its wars between the Flemish and the Walloons? Who wants that? Not this pilgrim, no, sir. Nyet, gospodin. No, senor. Non, tnadamc. But then another part, the contentious part, of the pilgrim’s mind leaps into the discussion and suggests that what we see happening in California is a special case and that Spanish needs to be given its due because, historically, it was one of the first languages of the region and of course because of the large numbers of residents who still speak it as a first language and of course because of the shared southern border with Spanish-speaking Mexico. Nyet, nyet! Why not then install Canadian English as a prime language in the United States because we share a northern border? Why not teach students in Vermont and Minnesota and North Dakota and Montana to say “aboout” when they mean “about”? Ochi, ochi! Non, non! Nobody’s making any judgments about the value of any of these other languages — though the English First movement might hold some who would argue, in that rationally developed insanity that seems to have infected some of the far-right movements in post-Cold War America, that English is a better language than the others. This pilgrim laughs. Lie’s quite sure that most of the people who hold to this view haven’t read anything in English besides a translation of Mein Kampf and a comic book or two. No, this is practical. Nations need national languages because national cultures don’t evolve without them. Just as Henry Higgins wants to instruct Eliza Dolittle in the language of Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible, the pilgrim wants all Americans to have the opportunity to imbibe Hawthorne and Melville and Thoreau and Emily Dickinson in the original.)
However, none of this was in the air when the Herndndez family moved to National City in 1967 just before Liz was ready for higher education. She attended Sweetwater High and then went on to study at Southwestern College for two years and then at San Diego State, certain that she would make a career in education herself. After college, she married a man who ran P.E. programs in the Tijuana public schools. In 1974, she answered an advertisement in the Tijuana newspaper and interviewed for a job at Colegio Ingles. She clicked at once with the Contreras sisters and went to work for them. But after the devaluation of the peso she decided to take a job back across the border as a teacher at the now-defunct Clairemont Christian High School and then in 1988 as director of extended classes at Audubon Elementary.
Twenty years after her first job at Colegio Ingles, she returned to Playas to take the job of English coordinator. While voters on the other side of the fence from Playas were about to go to the polls and take a stand against bilingual education, Hernandez, recalling the success of her own immersion in Spanish when she first moved back to Tijuana and attended third grade, created an all-inclusive plan for immersing young Mexican students in English. Examining the possibilities, she chose a series of textbooks published by McGraw-Hill that put forward a so-called new view of English mmersion. A multigrade program, the texts emphasize the learning of English by means of poetry and music, especially by means of singing. While the teaching wars raged in the United States between the forces of phonics and the powers of “whole language,” Liz Hernandez chose to pick and choose between these two seemingly opposite approaches, using phonics when it seemed important, choosing the whole language approach at other times when common sense dictated.
“I use a learning style that offers something for everybody," she says as we climb the stairs to the third floor of the lower building. It’s still early in the school day, and though the sun has risen good and strong above the hill above the Ensenada highway to the east, the halls remain chilly. And, as though the special-effects man had just been salting the set with school odors, there’s a medicinal smell wafting from the bathrooms that for a moment takes the pilgrim back to his own school hallways in a place far away and long ago. And then he’s listening to Liz Hernandez and feeling the chill again on his face and hands. “The main thing is that we teach English as though it were a native tongue. We don’t like the way bilingual programs are taught in the States. Even though I believe that sometimes confusion is necessary to instruction, bilingual instruction is confusing to the child in the worst ways. I know that because I taught in such programs in the States. And even though teachers are taught and trained to implement, there’s a problem built into this plan of instruction. The teachers don’t really expect as much from these students as they do from others. Most of the parents I worked with didn’t like bilingual classes either. They would come to me and ask if we could please put their children in classes where only English was spoken. They didn’t want their kids to be second-class students. Which is what happens to them by default in bilingual instruction.”
A few children rush past in their haste to reach their classes on time.
“Good morning, Miz Liz,” they say on the run.
“Good morning, children,” Hernandez says in a sweet and loving voice.
“Good morning, Mr. Cheuse,” they toss over their shoulders as they move.
“Good morning, kids,” the pilgrim says.
Hernandez pauses, smiles at him. “In our program,” she says, “children are taught to think in whatever language they’re speaking. I keep going back to my own third-grade experience. That showed me the way. Immersion means no translating, everything is explained in context. Immersion makes for higher expectations from students.” We reach our destination, a classroom on the third floor. “Here, you’ll see.” Hernandez opens the door. The pilgrim dives in.
Third-grade math class, 16 kids, boys in school sweaters and slacks, many wearing their coats because of the cold, girls in their jumpers, and they’re wearing their coats, teacher in similar sweater and skirt, on the blackboard charts recording equivalencies of inches and centimeters, the teacher quizzing on addition problems, all of this going on in English, including the under conversation of the kids among themselves. Imagine Liz Hernandez about 40 years ago, having crossed over the border to attend school and thrown into this pool and learning to swim in the language.
But these kids haven’t crossed over, not many of them. They were born in Tijuana and live in Tijuana and they are learning math in English. A remarkable development and, with the exception of certain foreign-language schools around the United States conducted for the children of foreign nationals — such as the Ecole Francaise in New York City—quite unusual.
The pilgrim picks up the math textbook, a multicolored production, and flips through the pages, only to discover that some other kind of accounting is going on here besides math of a sort that makes a father like lose Venegas worry. As in all elementary textbooks, there are drawings and illustrations, but in this book they range from baseball — to a poem about Easter. Alongside a drawing of the Holy Spirit, the poem is laid out along the right-hand side of the page:
- E is for the Eternal King of whom we love to sing
- A is for the God Almighty who died for you and me
- S is for the Spotless Lamb the Holy Seed of Abraham
- T is for the Timeless One God’s Everlasting Son
- E is for the Earnest Saviour who is our Open Door
- R is for the Righteous King of Whom we I.ove to Sing
The math class roars along, the kids helping, spurring each other on, while the teacher oversees them all like a coach with an athletic team. A few kids seem to take to math in a natural and easy way. Others stumble along, but all in English, and with most of them caught up in the problems. What Easter has to do with any of this is hard to see. Is there a Christian mathematics? Well, if you look at the number of the Trinity, you might say yes, there is. It’s a new number, trumping the decalogue of the Old Testament. But no time to figure this out now. Time to change classes.
