WE ALL HAD TO HAVE Spanish names in eighth grade Spanish class. My name was “Pedro.” It is purely coincidence that I now have a son-in-law with that name. Neither of us had a choice. In my case, my mother was the only Spanish teacher in my junior high school.
This was in the early 1960s. The Space Race had erupted. American political leaders were determined to improve public education as a key part of their strategy to win the race. It wasn’t just more science and math. Languages were important too. So the smart kids were taught Russian. The rest of us, well, Buenos dias.
Our teacher, my mother, was very patient, very fair. I was very bad. This led to awkward moments at the family dinner table, as in, “Guess who was sent to the principal’s office today?” I had no defense. No dessert either.
If there was anything more frustrating for my mother than having her smart aleck kid as a pupil, it was coping with an early version of the Language Lab, a classroom full of desk-high workstations, each equipped with a headset and microphone. The headsets had bagel-sized earphones and the microphones were mounted on long arms which, when you adjusted them, made sounds exactly like flatulence.
The teacher would play an audiotape recording of a Spanish speaker who slowly voiced common words and phrases that students would then repeat. The teacher would switch from one cubicle to the next, monitoring each student’s pronunciation. She could override the recording and talk to the student directly.
With current digital technology, this is no problem. In 1961 it was kind of an educational train wreck. Switches didn’t work, so some kids couldn’t hear the teacher or the tape or the teacher couldn’t hear them. The workstations were designed so that in the back rows, if you hunched over in the right way, you could disappear from the teacher’s view, an irresistible temptation for a certain type of eighth grader. And oh, the sounds you could make.
As the year wore on we used the language lab less and less until it disappeared from the curriculum. Maybe it worked better for the Russian students.
These memories came to mind with the report in last week’s issue about the proposal to show R-rated Spanish language movies as part of the Hudson High School Spanish course.
The idea was greeted with practical concerns expressed by members of the Board of Education and Superintendent Maria Suttmeier. How would students be able to opt out of viewing what they or their parents might find objectionable? And what would replace the learning time lost by students who won’t see the films?
The teachers proposing to show the films said they would be willing to edit the films so they are age appropriate. It’s not clear how they could accomplish that, but give them credit for trying to enliven the class so that more kids will want to learn.
Films receive R ratings because they contain content determined by the Motion Picture Association of America to contain sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and, yes, “language” that the MPAA thinks is inappropriate for people under 17 years old and not accompanied by an adult.
Technically, the kids in Spanish class would be accompanied by an adult—the teacher–and technologically it’s possible to delete or skip over the naughty or nasty parts. But if it’s a language class, how much do you want to cover up how people speaking Spanish really speak?
Wherever the district draws the line for what may be shown, someone will be offended. The best movies are often the most controversial. The question is whether it’s better to show them in the classroom or instead inform students that there are many exceptional Spanish language films just as there is a world of great Spanish language literature and let them discover these treasures for themselves.
And in case any adults don’t already know: Even if the school cuts out the R-rated parts, the kids will find all the forbidden stuff online.
That’s no excuse for failing to try the teachers’ R-rated film proposal in some form. The screening of parts of those films might make it cool to learn Spanish. Some kid who’s a troublemaker in class might pay attention and learn more than anyone expected.
Pedro, the younger, is a mathematician and a popular poet in parts of the Spanish-speaking world. I talk with him in English but I can’t read his poetry. The loss is mine.