It’s not often these days that a news story makes me smile, but this one (by Yilu Zhao) did. Shuang Wen Academy is a school on the Lower East Side that teaches in both Mandarin Chinese and English; obviously it was created by and for Chinese. Yet ten percent of the students are black.
Although only two of the school’s first class of 45 students were not of Chinese descent, Shuang Wen gradually gained a reputation among some of the city’s black middle-class parents for being nurturing yet rigorous. In last spring’s citywide third-grade math and English tests, Shuang Wen ranked third in math and 23rd in English among the city’s almost 1,000 elementary schools.
Now, before the start of every school year, more and more black parents arrive at the office of the principal, Ling-Ling Chou, seeking admission for their children to the prekindergarten class — which is based on interviews with prospective students and their parents. They are undeterred by the fact that their children will be among the few non-Asians in the school, or that Mandarin is famously difficult to master. Chinese instruction runs from 3 to 5:30 p.m. daily. All subjects, however, are taught in both languages.
Shuang Wen is housed in a corner space in Public School 134, at East Broadway and Grand Street, and blacks are not the only non-Chinese among its 245 students. But the 23 black students are by far the largest non-Chinese group, outnumbering the 11 whites and 8 Hispanics.
As an alternative school, Shuang Wen admits students from all five boroughs, and many of the black children live an hour or more away. There are no school buses serving them, and parents have to drop off and pick up their children.
All right, the “famously difficult to master” is silly; no language is difficult to a child. But isn’t that a nice news item? In this age of ethnocentrism and mutual suspicion, it reminds us that people can still reach across barriers. And something tells me those kids are going to have a leg up on monoglots when they start looking for jobs.
It also reminds me of a story. It seems that Morrie hadn’t seen his friend Sol in a long time, so he dropped by Sol’s deli. When he went in, he was greeted by a Chinese shop clerk—with “Sholem aleikhem”! The clerk asked what he wanted and told him “Sol’s in the back,” all in flawless Yiddish. Morrie went through the door to the back room and said “Sol, it’s great to see you! But listen, how did you find a Chinese guy who speaks Yiddish?” Sol looked alarmed and said “Shh! He thinks we’re teaching him English.”