Moving across the hall into a third-grade English class, the pilgrim takes a closer look at the text, published by A Beka Book publications in Pensacola, Florida. His heart sings. On top of the wonderful spectacle he is beginning to see unfold before him, the hundreds of Mexican schoolchildren immersing themselves in the language that he loves and loves to write and read in, he stumbles on an important document, a prefatory essay to one of the textbooks that includes a treasure trove of things to think about in relation to American education. This document, titled “A Christian Approach to Reading” has to be, he considers as he reads it, the Constitution or the Magna Carta of Christian-oriented publishing in North America. He feels, to be sure, an initial shock, maybe just a volt or two, nothing that does more than set his hands tingling as he holds the book, at seeing the word Christian at the heart of this. The pilgrim is a product through and through, faults and good points (though mostly faults, he thinks), of public education. And he has been raised a lew, though now in midlife finds himself a rather secular version of a dreamy mystic with practical leanings toward the practices, if not the wisdom, of the East. Nevertheless, the words of Laurel Hicks, the editorial director of A Beka Book, their ideas and their particular intelligence begin to change right then and there the pilgrim's view of this variety of sectarian education.
The document opens with an epigraph, an Emily Dickinson poem, yes, Emily Dickinson, except for her measured meters, not the sort of aesthetic experience that we know-it-alls about culture tend to expect Christian-oriented educators to read, let alone extoll.
- He ate and drank the precious words.
- His spirit grew robust;
- He knew no more that he was poor,
- Nor that his frame was dust.
- He danced along the dingy days.
- And this bequest of wings
- Was but a book. What liberty
- A loosened spirit brings!
It then begins: We have the opportunity to give our students wings — the wings of liberty that grow from the ability to read.
Nothing to argue with here, the pilgrim says to himself as he keeps going, while in the room along with him 15 or so third-graders are making sentences that they will soon read aloud.
“Many modern educators believe that reading is not an important skill for all children to learn. We are moving away from the age of print, they say, and into the age of the machine. With the advent of the radio, television, and other devices, reading is no longer the only way to obtain necessary information. Those who cannot read well, we are told, can learn from others — others can tell them what to do, what to think, and what to believe....”
Yes, the pilgrim thinks, this Christian educator is on to something here, the way she couches the glib arguments of the new Philistines who walk hand in hand into the millennium with the new Totalitarians. The bland leading the not so bland. It’s something that sends shivers up the spines of writers and poets, this vision of a world in which “other devices,” i.e., the computer, will guide the not so well educated toward the heaven of the sound bite and the headline, the mini-quotation and the sleepwalking life that used to know style and context rather than excerpt and simple sentences only. (Consider the maligning of the style of old Hemingway, whose complexities lie beneath the seemingly simple surfaces, like some croc lurking beneath still waters in the bright light of day — but that’s another story. Not now, when the kids all around are trying to make simple sentences in a language not their own and the pilgrim is reading this manifesto on something he thought before he began to read it that he would disagree with ever so strongly.)
“If our country is to remain a land of liberty,” Ms. Hicks continues, “we must continue to teach each individual to read and think on his own. We cannot afford to allow even our slowest students to develop the attitude that others can do their thinking for them.... Reading is necessary to democracy. It is necessary for those who would expand the horizons of their own small worlds....”
An important argument, a bold argument. Yes, because who can imagine our form of government and a population that cannot read, or at least not read beyond the level of the simple sentence? The two don’t mix. We began as a republic, because the majority of the population didn’t read. We matured as a democracy because the majority of the population could read. And on what verge do we now stand looking across the abyss of the Y2K myth toward the millennium? The advent of the call to erase this new so-called computer illiteracy can make a writing and reading person’s knees quake if he or she sees computer literacy leading to a radical new illiteracy of mind and heart.
So despite the pilgrim’s initial biased response to the title of this little essay, he now sees himself allied with this Beka Book editor in defense of reading, the rope ladder that the gods had lowered down to him in the pit where he lived as a child in central New Jersey, so that he might catch hold of it and climb out into the world and the light. Yes, reading is a weapon in the war against totalitarian mind-catching, and it is also a home for the mind, a place in which to dwell, a vessel from which to drink and also to travel in, from country to country and world to world of the minds of others, other times, other places. To live and not to read is to inhale and not to breathe, to walk and not to move, to eat and not to taste, to kiss and not to love. Reading isn’t just necessary for democracy, it’s a necessity for consciousness. It is the single most important invention of our species after fire, and without it we live only a glorified version of the life of brutes in caves. Storytelling is for children, and that’s why we regard the age of the Homeric epic as the childhood of our civilization. Reading announces our maturity. If we stop, we will know that we will soon be dead, as individual minds and as a culture.
And then came the next sentence in this little pamphlet in the war against ignorance. “It is especially necessary for Christians, because God has given us a written revelation — the Bible — and we need to be ab/e to read it accurately and with understanding....” So there it was out in the open, the theological imperative to read.
An interesting twist. Reading is good because it allows you to read the Word of God, which He wrote down in the Bible for all to see.
The pilgrim feels a little shudder right then and there in that classroom, perhaps because of the lack of heat in the school, perhaps because he understands the argument and finds himself not entirely unaligned with it. Isn’t his own tribe known as the People of the Book because of its historical and theological ties to the Old Testament? And yet he understands the argument to be reactionary and retrograde. To believe reading is valuable because it comes from God? He is much too modem and much too secular to believe that he ought to believe this.
And yet everything that he understands to be true, whatever that word means!, about his great love, the epics of the Homeric period in the preclassical Mediterranean, suggests that these poems might have come from the Gods. The poets believed that they did. They cocked their ears toward the heavens, and Mnymosyne, the goddess after whom centuries later the function of memorizing would be named, said the words of the poems to them in order that they might repeat them to the audience. The poets were mere conduits for the words of the goddess. Or else they memorized and gave the credit to the goddess. That’s the practical, secular way to think about it. But since what we call, as the later Greeks did, memory is the translation of the name of the goddess Mnymosyne, it’s possible to imagine that first came the goddess and later came the imitation of the process that she instructed poets to use.
So if he believes that this might be possible, if not the actual truth, then why can’t he consider it possible that the God of the Old Testament and New gave the words of the biblical text to his followers?
Too many textual problems, that’s why. And did God choose to include the Gospel of John and not the Gospel of Timothy? Yes, too many apocryphal manuscripts as well as those riddled with textual problems.
But — and the pilgrim is still daydreaming over this document while the kids in the room are copying some of their sentences on the blackboard — you could say that God inspired the authors of the biblical texts and if they made errors in transcribing or in the editing of the various versions of the texts, that error is human. The delivery is divine.
