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Column: Language barrier didn’t leave Sidney Feinberg behind

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Feb. 10, 2007.

WORTHINGTON — This is not a political column, but schools are the heart of American politics in our time. Politicians in every state capital are arguing, deciding what things kids should be taught, debating how much money schools should be given, shaping school standards. In Washington, the senators and the howitzers also are debating school policies.

The goal is no kid be left behind — no kid stand at the end of the line.

In old times, a troop of high school boys reported for baseball practice in the spring. By Memorial Day, one kid might be batting like Joe Mauer and another kid would have a .141 average. Something like that. The goal now is to have every ballplayer hitting like Justin Morneau by the end of a season and have every team win its conference championship.

It was not always so.

There would be a couple of kids who would go into a geometry class and brush through theorems as easily and as naturally as they would eat bowls of ice cream. There would be another kid — he would take geometry for two years with two different teachers and still struggle with isosceles triangles and hypotenuses.

The thing that got me started on this — there was a newspaper story about kids starting school who can’t speak English, and about the chance they never will learn geometry. This made me think of Sidney Feinberg.

Sam Feinberg bought a general store at Reading — this was 90 years ago. Sam and Minnie Feinberg both were immigrants from Russia. The Feinbergs moved to Reading, tended their store and made a home.

The time came for their boy Sidney to start school. Sam walked the boy over to Reading’s red brick schoolhouse. The Feinbergs lived two houses to the south.

Many years later, Sidney told about his handicap that autumn morning:

“I was 4 years old. All I knew was Russian. You see, I was learning to speak just in that time when we were in Russia, so that is what I learned. Of course my parents spoke Russian.”

I believe the Reading school was a good school. My dad went there during some of those same years. But — you know — Reading was not rated one of The Great Schools of America. Reading had no teacher trained in English as a Second Language. Kids and teachers did the best they could.

Grant Ohland, who lived at Worthington for many years, was teaching Indian kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota at about this same time. Grant’s students could not speak English. Grant hit on something clever — he brought Sears Roebuck catalogues to school. He would point to a picture: “This is a shoe.” Pretty soon he had all the kids in the class pointing at their feet and telling one another, “This is a shoe.”

Back to Sidney Feinberg. Speaking Russian at Reading.

In 1921 the Feinbergs moved to Worthington and Sam Feinberg opened a new store in the 1400 block of 10th Street. By that time Sidney had learned some English.

They put him in the second grade and shuffled him directly to the third grade. They had him in the fifth grade. A couple of days later they moved him on to the sixth grade.

Many years later he recalled: “When I was in the eighth grade, I was in the Nobles County spelling bee. I remember I placed number one in either the written test or the oral test. I’m not just sure which.” Sidney knew a lot of English by that time.

In the end, Sidney Feinberg was graduated from Worthington High School when he was 13 years old. He is the all-time youngest graduate of WHS.

He was graduated from Carleton and then from the University of Minnesota school of law when he was 19. Minnesota wouldn’t give him a license to practice until he was 21.

Everybody believed Sid Feinberg was a good guy. He loved to play horseshoes. He was announcer for the Worthington Cubs baseball games. Oh — and that Russian kid also was a Worthington High School debater.

The rest of the kids, before and after, were left behind. Nobody at WHS ever did as well as Sidney.