My first day at school in 1947, I knew only two English words - ''shut up.'' Actually ''chutup'' was one word for me. This was in El Paso, Texas, where even though espanol was as common as English, its use was forbidden in school.
In my monolingual school, I can remember the fears, anxieties, and desperate need to run to my mother's arms and her soft Spanish words. I dreaded night, the coming of morning, and saying adios to my mama as I left for school. I was miserable not being able to communicate with Sister Margaret Ann. I had to repeat first grade. The stigma of having failed stayed with me for the rest of my grade school years.
Often, I have thought how much more efficient and painless my introduction to school would have been, had there been someone to soften the blow - someone who spoke Spanish and understood not only my tongue but also my culture.
Now we have bilingual education. But because of myths and false impressions it has become an issue.
It is a myth that parents don't want their children to learn English or that they refuse to help. My father knew enough English to do his job as a janitor in a synagogue, where he worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week. My mother had been a Mexican schoolteacher who taught her six children not only how to read and write Spanish but also Mexican history.
She had 100 percent faith the Anglo-American school system would teach us English. I never told her about the school janitor or bilingual classmates who translated for the nuns and me. My parents had no time for English night classes or Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meetings they could not comprehend. Spanish was our home language and the language we spoke to our relatives, friends, and store merchants.
Francisca Sanchez, former director of a bilingual education program in a San Jose high school district and now a lecturer at the University of California at Davis, knows the problem only too well. ''Bilingual education does work,'' she asserts. ''If it is not working in some cases, it is because there is no full commitment by school administrators, teachers, and parents.''
Lack of commitment is evident in the need for qualified bilingual teachers, lack of training materials, and limited budgets. At times, bilingual education has been used merely to segregate minorities in classrooms.
Where bilingual education has had support, Spanish-speaking students have done as well as monolingual English-speakers, or better. Many school administrators and teachers do not believe in the concept but pay lip service to it because it is law. Some look down on it with the reminder that they never had the same privilege. Negative feelings generated by those who should be most positive are picked up by the students.
The full concept of bilingual education is difficult to grasp. Common sense would tell us that to learn English, it is best to immerse yourself in it - not by speaking Spanish. But learning English is not accomplished by total immersion , just as a nonswimmer is not thrown into the deep end of a pool. It is difficult enough to learn English without having to learn math, history, and the sciences in that language.
Irma Herrera, who worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, puts it another way: ''I could spend three years in a classroom in China listening to Cantonese and not learn Cantonese. Spanish-speaking children need instruction by people trained in second-language acquisition.''
According to the fund, less than 20 percent of several million limited-English students are served by bilingual education. Bilingual education cannot be blamed for the failure to educate non-English speakers.
There are students in this country who sit all day in class, absorbing unfamiliar sounds, and then are taken for mentally retarded or slow learners. Eventually they drop out or are dropped out. Fifty percent of Latinos never finish high school. Much of the problem has to do with the schools' inability to lessen language alienation.
It is absurd how this country spends millions of dollars trying to teach other languages to its diplomats, salesmen, and military, while at the same time trying to make this a monolingual society. Former California Sen. S. I. Hayakawa wanted to make English the official language, never blinking at the fact that Switzerland has four official languages or that the European Common Market conducts its business in seven official languages. With Latinos and Latin America so much in our future, one would think bilingual education would even be mandatory.