Monday, October 21, 2002

You know, I don’t come from an overeducated family. Only one of my four grandparents finished high school; only one of my two parents did. Of my mother’s five children, only the youngest two received diplomas. But I don’t consider anyone in my family as being particularly ignorant – or, as we said it when I was young, “ignant.” I expect everyone in my family to have a basic curiosity about the world. And in general, every one of us lives up to that expectation. We’re far from scholarly, sure, but we all appreciate knowledge and respect it and strive to acquire more of it.

I guess that’s why it always surprises me when I find people who lack even the most basic seeds of intellectual curiosity. Because I didn’t come from an overeducated family, I expect that people who come from more middle and upper class backgrounds will surpass all of us in these leanings, but I’m nearly always surprised to find that this isn’t so.

For instance, at a friend’s party last summer, I met a lady in, perhaps, her late 20’s or early 30’s. She was a little overweight, a little bit pushy, a little bit of a big mouth. Not at all the type of person I like to talk to, but when she started to talk to me, I thought it only polite to respond. She was angry because her six-year old daughter had been learning Spanish in school.

I should have known better, of course, and I’m a little ashamed of myself for falling into the trap of expecting that sort of person to be reasonable, but I gave a response. “I don’t think teaching Spanish to young children is such a bad thing. I mean, little kids pick language up quite a bit faster and easier than older children do, and there are so many benefits of learning a foreign language.”

She looked at me like I’d said the dumbest thing anyone had ever said to her in her life. She rolled her eyes and said, “My daughter’s never going to Spain. Why does she need Spanish?”

I was shocked on multiple levels. First, didn’t this lady know that Spain isn’t the only country in the world that spoke Spanish? How could she possibly say that her child would never go to a Spanish speaking country? The kid was only six. Didn’t she know how many Spanish-speaking people there are in America?

I smiled politely; Maybe a little nervously. “Well, you know, they’ve done studies which prove that bilingual children are better able to analyze new words for meaning. They also find it easier to learn more languages later in life if they ever need to. And Spanish is a good language to learn, because they say that, in our lifetime, we’ll probably see such a huge shift in population that more people will be native speakers of Spanish than English.”

She seemed angry. “Those people need to learn English! Why should my kid learn Spanish? She’s an American! Americans speak English! She doesn’t ever need to learn Spanish! She’s never going to Spain! If she wants to find out what a word means, she can read the dictionary! In English!”

I wanted to smack her. For so many reasons. But I shrugged. Why fight with an idiot? I said, blandly and unthinkingly, “I think I’m going to get a pop. Want anything?” She said no, and acted superior. Later, I saw her with her little girl. She was chewing the kid out for getting dirty. Imagine a child at an outdoor party, at a pond in fact, dressed all in white, managing to get dirty. I hated that lady.

I’ve not always been happy to be from the family I’m from. But that day, I was pretty grateful. It’s not that my family’s perfect or anything; far from it, in fact. But I can’t imagine my mother complaining because my teachers were teaching me some Spanish. I can’t imagine my father deciding, when I was six, that I’d never leave the United States. I certainly can’t imagine my parents taking me out to play and then freaking out if I got a little dirty.