The rest of the document is fascinating, but the pilgrim has to skim through it quickly. Hicks goes on to argue that the phonics approach is the best, but by fifth grade the good readers shouldn’t need it anymore. And that historically American textbooks from the New England primers on through McGuffey and Swinton and Cyr recognized that schoolchildren needed instruction in Christian principles, a tradition in which A Beka Books is following. The rest of the books teachers choose for their students, Hicks suggests, should come out of “the vast storehouse of the best literature of the ages”—and when the pilgrim reads that, his heart glows. Yes, the best — the pilgrim chooses Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes. But then Hicks goes on to say that the books the teachers choose should have “character-building themes” that are developed through in a natural ‘non-preachy’ way....” Okay. Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Cevantes, Shakespeare.... But Hicks then concludes by urging educators to “choose books that are true to Biblical principles.” Where do you find books such as these? she asks. At A Beka Book Publications, a place not lately lauded for its editions of Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes.
The pilgrim feels a bit confused. But he doesn’t have time now to mull this over but instead looks to the blackboard to see a few sentences that some students are copying there that are then corrected by the instructor, all of this back and forth done in English.
To build a snowman you have to make the balls big. Then the gloobs. [gloves, the instructor corrects]
The snowman is with snow. With a carrot. With stcs. [sticks] And racs. [rocks?]
And then, whoops, the bell rings, class is over, the pilgrim has been daydreaming about the material on Christian readers, daydreaming just as he did almost all the way through his own school years.
( — oh, no, you can’t go into a school after a certain age and not think back to your own education, or is there another name for it, what happened to you when you were young and in classrooms?—and once again the smell of the hallways takes the pilgrim back — and won’t immediately release him — back to hits hometown in New Jersey, with its umbrella of smoke from the oil refineries and the small factories that surrounded it, and the slender, rocky beach and splintering old boardwalk and piers smelling of tar on the southern edge along the halfmile-wide river, the salvationary river that flowed into the bay where foreign tankers lay at anchor and a small lighthouse marked the boundary between these waters and the ocean called Atlantic. Fifty years ago the pilgrim tried to make sentences in his own third-grade class and 50 years ago he scoured the beach for lucky stones to skip out over the gentle lapping surf and dug for small crabs that he stored in jars so that he could watch them wriggle and writhe, and after a time he released them into the surf where the water sank into the sand and now and then a dead horseshoe crab washed up, stinking of iodine and rotting meat, and 50 years ago he sat in a room with others his age and added and subtracted and divided, never noticing the years passing by, never counting the years that lay ahead, and English sounded to him like a foreign language when his immigrant father spoke it, and when his immigrant great-grandmother spoke it and when his maternal grandfather spoke it, even though he was unaware that he was speaking a language particular to a particular place and nation and culture, no, at that age, and younger, you speak a language that you take to be the language of life itself, language that comes to you as naturally when you open your mouth to speak as air does when you take a breath....)
“You’re going to see the Delta students now,” Liz Hernandez says, pointing the pilgrim to another classroom door. “Delta is the all-English program for accelerated students.”
And accelerate they do, inscribing sentences on the blackboard one after another — The sun is hot. The sun is yellow. The sun is in the sky — with the alacrity of native speakers of English their own age (and the pilgrim watching them sees them move their hands in the cursive manner, the curves and twists of letters looping and lines crossing back seem almost to describe the passage of a mind surging toward the light, because education at its best is never a straight march forward but rather a loop-de-loop amusement-park ride, yes, it’s exhilarating, it's dangerous it makes the blood rush and strain at the inner walls of the arteries it upsets the brain, and if when you’re studying you fed none of this then something is very wrong and not with you but with your instructors), oh, and the pilgrim remembers his own rote-learning days, when making sentences consisted of diagramming sentences, the noun and the verb on one line, the modifiers and other parts of speech pointing away up or down from the main progress, and this was supposed to be a science but it taught only confusion, because the only way you can really learn how to make a good sentence is to read good sentences, and in the United States the good modern sentence was created in the laboratories of sorcerers Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson and followed up by the work of their apprentice Ernest Hemingway — their young hands hovering like birds above the letters, the words, the sentences, as his own daughters and son did years ago, in the moist years of their early school days, as his own hands moved even many more years ago in the shadowy rooms of the dilapidated 19th-century buildings that housed the elementary classes he attended in that same Jersey factory town, the hands moving like those of a sorcerer, motioning for a letter to appear here, a letter there, next to it, and soon the word, and then another word, and then a sentence (“The sun is hot. 'Hie sun is yellow. The sun is in the sky....”) —
Oh, Christian reader, (Catholic and Hebraic readers, oh, Muslim, oh, Hindu, and all of you followers of whatever other religions on earth, was it not this way at the moment of creation? when God or the Gods or the gods made something out of nothing, the stuff of us, the original star dust that is our ancestral matter, when they writ large the word cosmos and the gallaxies appeared outlined against the dark matter, first things begin as lines melding into curves and making letters making words, a noun, and then a verb, even the to-be verb connoting nothing but essential existence. And there was light. Before that, darkness upon the face of the waters, not even the waters, only the words of Deity, and there was light, the spoken sentence about light of which for true believers the sentence on the page is the mere shadow of the act, for the world is a book, was once the way the great western theologians regarded the realm they inhabited, and one had to learn to interpret it the way one interpreted a text on papyrus or, later.
between covers, bound and lying flat upon a desk, all the universe contained within the covers, and this was a time when reading and knowing God were one and the same, and then reading was seized by the bishops as a right, and Luther stood against the sole interpreters of the biblical scripture, and then reading became a privilege of the rich and titled classes, and then of the landed gentry and their wives, and then trickled down to their children’s tutors and their housemaids and then became, like weather, available to all, so that in our age illiteracy, once the norm, is now considered a problem and an embarrassment and those who cannot read inhabit an alternative universe to our own, living on their instincts and the kindness of those who can read — Hebrew proverb, When someone dies, a universe is lost — emend to When a reader is born, a universe lights up — (“The sun is hot. The sun is yellow. The sun is in the sky....”) —
Admit it, watching these children make their sentences is like observing moving versions of the photographs from the Hubble telescope, seeing galaxies born, like being witness to the beginning of civilization as wild egos learn the rules of spelling and the wily turns and necessities of syntax, the essence of the organization of chaos!
