Memories of a Politically Incorrect Childhood

By Janko, Edmund | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Memories of a Politically Incorrect Childhood


Janko, Edmund, Phi Delta Kappan


One of the canards all too widely accepted in our national debate about a multicultural curriculum is that Hispanic culture has somehow been denigrated or ignored in our schools. That's not how Mr. Janko remembers it.

Back in 1945 my high school Spanish teacher for third term was Miss Haessler. For starters, she let everyone know that she was an ex-WAC, just out of uniform. The war might be over, she said, but she never took any nonsense from recruits, and she certainly wasn't going to take any from lowly sophomores like us. I was duly impressed.

One day she began the class by announcing that the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral had just won the Nobel Prize for literature. It never occurred to me back then that there was anything incongruous about a former drill sergeant caring about poetry.

I've thought of that moment on and off in recent years because one of the canards all too widely accepted in our national debate about a multicultural curriculum is that Hispanic culture has somehow been denigrated or ignored in our schools. One Mexican American writer has gone so far as to label the usual classroom fare the Anglo "kiss of death" - "monolingual, monocultural, and colorless."

That's not how I remember it. Back in the mid-1940s, in my neighborhood at least, college was rarely a realistic aspiration and certainly was not the God-given, quasi-Constitutional right it has since become. Back then, if you wanted to go on to higher education in New York State, you had to have what was called an "academic diploma" from high school. Among the requirements were at least two years of a foreign language.

Like most other kids, I picked Spanish because the conventional wisdom on the street comer was that Spanish was "easier" than German or French. Perhaps that was true, but my eyes nevertheless glazed over when it came to grammar. I never did entirely understand "a condition contrary to fact," and whenever I confronted a sentence beginning with a "si" clause, I knew that morphological quicksand lay just ahead.

"Ethnic identity," according to our history books, was something only Woodrow Wilson had been interested in after World War I, and a lot of good it did him when he bucked the isolationist U.S. Senate. It certainly had nothing to do with the USA.

Our student body was almost entirely white, made up mostly of second- and third-generation German and Italian Americans, though none of us would have thought of linking nationalities in that way. Living through the war had made us all red, white, and blue to the bone. …

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