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American Advantage

A teacher of the year urges us not to squander the gift of many languages.

By Chauncey Veatch

Chauncey Veatch, the 2002 national Teacher of the Year, served in the U.S. Army for 22 years. He retired as a colonel in 1995 and became an educator. He now teaches high school and preschool children in Coachella Valley, California. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave at NEA headquarters.

My cabdriver, coming from the airport, was from Mali. The person at the hotel where I checked in is from Ethiopia. They have children, and these are America's children, the people we serve. These children and their parents bring assets to our country. America's many languages give us an advantage that we're throwing away. Four examples:

One, national security. What did we hear when we started the war in Iraq? We don't have enough Arabic linguists. We have an advantage that we squander, because we are without parallel a nation with people coming from every corner of the globe, and we should celebrate it.

Two, the global economy. Who's more likely to do well in Japan—someone who speaks Japanese and English, or someone who speaks only English?

Some people say kids in bilingual education aren't learning English. Well, I have never met a parent who said to me, "Mr. Veatch, don't teach my children English." They want their children to have opportunity.

Is it tragic when children don't learn English? Yes. And it is also tragic when learning English comes at the expense of their heritage language.

Three, other languages enrich your life. American literature icon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a professor of romance languages at Harvard. Most experts consider his translation of the 15th-century Spanish poem "Couplets to My Father" to be the most brilliant and tender translation from Spanish to English ever done.

Longfellow wrote "The Song of Hiawatha," and of course his inspiration was our culture, our native peoples. But the actual inspiration to write it, and the whole rhythm and format, came from a compilation of Finnish epic poems, the Kalevala, which he first read in German. Longfellow's life was enriched by this, and as a result, our lives are enriched.

Four, embracing our diversity is the right thing to do. Every person has value. Civilization is something that is shared, and every single person who's living today is part of a group that has contributed to our civilization. And it's the morally right thing to do to celebrate these gifts.

There's a writer named Carlos Fuentes who talked about the "other." He meant someone we don't know, and he talked about how much fear that can cause. But, he said, when a society is not rejuvenated, it withers and dies. And who are the people renewing and rejuvenating? It's the parents of my students who come from Mexico, from Honduras, from El Salvador. It's this man driving the cab from Mali. They enrich us.

I want to tell you about little Beto in my preK class. I teach high school but after school, I go teach in a preschool program. And my first day, I asked the children, "What's your favorite color, and why?" I asked in English and in Spanish, and I encouraged them to speak back to me in full sentences.

As I got up, one of the little boys was following me with his eyes. Every time I looked back, there was little Beto.

And my fellow teacher, Linda Vasquez, said, "You have a friend."

I said, "Yes, I do. Why particularly this little boy?"

I thought she was going to say, "Because we don't have that many men who teach younger children." But I was wrong. She said, "You spoke Spanish."

Well, she was also telling me that at four years old, this little boy already knows that Spanish is not so good, and English is better. That is so wrong. That is so tragic. That is so cruel. We want this little boy to learn English and we want him to always celebrate the Spanish he brings from home.

I served in the army for the America I love. I serve as a teacher for the America I love. And I'm doing my best to see that others also see this beautiful world that we can all celebrate. Little Beto and his parents deserve that from us.

Photo by Patti Redway

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