The pilgrim sees it in the fifth-grade grammar and reading class he goes to now, where 25 students work so hard at making sentences they seem to raise the temperature in the cold room—little factories of knowledge, they plunge into the construction of language, each of them a God making a world out of the noises we make with our tongues and lips and throats. The teacher asks about their reading projects. An 11-year-old boy named Jorge announces that he’s reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The pilgrim nods, approves, thinking to himself, that’s a lot better reading than he did when he was that age, having only “read” that particular novel in one of the old Classics Illustrated comic-book editions, which was the first time he encountered a number of great works of art from the Homeric epics on through Poe— maybe, he thinks that his “visual” period, all the comic books he read and collected when he was that age, is the equivalent of the oral period in western culture, when the Homeric poets recited their tens of thousands of lines of verse that had been delivered to them by Mnymosyne, yes, and so he could say that he went from the visual to the literal, though the comic books always did have some words, Homer’s or Jules Verne’s or Poe’s or George Eliot’s in those little speech balloons that hovered over the heads of the figures in the drawings, and if he could have as an adult without prior experience of reading comics, an adult, say, with a classical education, seen himself at that age, surrounded by tons of comic books, the classical stories and Archie and horror comics such as The Heap and The Hulk or EC Horror Stories, he probably would have concluded that he was observing a lost boy, a preliterature turd-head who, like most people in New Jersey wouldn’t know a caesura from a Roman emperor — but there is hope for a lost boy in Jersey, isn’t there, when he can go from comics to classic comics to classics? It takes time, but he can make the climb, it takes only a love of literature, of story, of the wide-ranging imagination that builds worlds, and where did it begin for him, he wonders even now as other children in this classroom in Playas stand and announce the titles of the books they’re reading—a number of bland and unfamiliar names to his ears, maybe these are the good (Christian books advocated in the Beka Book manifesto, good, and thus boring — but where did it begin for the pilgrim? starting at rest? in the bedtime stories his father read him in Russian from a musty old sepia-colored book that smelled of wood and oranges? and then on to comic books? and to the Classics Illustrated? because after that came adventure novels about the sea, and science-fiction stories and novels, and many after-school and weekend visits to the musty old hometown library — you entered through the main doors and then turned sharply to the right and took the long tunnel to the children’s library to the rear of the main building, but before too king the young pilgrim would stop at the display of new books at the adult entrance and there he found intriguing titles such as Invisible Man and The Castle and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, books he flirted with every time he walked past the special display shelf, and as the days went by, he must have been above 11 now, he would stop and pluck one of these from the shelf and study its cover and turn its pages, yes, even sniff them, entranced by the special and peculiar and annealing odor of good book paper, the kind of paper you find today only in special editions — do you remember holding a book up to your nose and inhaling the scent of it? as though the narrative itself were a magic powder to be inhaled so that it went straight to the brain? — and as the months went by he picked up one of these books and read a little, it was, he clearly recalls,
Ellison’s Invisible Man, and every time he took up the book he would get a little further but then return it to the shelf, each time a little less confused by the language but still in a quandary about it and unable to track the story, until an autumn a few years later when he kept the book out and went to the children’s section and flopped onto a big leather sofa and read it all the way through, and who knows, as Ellison’s nameless narrator says at the end of that novel, but on the lower frequencies, the pilgrim’s experience speaks for yours?
— and after the reading began for him, then came the writing, and though he knows that the latter always grows out of the former, he does remember Sundays when he was a child listening to his father clacking away at an old typewriter in an alcove off the living room in the apartment his family inhabited a half block or so from the river, clackety-clacking away on stories in English, his father’s second language, about life in the Old Country, and that picture of his father hunched over the typewriter trying to write stories must have burned into his mind, an emblem of a life he thought must be a good one because the man he admired so much at that time, his father, was living it, so, yes, though he knows that reading makes writing he also understands that living makes writing, or perhaps you need both of these, the living and the reading to come together in a particular way and lo, you have an artist, that creature over whose soul the Gods worry more than most other living creatures because they need the help more than most!
The reading never far from the writing, the writing never far from reading and life, there is a description, if not a prescription for how one makes one’s way in this world of noise and sights and tastes and fears and loves.
“The sun is hot. The sun is yellow. The sun is in the sky."
The pilgrim surfaces from the deep pool of his recollections to discover that it is Jovanna Venegas’s turn to talk about her reading project.
“What is the name of your book?" the teacher says.
“The Cobra Event, ” says Jovanna.
The pilgrim can’t believe what he’s hearing. He couldn’t be more shocked and surprised if she had announced that she was reading one of his own novels. Here is this 11-year-old, reading a popular U.S. novel of a few years back by a gifted nonfiction writer — Richard Preston — turned novelist, on the subject of the possibility of biological terrorism in the United States, a novel that the pilgrim himself had devoured when it first appeared and, because it was so good, passed around, as he sometimes does with entertaining books, to members of his family. An 11-year-old with his own taste in popular fiction! (Which calls the pilgrim back to another schoolroom, one he visited only this past autumn, in Miami, where, after a talk he gave about the life of the writer to a group of 70 or 80 high school juniors and seniors, one of the nastiest, baldest, baddest-looking dudes in the audience came sauntering up to him and asked him if he could ask him a personal question and when the answer was yes, asked if the pilgrim knew about a book he happened to be reading, it was called The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. Well, yes, once he had studied Kant, the pilgrim said, not adding that it was so long ago that he had only two reactions, astonishment at the young fellow’s choice of reading and dismay at his own distance from such an important philosophical tract of which he recalled nothing at all.)
So here’s this fifth-grader reading at his level. Is this just an accident or oddity or does it have something to do with the immersion program here at Colegio Ingles? Well, it’s Jovanna and she lives on the other side of the border. She’d do well in any school. She’d be reading this novel anyway. Perhaps. But here she is, and this is where we are. And she’s flourishing, immersed.
On to another class, Miss Zulema Gracia’s sixth-grade English course.
“Good morning, Mr. Cheuse,” the schoolchildren say.
“Good morning, kids," the pilgrim once again responds.
In the front of the room, Miss Zulema is writing the words of the day on the blackboard.
“What is an omen?” she asks of the group and a girl a fifth of the pilgrim’s age gives a better answer than he could have back then and just as good as he could right now.
“And a jinx?” the teacher says.
Dark words, why these dark words? Why not cheerful happy ebullient Christian words? Well, yes, of course, there is a Christian vocabulary. But omen? Jinx? These are pagans’ words. Guilt and responsibility, yes, Christian, perhaps. Modern words, anyway. So the vocabulary is a mix. What about grammar? Is there such a thing as Christian syntax? Or should we call it sin-tax? Or are we all in this together, noun and verb, modifiers abounding, musical phrases deep and high, light and dark?
“I understood the omen and saw that it was my responsibility, the guilt was mine, I was the jinx."
