Joe Guzzardi Wonders: "Who Are You?"
January 13, 2006, 04:00 AM
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In early December, something happened involving one of my adult English as Second Language students that was so remarkable I'll remember it for the rest of my life.

What occurred in and of itself was nothing special.

A student I'll call "Yolanda" took her two young sons to the annual Lodi "Parade of Lights" held on the first Thursday of every December.

"What's the big deal in that?" you ask.

Well, "the big deal" is that Yolanda is the first student that I can recall in my eighteen years of teaching E.S.L. who has voluntarily participated in a community event.

Here's the background on why I was so surprised.

The Lodi News-Sentinel, where my weekly opinion column appears, generously donates twenty copies of the daily paper to my class. Each day the class spends half an hour reading and talking about current events.

On the last day of the school week, before we put the paper away, I comb through it to find local happenings that might be of interest to the students and their kids and that are either free or charge a modest fee…art exhibits, library events, the farmer's market or pumpkin patch rides.

Then on Monday, I'll ask if anyone participated. For nearly two decades, the answer has invariably been "No."

Let me give you two sad examples from this Christmas season.

  • The aforementioned Parade of Lights that had been written up in the News-Sentinel for days in advance and heavily promoted by me. The stores in town stay open late, sidewalk vendors sell food, and local merchants have give-aways. This year's two-hour parade drew an estimated crowd of 30,000.

  • From December 14th to December 23rd, Lodi offered evening bus tours throughout the town so that residents could see the spectacular Christmas lights adorning the homes. The buses left from a centrally located downtown point; the cost, $2.00. Despite a daily reminder from me that the one-hour bus tour was a fun thing to do with family and friends, not one student went.

Students ignore a big Christmas parade that gets half the town of Lodi to show up? No student over a ten-day period wants a guided tour of the town's Christmas lights?

Amazing—and hugely disappointing!

Not only are these Christmas events entertaining but also they are, as I mentioned before, great things to do with kids. With all the harping school districts across America do about the importance of greater parental involvement in their children's lives, you would think that the message had set in.

But obviously it hasn't. The students drag out the same excuses year after year: too cold, too hot, too sick, too busy, too sleepy, no car, etc. 

And what holds them back is not just their unwillingness to go out on a dark winter night. From time to time during the year, I'll mention that President Bush will be on television, the Kentucky Derby will be run or America's most popular event, the Super Bowl, will be played.

How about a nice day trip? Have you been to Yosemite National Park? Sutter's Fort?

And the reaction from my students is unvaried: no interest!

Notice too that English is not required to participate in any of the suggested activities. Anyone can watch thoroughbred horses race at Churchill Downs without understanding a word of English.

How is it possible, I constantly wonder, that no matter what my recommendation is, which the season of the year it is or how convenient getting involved may be, no one is willing to make the effort?

In 2004, Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington wrote "Who Are We?", a book whose thesis is that the huge amount of immigration in recent decades and the failure of those immigrants to assimilate put American culture at risk.

But I ask myself a slightly different question: "Who Are You?"

The distinction between the two questions is small but important. Huntington wants to know how immigration is changing America and what the nation will turn into without assimilation.

I, on the other hand, want to know why immigrants are actively resisting—refusing, in essence—to become, if not American, then at least Americanized.

Every single immigrant—legal or illegal—who comes to the U.S. does so of his own free will and volition. But why come just to stay home to watch videos in your native language?

An immigrant who gets a job and put his kids in school so that they can have a brighter future experiences only a tiny fraction of the American way.

There's a whole, wonderful world out there. And it's a pity that not too many immigrants take advantage of it.

That, in a nutshell, is why I almost keeled over when I saw Yolanda. Finally, I thought, here is someone who is willing to step out on the town to experience what is going on around her.

While most of the thousands of students I've had disappear into the mist never to be heard from again, I've had a handful that have passed their G.E.D., become American citizens or land on their feet in some other tangible way.

But when, in the not too distant future, I hang it up at the Adult School, the memory that will stay with me the longest is seeing Yolanda and her two sons laughing and talking as they watched the parade march by.

Now if only all my other students from years past and years to come would follow Yolanda's example, then the questions, "Who Are We?" and "Who Are You?" might have different answers - and more encouraging ones.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly newspaper column since 1988. This column is exclusive to VDARE.COM.