Taking on the principal to preserve advanced foreign-language classes

He was relaxed, leaning back in his cushioned chair. Then he scooted up to his big desk.

"Catherine," my high school principal said to me, "I see you in two ways: Catherine the journalist and Catherine the student."

He raised his hands, palms parallel to each other.

"As Catherine the journalist, you need to understand the difference between an editorial and an article. You need to know what you are writing," he said.

"I intend to write an editorial," I said calmly.

"You need to get your facts straight. Obesity is the No. 1 killer in America," he said, chuckling. "Tell me what the bigger problem is: obesity or not knowing a foreign language?"

"Can I clarify something?" I asked.

"No, no," he waved his hands. "Just tell me what is worse."

I looked to the side, thinking.

"I think that ignorance of a foreign language and culture is worse," I replied. "I really do. Racism kills."

He leaned back again, unimpressed.

This was the source of the argument: He was trying to cut fourth-year French and Spanish classes because of "lack of students." Never before have so many of us wanted to take advanced French and Spanish at my school, and he wanted to cut them out, leaving the three levels of physical-education classes untouched.

"I think that your academic courses are just as important as physical education courses," he had told my foreign-language teachers the day before. "They are important for students going into a medicine- or sports-related field."

"Oh yes, sir, we know!" my Spanish teacher had jumped in, trying to appease him. "That's why so many of the students wanting to be doctors are studying Spanish; they know how important it is."

She hadn't swayed him. His mind already was made up.

I had to make him see how vital French and Spanish are to our community. Did he know how diverse our little town in northeast Indiana was becoming? Who could have predicted the influx of Hispanics? Who would have guessed that we would need French speakers to communicate with the families from Chad? Foreign languages are practical on our own doorsteps.

That wasn't all. We foreign-language students want to learn more. We want the challenge; we want to hold conversations in French or Spanish. How could he take that away from us?

Our school has accommodated the P.E. students for many years. We offer it all for our 1,200 students – basic P.E. and health, two levels of aerobics, two levels of team sports, lifesaving, three levels of strength training. Because they are popular classes, they stay.

"I have to think of what will help the majority of students," he said. "If I have 30 extra freshman art students, and 12 French IV students, I may have to have [the French teacher] teach art."

"But those students are freshmen," I said, my voice rising. "They can take art their sophomore year. French IV students are seniors, and this is the last year they will be able to take French."

"Well, they can each individually work with their counselors to see what years they can take classes," he said.

He had dodged my question again.

"Our community is much more culturally diverse today than it ever was before," I said.

He nodded and studied the wall.

"And with this cultural diversity often comes racism. Foreign-language classes teach about the language and culture. Kids learn that there is no reason to fear or hate foreigners. On culture days, we celebrate diversity and eat exotic foods, and hear exchange students tell about their country. Racism will be a bigger problem in the future if we don't educate the students," I said.

I paused for a few seconds, then continued. He appeared to be listening.

"Also, I want our classes to have students who are really interested in the language and want to learn. At the lower levels, there are too many kids who just take Spanish or French to receive their academic honors diploma."

"Well, this is a public school," he scoffed. "If you want that, you have to go to a private institution."

As he continued, I could barely believe my ears.

"I think that this is good, what you are doing," he said. "This is what America is about: Letting your voice be heard and fighting for a cause. I think that's good. You're a bright person, but you need to get your facts straight and study this."

"But there is such a need for foreign languages in...."

"I have to go to a meeting that I'm already late for," he said, pushing back his sleeve to look at his watch. "I have to go, kiddo."

The meeting had lasted 40 minutes, and I hadn't made a dent in his opinion.

But I wasn't finished. Later, I called the superintendent, and asked to be added to the next school-board meeting agenda.

My foreign-language classmates and teachers and I have just begun what might prove to be a long battle.

• Catherine Housholder is a high school junior in Indiana.

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