My sentence, not one of the children’s. But they did almost as well.
“An omen tells you to feel guilt,” a girl says.
“Don’t jinx the omen,” says a boy from the other side of the room.
“Guilt is my responsibility,” says another student.
They’re clustered together in two groups, one fifth grade, one sixth, the lower-graders working on more sentences while the uppers get talked to by Miss Zulema about the homework for the next session. Now and then one of the students glances the pilgrim’s way. A lingering fog of self-consciousness in the room. But not much. The kids keep their heads bent over their work. Except for one boy in a group at the back of the room, there’s no one even fidgeting. And Miss Zulema has her eye on him, steadies him now and then with a word or two. How much more is an instructor at this level — she’s part philosopher and part mother, part cowherd, sheepdog, jungle guide, goddess, and goalkeeper.
On through the streams of students in the halLs and stairwells to Miss Rocio’s class in another part of the lower-school building. Her mother and sister also work here as teachers, and she and her sister were students at Colegio Ingles. As the pilgrim enters, the room quiets down. The students have just begun work, reading aloud a classical Chinese poem (in English translation) on friendship and love and discussing the meaning of the word “oath” that stands at the center of the poem. Miss Rocio then asks them to write a poem on friendship. Heads bow, pencils move. After a while sharp girls read their poems. Shy boys keep their chins up as they recite their own work.
Later, in the hall, Liz Hernandez leans toward the pilgrim and says, “Doesn’t seeing these children in action give you hope?” before they move along to Mr. Dan’s class. The morning is growing older. The school is warmer now, with the sun having risen so strong above the hills on the other side of the Ensenada highway just to the east of the school grounds. Here’s Mr. Dan: dark-haired, of medium height, a dapper Dan in his green school sweater and neatly pressed slacks, this instructor is part entertainer, cheerleader, magician, and songleader as he points out to his fourth-graders some of the significant consonant combinations in the odd language we’re all speaking. Consonants, vowels, sentences flutter in the air. The energy in the room is almost palpable. This teacher really pushes. And the kids rush ahead. And then, suddenly, rehearsal time. There’s a big school fiesta scheduled for the end of the week, when parents can see their kids perform. The music comes up, the class belts out a snappy rendition of “Arthur’s Theme Song,”
- And I say hey!
- What a wonderful kind of day!
- If we could learn to work and play
- And get along with each other....
Wheel hey! the pace picks up as the bell rings announcing recess, and kids in their sweaters and jumpers and polished tie shoes rush out of the halls into the patio. (How the pilgrim used to love recess! A break in the unrelenting time of the classroom, a rift in the wall, a tear in the fabric, so we could race around the stones of the schoolyard and throw our fists at each other and throw ourselves against the brick wall of the school and toss books into the air and toss balls and marbles and baseball cards and steal the shoes off the feet of the weaker boys and chase the girls and pull their hair and kiss the sun and shout into the rising morning — HEY!)
These kids do the same, in Spanish, yes, while out here in the yard it’s mostly Spanish they nip and spit at each other, and hurl over each other’s heads, and rush against in the push of the warming sun. Though now and then some of the students whose classes the pilgrim has visited veer off from the main group of passing students and slow down and come shyly forward toward the side of the patio to say hello. “...Mr. Cheuse..."
“And how are you?”
“I’m glad to hear that. I enjoyed visiting your class.”
A giggle. Three girls huddled together, giggling.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Two handsome nine-year-old boys stagger over, twins, and the girls giggle their way away into the center of the yard again.
“Good morning,” they say, almost in unison, and then rush away into the whirl of the yard. Next comes a fifth-grade girl who speaks no English, an unroasted kernel in an otherwise smooth cereal mix. She and the pilgrim briefly converse, and then her friends swing by, giggling, of course, and offer him nacho chips and cola, not his style for snack or lunch and so he tries in his fifth-grade Spanish to gracefully decline the offer. The girls scurry off.
A teacher comes over and she and the pilgrim sit and talk quietly in the sun. It’s Ivy Flores, tall, with a reddish permanent, born in Mexico City. She studied English in school and spent her sophomore year in high school in Austin and attended the Ensenada campus of the Autonomous University of Baja. Her two sons attend Colegio Ingles as do many children of staff members. In front of her classroom, she was firm and yet welcoming. In the sun, she’s a little shy when it comes to questions about her life.
There’s Mr. Dan, hurrying past, working the recess hour. He holds two jobs, like many teachers, hit hard by the latest devaluation of the peso.
Here’s Zulema Fernandez Gracia, from Mexico City, 25 years old, short dark hair, graceful movements. Her father is a retired military officer who studied at a U.S. military academy, her mother a translator, which meant that her household was one where English was spoken fluently, something to which her own fluid, near-accentless English attests. Her family moved to Tijuana when she was a young girl, and this is where she met her husband, a graphic designer with whom she runs a small business. Miss Zulema, as the students call her, is the mother of one child and just this week has learned that she is pregnant again. This suggests a certain optimism to the pilgrim, and he is not surprised by her thoughts about the future of her country.
“I think we’re moving rapidly toward a serious multiple-party system, and that’s good,” she says. “So I’m optimistic about Mexico. The future is ours. We have everything going for us, except that we seem always to be in a perpetual crisis. I have faith. Not in Zedillo. But in the ones who will come after him. Meanwhile, we just have to keep our families strong and protect our children.”
The children, the children! There’s a different emphasis on protecting the children here in Mexico, compared to the United States. You sometimes hear parents in theUnited States talking about their kids and education but never with this intensity about the kids themselves. It always sounds as though the parents want to protect the children’s souls, or the children’s futures or the children’s privileges (this last a hidden theme, but one that’s present nonetheless if you scratch beneath the surface). Or else you hear parents talking about protecting their children against pornography or drugs or violence, or all three. Or you hear fundamentalist parents talking about protecting their children against the relativism of modern society. But what is it they are protecting, the pilgrim always wonders when he hears such talk. Do they know their children? Or are they protecting an idea of their children, not the kids themselves? He thinks about these things a lot, because having fathered three children and divorced two mothers, he has always striven to stay as good a father to his kids as he possibly could, faltering here and there, out of ignorance, perhaps, but never out of lack of love or, worse, indifference. Yes, he has made his mistakes, but he has tried to learn from them. But nothing like attending elementary school again to make you think of your own past with your own children, and wondering how, if you had somehow kept the marriages together, how much better their lives might have been. His daughters, his son — how much do they hold against him for this? Well, maybe not the girls as much as the boy, because he was the firstborn, and while the firstborn gains more freedom more quickly, he also suffers for his freedom when the other children arrive, because he is no longer the only one in place. But how to protect these slender plants while they take on nourishment, these cubs in the den, how to keep them safe, and help them to become more of themselves, before it’s their turn to wander out into the wilderness on their own? A question in rhyme comes to the pilgrim’s mind, from W.B. Yeats’s beautiful poem about life and death and education,
- What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap Honey of generation had betrayed,
- And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape As recollection or the drug decide,
- Would think her son, did she but sec that shape With sixty or more winters on its head,
- A compensation for the pang of his birth.
- Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
None of these questions anything the pilgrim can fully answer quickly, especially not sitting here in the sun in the school patio at recess time, watching lean, wiry Rafael Enriquez, one of the youngest people on the staff of Colegio Ingles, coming toward him.
Ralph, or “Mr. Ralphie” as he is known to the students, at 19 is by far the youngest teacher on the staff. So even with his close-cropped brown hair and almost comical ears, he, unlike many 19-year-olds, can look in the mirror and see someone who has already accomplished something with his life. Like many inhabitants of this border region, he has a mixed and interesting background. Born in Orange County to a woman from Tijuana and an L.A. mechanic, he lived in Norwalk but moved south across the border to live with his grandmother and several uncles. He took his early grades at Colegio Ingles but then attended public high school in Tijuana. So he speaks with some expertise tin the differences between public and private schools.
“At Colegio Ingles” he says, “students learn how to get along with other students. They learn manners and how to conduct themselves in a civil way. Public school is another world. Here it’s safe, there it’s a dangerous world.” He’s munching on chile-flavored chips as he talks, a way of catching lunch on the fly. “I had such good teachers in my early years. ‘Sit down and pay attention,’ they’d tell me. ‘Maybe you’ll learn something new today.’ They helped me to become confident in many different ways. When I had to sing, the teacher made me stand on top of the table to do it. I remember how much that helped me, so I know that if I become a good teacher I can make a difference in the lives of these kids. You have to start with the seed to make good fruit.”
Ralph is teaching first, third, and fourth grades at the Colegio Ingles and studying education at the Colegio Normal Ensenada. He hopes eventually, he explains, to teach in a public school, “where the kids need more attention.” Meanwhile,'he’s got plenty of good stories about his work right now.
Almost with a blush, he says, “I like to work with the difficult ones, the ones who make trouble. Because I understand them. I could be like that.” And he tells a story about how he engaged the trust of a fourth-grade boy, the worst bully in the class, a boy estranged from his father who asked Ralph if he could be his friend. Sure, Ralph said, until one day during recess when he and the boy were talking and the boy suddenly excused himself, because he saw another student he wanted to beat up.
“ ‘What do you mean?’ I said to him. ‘You can’t just go up to that boy and beat him.’ ‘But I don’t like him,’ my little friend said. And I said, ‘No friend of mine goes around beating on people.’ He stopped, he looked at me, and he stayed where he was. I had done something. That’s the kind of thing I want to do. One by one, you teach them these things. It makes me so happy to help a boy like that. It makes me feel joy inside.”
A band of boys wheels past the stone wall where Ralph and the pilgrim sit, a scream of hawks with corresponding shrieks from the hawk-ettes in the middle of the patio. You can’t say that these kids, coming up for air after their morning’s English immersion, don’t have a good time. Yes? the pilgrim looks to Ralph.
“Joy like that?”
“Yes,” he says. “Joy like that.”
Extraordinary, the pilgrim thinks to himself. A kid like this, 19 years old, having been shuffled off by his parents to live with his grandmother and uncles — ‘They are like my brothers,” he’d explained earlier—keeping pet chickens in the small house and not many years ago running around this same schoolyard in his green sweater and dark shoes, his head full of questions, his heart full with the pleasure of living in the world, no matter what his circumstances. Ralph, at 19, may be the greatest optimist and humanitarian the pilgrim has met in many years. And he has, like all of the staff here the pilgrim has spoken with, great hope for the future of his country, which, as the sun creeps along toward signaling the end of recess and the beginning of the next round of classes, he expounds upon.
“I believe in the town, and I think of Mexico as a town, a big town, but still a town, and if everyone does his little job in his little place, all of that together will make the big things happen. Small things make the big things happen. Especially when we educate more and more of the people. With an educated population, we’ll all do good things.”
A light brighter than the sun on his face sparks into his eyes. He smiles. Nineteen. A new teacher. Raised by Grandma. Keeps pet chickens. His uncles are his best friends. And some of his students. In his heart, great joy at doing what he does. And at the thought of doing what he hopes to do, even greater. And his smile stretches his cheeks almost to his ears. And tears well up in his eyes, and he weeps.
Ah, Mexico, what Yankee teacher would allow himself to show these dreams and emotions in the open in this way? No one the pilgrim has ever heard of. So perhaps there is hope. And perhaps there will be even greater joy.
The school bell clangs. End of recess. Ralph excuses himself and returns to his classroom, followed, like some mother duck or goose, by a gaggle of kids in sweaters and jumpers. Perhaps, if they pay attention, they’ll learn something new today.
Still early this Friday morning in Playas, and the sun hasn’t yet inched its way over the hill, though its light has already daubed the clouds over the ocean with a dahlia-pink hue and illuminated the peaks of Las Coronados, those small rocky islands due west of Tijuana, the last bit of Mexican territory to be touched by the light of day and the last to catch the light before night fully settles over the west. Even before the first of the children have arrived for class, in the chill air two workmen arc unloading folding chairs from a small truck and lining them up against the far wall of the patio at the center of the Colegio Ingles lower school.
Up in Liz Hernandez’s office, a group of teachers is putting the finishing touches on cardboard signs. Miss Zuletna’s there, cutting and pasting. She’s making hearts. She’s cutting out red and green paper to trim big signs. So is Miss Rocio and Miss Ivy. Mr. Dan pops in for a few minutes to help and departs. Ralph comes in carrying a bunch of paper headdresses with paper feathers, sets them down and works a while on the signs, then picks up his headdresses and departs. Friends are Wonderful. We Love Friends. The signs announce the theme of the school’s annual Friendship Day program, which will commence after the noon hour.
In the patio, small groups of students soon gather before class and rehearse bits and pieces of songs. Long lines of students pass up and down the stairs, more and more of them as the morning moves along, some of them ‘already wearing pieces of costumes for the program they’ll later perform. These otherwise usually well-behaved children can’t seem to help but chatter away to each other, in Spanish and English. The sun is rising higher in the sky and the hour is getting closer and closer.
