Friday, January 21, 2011

A Bilingual School Turns 50

Yesterday, somebody made the mistake of asking me how I became a teacher, and had to then listen to my long version of how “It all started back in 1962…” when I was dealing with a desire to emigrate to Berlin. I had spent two very enriching years there during the Cold War, when I was still young and idealistic enough to believe I was part of the defence of Berlin against Soviet invasion. We understood, at some level, that they could march in whenever they chose to, but that idea, when you’re 20, only makes life more interesting.

I had two important connections to Berlin. One was a favorite aunt, who kept me coming back another thirty years before she died at 94. The other was the “school inspector” for Berlin, whose acquaintance also turned into a strong friendship in ensuing years. It was he who, upon hearing me wonder aloud if I might emigrate and spend the rest of my life in Berlin, suggested I try to get a job as a bilingual teacher at the John F. Kennedy School, which had just opened, and where he sent his daughter.

It became a plan. I would go back to San Francisco, sign myself up for a degree program in teaching English as a foreign language, and get myself on the JFKS faculty. And live happily ever after in the city that excited me enough to seriously give up my American citizenship – or at least give up calling America home. I never actually got to consider applying for German citizenship, and suspect because of the emphasis on both/and in the JFKS I might well have held onto my American identity.

All water under the bridge, since I went to Japan and made another life, opening up yet another bilingual/bicultural door and ultimately making a family with a Japanese man.

But Berlin continues to call to me after all these years, and the Kennedy School, too, although I’ve never been on its premises, remains an icon of a path not taken, a history of things that never happened.

I was in Berlin again last June. Some friends were away and their apartment was empty, and their generosity allowed me to spend a month there, at long last, catching up and getting better acquainted with the new Berlin, post fall of the wall. Another friend introduced me to somebody who worked at the American Embassy, and through her I met some of the current teachers at the Kennedy School. It’s always a challenge not to unplug that “history of things that never happened” and let it spill over, but I managed to talk less and listen more and marvel at my own inability to distinguish between Germans who speak English natively or Americans who speak Germans natively.

I worked in Japan with bilinguals, even taught a seminar for a while in bilingualism, and followed with great interest the research and the actual practice of teaching and learning in two languages and cultures. Sociolinguistics was yet another path not taken for me when I passed up a life of academic research for teaching, having decided early on I’d rather work at doing one well than both in some mediocre fashion. Many do do both, by the way. I just didn’t think I could.

One of the things that came out of that experience was a commitment to the both/and approach and a belief that I didn’t need to kill off the obnoxious missionary urges I seemed to be born with. I could simply direct them into a crusade against those who devoted themselves to the provincial faith in a single religion, a single set of cultural practices, a single language and a single homeland. The proudest moment in my career may well have been the time a young woman said to me, “I thought all these years I had to kill the American in me to become Japanese again after I came back here. You’ve taught me I can be American and Japanese at the same time.”

This morning, quite by chance, I happened across a video of the John F. Kennedy school’s fiftieth anniversary celebration this past October. I clicked on it with something more than idle curiosity, obviously, but never expected I’d be glued to the whole two hours before going down to breakfast.

It’s not of general interest, I realize. But if you want to have a peek, click here. Watch the code switching, the American ambassador whose wretched pronunciation actually makes him a model for those struggling for bilingual mastery. Listen to the speech of a former director telling anecdotes about introducing his German colleagues to the American world of guns and fear of terrorism. Watch the second graders in the last few minutes (you can push the button back and forth to advance or go back in time).

My colleagues in Japan, especially, will appreciate the fact that JFKS is a school that began as a way of bridging the enormous gap between kids of American GIs of the occupying American army and German kids whose parents wanted to do all they could to make sure the world of World War II never returned. And now, fifty years later, it has moved well beyond its idealistic “German” and “American” friendship base and become a seasoned model for how to live in the world as a both/and kind of person.


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