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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am

Now that I live in a swing state, I'm much more cognizant of the political climate than I was as a New Yorker. When you're in the largely Democratic Northeast, if you are a Democrat, everything seems to be coming up roses, and you live your life like that guy with the golf club in the KGB commercial with his head up his butt.

My friend Natalie M. posted a link on her facebook with Alabama's Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim James's new commercial promising that if he is elected, driver's license exams will only be available in English. Think Tim James is some Jim Bob-come-lately? Think again. His father, Fob James, was Alabama's 48th governor. And, adhering to Tim's driving theme, I affectionately and erroneously refer to him as "Key Fob." Watch KFJ's son's campaign video as he follows his father's legacy from patriotism to noticeably limp hair.



How far we have "driven" past Father Fob's terms as governor; Fob James who promised Alabamanians "a New Beginning free from racism and discrimination."

So imagine this. Mr. Pedro Mexicano rides his bike 45 miles through Alabama to get to his English classes so that he can learn the language and get a driver's license. Until he gets a car he can't get a job. He can't get a car because he can't get a license. He can't get a license because he can't afford the classes because he can't get a job. But that's okay, he's perfectly content with mowing your lawn for another couple of years. It's a good thing he didn't get that driver's license and take away your job as Associate Marketing Consultant.

I'll let it be known that my philosophy on learning or not learning English is that, if you live in the United States and hope to be successful, you must. You deprive yourself of opportunities unavailable to a non-English speaking American. Something positive arises from lack of knowledge of the English language and that is that my fiance's sister makes more money as a bilingual nurse.

Since I went to school in Scotland, have Scottish friends and a Scottish last name, I rarely discuss the other half of my heritage, which is Eastern European. My mother's side of the family originated in the northern Polish region sometimes referred to as Kashubia, with Gdansk its capital. My great-grandmother was sixteen in 1912, when she left Poland and hung around England with a third-class ticket in her hand to board this boat called the Titanic, but once she got to England, she spent too much time goofing off with her friend, probably flirting with scrawny, limey-skinned British men. My great-grandmother instead got a ticket for the next boat with no more fanfare than a woman who missed the 9:52 bus being forced to take the 11:05. Clearly, Anna Piontek did not possess psychic powers. Neither did her father, my great-great grandfather, who was living in New York City and sending money for the children to arrive (Anna, the oldest, was first). He read the newspaper and Anna wasn't on the survivor's list. He cursed America as bad luck and left New York just as his very much alive eldest daughter was arriving unaware of the fact that had she boarded that ship, as a third-class passenger knowing no English, she would be dead. Anna arrived in New York City after schlepping around western Europe for a while, and her father was already gone.

My great-grandmother decided to stay in the Big Apple and eventually after learning of the Titanic she wrote to her family and said, "Surprise, I'm alive! I've been here a while so I'm going to let this America thing pan out. Don't worry about me. Send pierogis." (I take liberties with this letter. Sorry Babcia.) She was young and unmarried and knew no English and obviously, there was no way in hell she could pay for a tutor or classes.

My great-grandmother died on February 20, 1992, the day after my ninth birthday (and while I was, ironically, on vacation in Florida where I now live). She was ninety-three years old and buried at St. Bridget's cemetery with her husband John and son Stanley, both of whom died in their fifties. The town closed its post office. Anna lived seventy-seven more years than she might have if the pendulum had swung in a contradictory direction.

Have you ever wondered where everyone got that stereotype that Polish people are stupid? It was because the Polish language, above almost all other European languages, is radically different from English and as such, it took many Polish immigrants a much longer time to speak English with fluidity than their Italian, German and French counterparts. More Polish people have won the Nobel Prize than any other nationality, the first being awarded to Marie Curie, whose maiden name was Sklodowska!

I am, however, diverting from the purpose of relaying the story of my great-grandmother's life which I am using in this context as an example of a practically orphaned, poor, sixteen-year-old Polish girl learning English without the aid of the Internet, television or the "for Dummies" series, so, arguably, so could anyone. I'm not saying that I could, simply because I have never been in a situation in which I must. When I spoke, my French professor in Scotland laughed at me in my face. I got an 80-something on the Spanish 3 Regents exam twelve years ago but can't form a blessed phrase of Spanish unless I've seen it on a sign recently. As for Polish, I can say, "Dzien dobry," which means hello, which means I'd do fantastically in Poland if I limited myself to animals and those with laryngitis. Respond to my "hello," and you and I are both screwed. Kiss your ass "goodbye." Babcia took night courses with my mother's cousin Chris's 3rd grade teacher, and dedicated herself to speaking English and only English to her family. My mother knows perhaps five phrases in Polish; I know less. I want to learn Polish so I can speak the language of my relatives - after all, Scottish is English, despite the Glaswegian accent's attempts to make you believe the contrary.

But while Europe is filled with languages that are not only helpful to know but often necessary and in all countries required, as most students in the European Union study two or more languages concurrently with their own from a very young age, our children are lucky to have a Spanish class and unless their work directly involves conversing and speaking in a language other than Spanish (i.e., French, Italian or German classes for an opera singer), the ability to read, speak and comprehend is lost almost automatically. Have Americans forgotten how hard it is to learn another language as a result of generations of living in our monolingual bubble? If we had to study Spanish, French, Russian and Latin in our schools would we recall the vulnerability of being completely clueless in the exercise of communication, the fundamental method of human interaction?

Ironically, the state slogan of Alabama is, "Where America finds its voice." The article which accompanied Tim James's campaign video states, "Exams are currently given in Arabic, Chinese, English, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Thai and Vietnamese, according to AOL News." According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Alabama has approximately 4,708,000 residents in a 2009 estimate. "Foreign born persons" encompassed 2.0% of Alabama's citizens in 2000, with 3.9% of citizens speaking a language other than English at home. Sound like a lot? Well, let's take our much-beloved northern swing state, Pennsylvania, and observe those percentages: of a population of approximately 12,605,000 (2009 estimate), 4.1% were born in a country other than the United States and 8.4% speak a language other than English at home. (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/42000.html)

I don't think I'd offend that many people by saying that if I were emigrating to the United States, my first stop would not be Alabama. The census seems to agree (although, to Tim James's chagrin, I can access the U.S. Census information in English and Spanish). Unlike Arizona with its new "if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be an illegal immigrant" law, Alabama does not border Mexico. Nor do Georgia or Florida on its right, nor Mississippi or Louisiana on its left. You cross three states to reach the Rio Grande, and in this case it seems the only thing close to Mexico in Alabama's line of sight is the Gulf of Mexico itself. Aside from a Latino population unable to read enough English to pass a driver's test, the aforementioned languages in the proposed ban are laughably archaic. When is the last time you saw a wave of Chinese, Russians and Greeks moving to Alabama? Perhaps some Louisiana Cajuns would request the test in French, but you'd have to cross that pesky thing called the state of Mississippi first. And for that, you'd need a driver's license.

Since we're romanticizing Southern values, let's turn to that precious Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind. Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, "What most people don't seem to realize is that there is just as much money to be made out of the wreckage of a civilization as from the upbuilding of one." Candidate James says that cutting down the languages available on the Alabama driver's license exam to one "saves money, and it makes sense. Does it to you?" There's a pregnant pause and, confused over whether I am watching Saturday Night Live, a political campaign, or taking an exam, I make like I'm on Dora the Explorer and vamanos.

Anna M. Piontek Lesniak


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