It all started when a young fellow named Juan, from the Republic of Colombia, signed up for my driver training course.
Juan was a roundish, outgoing and jolly fellow with a delightful sense of humor and good command of the English language. We became friends immediately. A few weeks after finishing the course he came bounding into my office and said, “Bob, there are many Latino people here who need your help. Have you ever thought about teaching your classes in Spanish?”
I informed Juan that my Spanish-speaking skills were good for little more than a good laugh. I hadn’t spoken the language since I was a kid in Los Angeles, where I had a couple of neighborhood pals from Venezuela who taught me mostly words that cannot be repeated here.
Oh, I took a class in high school, but you know how that goes. I learned how to conjugate a verb, but couldn’t carry on a conversation any better than I could carry a tune. Then there were those trips to Tijuana as a college kid, but the less said about that the better.
“I would really like to do this,” I told Juan. “But, I’m already working 12 hours a day, six days a week with my regular classes, how’m I supposed to handle this too?”
He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I finally gave in.
“Okay, amigo, if you can help me out, we’ll do one trial class. If it doesn’t work, we’ll forget about it. If it does work, then we’ll see.”
He agreed and we set about putting together a curriculum.
Well, it did work way better than I could have imagined. Juan went on the payroll and we became a team. It was the beginning of one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. We ended up teaching our class in Spanish for nearly 10 years and in the process made countless friends in our Latino community. I even learned the language — well, sort of.
In case you’re wondering, these people were all in the USA legally. We could not have enrolled them in our tightly state-controlled classes otherwise. All were productive working people with families who needed to be able to legally drive to work and take their kids to school.
This is where Sergeant Greg Hammer comes in. He was a traffic officer for our city police department as well as the department’s public information officer. He and I would meet from time to time at public awareness forums, city council meetings and various other events.
One day I asked him if he would be willing to come and speak to my classes. He said he’d be delighted to do so and we set up a date on the spot for what would be the first of many such occasions involving Sergeant Hammer, our popular county Sheriff Carl Stokes and others. We even got the mayor to show up once.
We would start a class as usual. At a prearranged time Hammer — 6 foot, 4 inches and bearlike — would stroll into the classroom wearing his blue-gray full service uniform with all the trimmings including gun belt and all that goes with that. The room would go silent. I would introduce him, and then retire to the rear of the room and his presentation would begin.
Naturally the bulk of his program was about traffic safety, but, in time, we worked in some extras. I would, for example, ask him to talk about all those gadgets on his gun belt. He would then describe each in detail along with a tale about the “cuffs” or some other item.
Once, while demonstrating an arrest he turned his back to us and slammed both hands against my whiteboard leaving palm prints that never did go away.
Yes, these sessions could get animated. Wide eyed and mouths agape, our teens and Latino students loved these classes. Many would hang around after class to talk with Greg or the sheriff and often brought parents or friends in to introduce them to the officers.
Profiling was a concern among our Latino students as it is everywhere. This was one of the reasons I was anxious for police officers to talk to our Latino students. I thought the sergeant handled the subject very well.
He would say for example: “If I am in my patrol car and a person drives by in a normal way, then I have no reason to suspect anything. But, if that person looks at me in a suspicious way as if they might be hiding something (he would demonstrate with appropriate expressions which always prompted laughs) then, regardless of their ethnicity, I may think there’s a need to investigate further.”
He made it clear that, in our town, traffic stops were never based solely upon race or nationality.
In a move, which I vigorously opposed, the state eventually chose to put rules in place which made it virtually impossible for non-English speaking persons to obtain drivers licenses. This inevitably led to more unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road. Our classes in Spanish came to an end.
But, for a while at least, we were not only providing a needed service, and were serving the interests of the state and public safety. We all — the sergeant, the sheriff, Juan and me — were very sorry to see it come to a close.