Oh, it’s difficult to sit still in class today, with the program almost about to begin. The pilgrim wanders in and out of rooms, witness to such distraction as he recalls vividly from events of only 50 or more years before. The excitement of demonstrating your newfound skill to your mother and father. The giddiness that comes with having them become witness to your work and to make the acquaintance of your teachers. If any pride is pure, it is that sort of pride, the child revelatory before the inquisitive — and admiring — parent. And it goes on and on in life, doesn’t it? with each accomplishment in school adding to the list of things you want to show to them. This is the sort of pride that, if it comes before a fall, comes before the fall that befalls everyone, the loss of our parents and intimations of mortality. And for those with faith, the lucky ones as the pilgrim sometimes sees them, more often again than not, the lucky, yes, though they may lose their immediate parents they always have God before Whom they can demonstrate, children always, wanting to please. But then what are we all anyway, with faith or without, if not still children wanting to please.
Woe, and if any parent fails to show interest! what a blow to the child’s ego! what a quick way to poison the purity of the innocent child’s desire! Because then, as the pilgrim well knows from his own childhood, the kid becomes a showoff and a noise-maker and a troublemaker, doing everything from spitting gum and flying paper airplanes to setting off firecrackers and stealing to get attention from the older generation. This is the zygote of the artist/outlaw, before the egg has begun to divide, the crossroads of a life that will be dedicated either to art or to its dark alternative, a life of crime. For how else does the disturbed child—and have no doubt about it, the artist almost from the start is as disturbed a character as the criminal—command the spotlight upon himself?
But these are questions for a more advanced exam than any that will be given in this school, or in most others, at least at this level, and the pilgrim puts them away in his school pack to deal with on another day. It’s getting close to fiesta time, and he wanders back out onto the patio to watch the final preparations. A large folding screen now stands in mid-patio bedecked with all of those friendship signs that the teachers were working on earlier. Mr. Dan is wrapping streamers around the pillars in the patio. One of the teachers is testing the loudspeaker system. Miss Rocio is testing some tapes. A burst of music.
- And I say hey!
- What a wonderful kind of day...
Several grades’ worth of children are now lining up in parts of the patio, rehearsing with their teachers, but the wind has picked up and it’s difficult to hear their songs over the noise of the loudspeaker. Another teacher sets up a microphone just in front of the folding screen and three boys drift over to her, scripts in hand, ready to rehearse their parts in the ceremonies.
When they come drifting past him, the pilgrim hails them from the cement bench where he has taken up residence to watch the events of the rest of the morning.
They are Alex and Luis and Carlos, nine years old, buddies in their early preadolescent coolness.
“How are you doing?” the pilgrim says.
“Good,” says Alex, nodding to his friends. They nod back, and the three of them sit down next to him.
A conversation ensues, about school, about the show that’s almost about to begin, about the quality of their English, which is first-rate.
“Oh, yeah,” Alex says with a laugh. "We’re the only ones in the school who can really speak English. That’s why we’ll be in front.”
“Is that right?” the pilgrim says.
“Absolutely,” says Luis.
“Uh-huh,” Carlos puts in.
And what do they think of this school?
“It’s okay,” Alex says.
“Could be worse,” Luis says.
“The high school is worse,” Carlos says.
“Yeah, we hear about the high school,” Alex says. “They’re really strict, too strict. I don’t want to go here to high school.”
“Where to then?” the pilgrim says.
“Maybe in San Diego,” Alex says.
“Sure,” Carlos says.
“I’d like that too,” Luis says.
A teacher calls them over the loudspeaker.
“We have to go and talk English now,” Alex says. "I told you, we’re the only ones who can.”
Their joking aside, these boys, along with girls like Jovanna Venegas, are certainly among the elite of the school’s Anglophones and in each of their cases helped along by the fact — the pilgrim continues to pursue a little questioning here at the bench in the sun—that at home there is either a parent or two or a sibling who speaks English with them. (Over in the upper-school building, he knows from having snooped around there a bit after that first morning convocation, there are classes for parents who wish to learn English to help their kids, and the oldest students in the school, those few at the high school level, just seem to be stumbling along in a course in English as a second language. Because over the decades there has been no continuity at Colegio Ingles between the elementary and the junior high levels, the best students, those with a fluency in English that rivals that of the best U.S. students at the same grade level, go on to study at other schools both in Tijuana and San Diego.)
The pilgrim leans back on the bench as his fluent companions run off, enjoying the sun ("The sun is hot. The sun is yellow. The sun is in the sky”) and basking in the humor of their put-on. And remembering again the wiseass humor of his own student days — the notes passed, the paper airplanes launched, the spitballs, the BBs rolled down classroom aisles, the back talk to pathetic teachers for whom he should have been able to find some human sympathy, the muted violence of clashes in the schoolyard, the out-and-out violence of clashes outside the school boundaries, btx)ks tossed away, typewriters hurled through open windows.... Has it been a distraction that all of those old memories of his own time as a student and now and then some ideas about life and education conjured up by spending time again in school have risen to the surface to share the light with his reporting about this school? He hopes not, because he can’t find a way to separate his impressions from his emotions and memories, all of these things that he carries in his backpack wherever he goes. His own school days long ago ended, both his parents dead, his own children living their own lives around the country, and yet the memories persist, so that he can feel right now in this moment under the sun the cold sinking sensation in his blood that came — comes? — with the awareness that his mother might not pick him up after schtxil, or that among these schoolchildren now lining up in the hallways on the various floors of the school, preparing their entrances for the Friendship Day festival, might stand his firstborn, his son josh, his lean young elementary body rippling with the anticipation of performing his song for his father and mother.
While flashing back in his mind to these early, easier days, the pilgrim has also been watching with his present eye the arrival of parents, many with infants in their arms, at the school patio, a hundred of them already, the first ten rows or so of seats now nearly filled and the mozos unfolding more chairs at the rear. From the open upper hallways on three sides of the patio, a buzzing and chirping noise has become audible, as the children, like high-strung racehorses, wait nervously to make their entrances in the program. More and more parents enter the patio from the street, some of them scanning the upper hallways for a glimpse of their children. A hundred and fifty adults seated now and waiting, most of them well-dressed, in the casual leather and denim of the reigning middle class that extends from the northern California of Marin County all the way here to Playas and the upper reaches of Baja California, but some of them having taken time off from service jobs or physical labor to see their children perform — another 20 or 30 arrive before the pilgrim can even finish his surmise about the class makeup of the parents, or even begin to consider the racial mix of light skin and dark, peninsular Spanish and English and German blood, and the Indian ancestry of the noticeable minority here, reflecting the same mix he had found in the classrooms — Mexico, if not a melting pot, then what?
