The time was July of 1998

The time was July of 1998. Picture, if you will, me sitting at a desk at my old Kentucky home looking out the large window at the rolling hills. As usual, there was a sandwich on one side of my keyboard and a Diet Pepsi on the other side.
Of course, I was supposed to be working. Back then, I published three or four op-eds weekly and the supposed topic that day was how immigrant kids were taught in our schools. I probably had two pages on a large legal pad filled with references I looked up.
So, I should be ready to go, eh? But, as sometimes happened, what I sat down to write didn’t come out quite the way I intended. Someone just sent me the article below as a reminder of that.
You can’t help but feel sorry for those kids. I mean, how would you like to be a seven or eight year old kid and moved to a different country, with different customs and a new language? Bummer. Then, how about they tell you that you have to go to school anyway, that it’s the law. Worse yet, you know that you’re going to stay in the new country, but the teachers teach you in the old-country’s language anyway.
That’s got to be scary. Damn stupid, too.
As a child growing up in the old neighborhood, most neighbors spoke a language other than English. It was Polish next door and with most of my friends. At the little market on the corner, it was Italian. One friend stumbling with English was from Germany, another was from the French area of Canada. We had a number of Russians around and even a family from Turkey.
But, in school, we all — no matter what nationality our parents were — struggled to diagram those very same complex sentences in English. No student ever got a break on that. I can still remember the teacher’s words when once there was a minor protest: “You are here. You will learn proper English.” And so we did.
So, by 12 years old, we all had a working command of the English language. Not perfect, of course — we were still kids, after all. But every kid in the neighborhood knew all the words to at least a dozen patriotic songs and the Fats Domino, Bill Haley and Elvis songs. And there were no accents to be heard among the young teen set. We took pride in that.
Better yet, when the next wave of immigrants came they were encouraged to learn English even faster.
It was the same with prayer in school. We did it. Every day. Just after the Pledge of Allegiance.
We all had to say the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, and we took turns leading the class for that. But no one even had to say the words to a prayer if they didn’t wish. Everyone was expected, however, to stand and bow their head.
That prayer was never a problem for any of us because there was an accepted rendition that (we thought) was used by all. That is, till a substitute teacher said it differently one day. We laughed.
But, that turned out to be a good thing, too. Kids asked questions of parents, priests, ministers and rabbis. And, from that we learned new things about other people.
I guess the point of all this is to relate that once upon a time there was a better way. Government schools were actually local school board and PTA run schools that supported the neighborhood. When someone wanted to bow their head and say Grace at lunch, the polite response from those of us who did not say Grace very often was to stop eating and respect their moment. This everyone did — as long as the person saying Grace didn’t take too long about it.
And even when the Jewish kids did something differently, no one ever said anything because every Polish and Russian kid in the neighborhood knew all about the Warsaw Ghetto.
It took government to change this relationship.
Generally, when I was a kid, if you spoke a language other than English in front of people who could not understand what you were saying, someone might smack you up-side the head for being impolite. However, if you bothered someone’s religion, getting smacked was probably a sure thing. That was called meanness, and not tolerated.
I took government meddling to change that.
When I was a young adult traveling, they called people visiting a foreign country the ugly Americans when they could not speak the language. Today, people from those very same countries come here and refuse to learn English. So I ask: What shall we call them?
If we are to keep an English speaking country, all government business must be conducted in English only. That includes the issuing of all licenses, voting, and especially teaching in government schools — extracurricular tutoring excepted.
And, if we are to keep a country with freedom of religion, government must not even comment on the issue.
Else, we have some sort of hybrid.
Hundreds of students of many nationalities still remember Mrs. Sharon’s English class, Mr. Gazley’s American government class and our Principal, Mrs. O’Hara, leading a prayer and enforcing discipline with a stern kindness not often found lately. There was no need for them to be our nationality or religion. That was not important to anyone. It was simply because they were outstanding teachers that everyone prospered.
Times have changed, but not for the best.

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