Saturday, November 10, 2007

Me and Julio (and Fred and Lamont and Roberto and Dionny) Down by the Schoolyard, Then and Now

In episode 76 of Sanford and Son, recalled by posterity only as Julio and Sister and Nephew,“Fred's anti-Puerto Rican attitude suddenly changes after Julio's nephew is the victim of discrimination in school.” That’s according to, the Web site for the cable network on which we viewed Julio and Sister and Nephew just this Saturday night.

Like most one-line summations, the TVLand listing fails to capture the nuance of Julio and Sister and Nephew. Julio, played by a rangy character actor you used to see on TV a lot, usually portraying a badass in some crime drama, is Fred’s noble Puerto Rican neighbor and often the target of the irascible L.A. junkman’s coarse ethno-racial repartee. In the aptly titled Julio and Sister and Nephew, Julio’s sister and nephew come to L.A. from the old country and, for reason or reasons we missed while in the kitchen fixing supper, wind up lodging temporarily in Fred and son Lamont’s digs. Fred treats the sister with something less than respect and puts her to work cleaning the Sanford Arms---are you hanging with us here?---but refuses to eat the ethnic dishes she cooks, explaining that “my doctor has me on a strict diet---no garbage!”

The conflict, if you will, emerges when nephew Roberto (if we remember correctly) enrolls in the L.A. school system. He’s a fifth grader but is told by the school that he must go back to the fourth grade because, according to his teacher, he can’t speak or understand English well enough to “keep up”* with the class. This makes young Roberto angry, and tearful. “I’m not a baby,” he declares, in what sounded to us like perfectly serviceable English.

Then, sometime in the near future---we missed the transition on a return trip to the kitchen---comes word that acting-out Roberto has been suspended from school. Roberto’s mother prevails upon a reluctant Fred---Lamont and Julio apparently are “out”---to accompany her to the school to suss out the situation. There the pair meet with the principal, a dignified African-American gentleman with stentorian voice, who explains that there’s nothing he can do about Roberto’s problem---the teacher is adamant that the boy’s English skills aren’t up to the 5th grade.

Then Fred has a bold idea: “Why don’t you stay after school and help him [with his English]?”

“I can’t do that---I’m the principal!” sez the principal.

“Well,” ripostes Fred G., “how about forgetting about your principal and worrying about his interest?”

The studio audience applauds heartily, and the principal, moved by the junkman’s unassailable and punning logic, agrees: “Yes, I think I will!”

This obviously was back in the day, when a school principal just rolled out the balls and burnished the heavy wooden paddle and didn’t have to fret over standardized test scores. But what really betrayed the datedness of Julio and Sister and Nephew was the fact that a 1970s sit-com created and produced by Norman Lear, the consummate Hollywood liberal of the time, was sermonizing on behalf of pushing Spanish-speaking children to immediately learn English (albeit with the help of special after-hours tutelage from the school principal).

Yes, this was so long ago (we assume the episode was made sometime between 1972 and 1975), back before the Mexican economic dislocations of the late ’70s triggered the massive and sustained illegal immigration to the United States that only recently has shown signs of abating, and back before the perfessers down the corner College of Education misread Thomas Dewey and saddled the public schools of the land with bilingualism (which, as we have noted too many times previously, turned out to be monolingualism, the lingualism being español) and other flavor-of-the-month theories regarding child-centered education (as opposed to education-centered education).

Our viewing of Sanford and Son followed our learning of the news in Saturday’s Houston Chronicle that the Houston school district was for the first time to conduct University Interscholastic League academic competitions in Spanish (and not just for the subject Spanish, we should note). The newspaper explained that this was sort of a UIL-sanctioned experiment that could spread elsewhere in the state. The school district’s organizer, identified as Michael Fain, was quoted as saying, "There is not a single person that has said we should not do this."

Obviously Mr. Fain needs to get out of the house more often.

This struck as a fairly significant story, given the hallowed place of UIL competitions in Texas public education, yet it was written with the typical gee-whilikers, ain’t-this-wonderful approach the Chronicle invariably takes to such stories (it’s FOR THE KIDS, and how could you be against something that’s FOR THE KIDS, even if it’s bad FOR THE KIDS?) The human interest angle comes in the person of a competitor in the Spanish-language creative-writing contest, 7-year-old Dionny Rodriguez, who “came to Houston this year from Mexico, where [she] used to recite poems in Spanish” (which suggests that the youngster may have been getting a better education down in Mexico, recitation being rote memorization, which is roundly condemned down at the College of Education, ’cause, y’know, it could be too hard and boring and whatnot).

She came this year … couldn’t they find somebody who had been in the country longer than a few months? (We’ll pause here to catch our breath and point out what seems to have flown right past all the geniuses and their analyses of last week’s election returns: One reason for the narrowness of victory of the HISD schoolhouse-bonds referendum is a growing backlash, especially among blacks, against the metastasizing cost [new schools, bilingual teachers, summer school, etc. and so on] of educating the children of illegals---mark it and check it out.) What about all the Chinese and Korean and African and Albanian and Bosnian kids (and don't forget the Meshketian Turks!) in the local schools who aren't being served in their respective native tongues like young Dionny and therefore have to get strokin' in English? Wouldn't fairness dictate that they get their own UIL competitions?

But don’t worry. According to the Chronicle, this foray into UIL bilingualism (monolingualism) “doesn't mean football fouls will be called in Spanish anytime soon.”

Football fouls?

Hold on, Elizabeth, I’m comin’! (Grab chest, fall over.)

*Keeping up with the class---what a quaint notion!

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