“We’re almost ready," says Ralph, coming up to the pilgrim with a large sheaf of papers in one hand and a paper headdress in another. “My students wanted you to have these.” He hands the pilgrim the papers, which go into his backpack for reading later on. Ralph’s eyes arc sparking now, not with tears but with the pleasure of standing on the verge of making these students known to their families. He walks back to his students lined up at the door, and the pilgrim turns toward the microphone where Liz Hernandez, looking grade-school elegant in a floppy hat and sleek skirt, has just taken her stand.
Two hundred and more adults turn toward her as well. The infants quiet down. A gust of wind shushes into the microphone.
She welcomes everybody— in English. And the show begins, the youngest children marching in first in smart lines, and lining up in front of the audience to sing — in English — about numerous little monkeys standing on a bed and falling off and hitting their heads. They .depart and another class takes their place, singing about family trees. A few of the oldest boys commandeer one of the microphones and honk, off-key, above the other voices, then fade away as their teacher polices the rows. Twenty minutes of more classes and more songs. Now the next to the oldest, singing that same “Arthur’s Theme” that has echoed through both lower and upper school all week.
- And I say hey!
- What a wonderful kind of day!
Everybody’s singing, all the students in front of us, and all the teachers, and it is a wonderful kind of day, to participate in this, to witness this, a day to be a child in arms and a day to be a parent and a day to be a teacher and a day to be a student as now the rest of the lower-school classes return to the patio, and, of course, the pilgrim looks around, somehow hoping to see his own children, small again, rushing toward him out of the mass of kids in their sweaters and jumpers, from the smallest preschoolers to the rangiest, wisest upper levels, where the boys already have sparks in their eyes though most of them cannot imagine for what, and the dark hair on the Indian girls glows like black gold in the sun, and red hair seems to turn to flame as it blows in the wind, and the palest of the pale seem like rare marsh birds about to take flight. Flocks of students, yes! The parents surrounded, the chairs surrounded, the teachers enveloped, the pilgrim, leaning against a pillar, nearly engulfed as the flow increases, dozens and dozens and scores and scores, an ocean of students heaving and surging around him, immersing the patio with their souls and energy and joy beneath the eye of the hot, yellow sun in the sky above Playas, overwhelming any urge that anyone here might have to get them in order, to discipline them or convert them or teach them, not at this moment, not in this instant when they seem like the raw evolving stuff of nature, Mexico’s wealth, a gene pool beyond reckoning, and the vital fulcrum on which will move the levers that will change us all.
It’s been a long day for Jovanna Venegas, starting out as she did so early in her room in the house in Bonita, sitting in her upper-school class all morning and on into the early afternoon, but now, as usual, the assistant from her father’s photography studio has driven over to Playas to pick her up and drive her to the San Ysidro port of entry where they park and walk up the long stairs and across the front of the border-station buildings and down the stairs and into the pedestrian crossing building. This is the way to cross, so much quicker than sitting in a car in the long lines of cars in the hot, yellow sun of midafternoon.
It’s not a long walk, but the day has grown rather warm considering how cool it was in the early morning, and yellow light reflecting off the roadway and the cars seems tarnished and weighs on her head and shoulders. Jovanna’s book bag is crammed with texts and homework assignments, and she’s a little tired. The weekend lies ahead. So she’s just taking things one step at a time, one day at a time, the only way good students do it, and though she has that homework, she enjoys solving the problems and enjoys writing the sentences and the essays and enjoys the praise from her teachers when she turns her work in.
Sometimes her parents winder about her future. Who knows what she will do with her life to come? One sister in Mexico, another who’s a photographer in New York City, of all distant places. Her father is quite sure she’ll go to a California university. And after that? She might eventually stay north of the border, her English is so good, right now just about as perfect as any 11-year-old’s in any state of the union can be, or she might stay in Mexico and use her English and other studies to good advantage in the Mexico of the new century. But that’s not a quandary, scarcely even a question right now at the end of the school week, and as she rushes up to her waiting mother on the U.S. side of the INS turnstiles, she’s thinking of nothing perhaps except just how nice it is to be going home.
Or so the pilgrim meditates, sitting in his car while the hot yellow sun heats up the air all around him and the traffic is not moving at all on the Tijuana side of the border crossing. He himself is exhausted after a week at school, though not so tired that he can't take the time to think back on the small events of the week and sec how for many of the students the smallest things will eventually build into the largest. That is the way education works, yes, and though he himself was not a very good student for a very long while he has seen the best things happen in the minds and hearts of his own children when they were still in school, and he’s sure these things will happen for the kids at Colegio Ingles who work hard and when they’re speaking English think in English.
But there’s so much more to education than just thinking, of course. The care and humane affection that Ralph Enriquez shows for his students, what sort of intellect can make up for that if it’s lacking? Ralph — his face comes back to the pilgrim, and he goes to his backpack to try to find that envelope that the young teacher had passed to him a few hours before. And here it is, and it holds nearly 20 hand-drawn and lettered valentines! All of them say on the front “thank you for coming to our school,” with the word coming often given an extra m. Inside, the students write their names and their favorite subjects. Evelyn Abigail Gonzalez Gomez likes art and English and P.E., while what Diego Gerardo likes most “is recess for is very cool and I like the girls from the school they are beutiful,” and Gaby likes English and Spanish and art, and Rosalba likes math class “because is cool,” and Victor likes “the uniform and the class,” and Norberto’s “clas favorite is art,” and Maria del Mar likes English and “espanich,” and on and on, the pleasure and hope mixed with the crudity and lack of uniform quality.
The evidence shows that these fourth-graders have a long way to go, but whatever their level, their grasp or lack of English, they arc on their way, and teachers like Liz Hernandez and Miss Ivy and Ralph and Mr. Dan are giving their best efforts, heart and soul, to help them, and most of them will move toward a different life than the one they might have had without this school, and many of them are heading in this same direction as the pilgrim, as the traffic suddenly unjams and begins to roll forward, north, over the border, into San Diego County and the rest of California beyond, and 8 or 10 or 15 years from now you may know them. They will work for you, they will work with you, they will become your bosses and colleagues and friends, and marry you or your children, and you will sing with them in English, and it will, take a good guess, yes, it will only be a pleasure.
— Alan Cheuse
Novelist, story writer, essayist Alan Cheuse lives in Washington, D.C., serves as book commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. His most recent book is a collection of stories, Lost and Old Rivers, published last winter.