*Please welcome back guest blogger Polish Mama On The Prairie. She was born in Poland, but has spent most of her life in the U.S. She’s a mom of two, married to her high school sweetheart and is equally passionate about America and Poland. Here’s part II of her story:
I also didn’t think I had an accent, until it was pointed out to me by several children in front of a teacher who didn’t say anything to them. It was then that I found out what “Polack” meant. It wasn’t a word in Polish. It was only a word in English and apparently there were many nasty jokes involving that word. I hated school.
I also found out what the “N” word meant. A girl, who apparently thought it was funny, told me to walk up to the black boy in our class and say “Hi, N—–!” She told me that it meant friend.
Apparently, it did not because I got in a lot of trouble for it in school, even though I was just beginning to learn the language. And of course, the girl who told me to do so didn’t get in trouble, because, as I was told by some big angry adults (I still have no idea who they were but could you imagine being in kindergarten how big they were and small and vulnerable I felt?) that I “should have known better than to repeat everything someone tells you!” Never mind that I didn’t even know my English alphabet or colors yet and was eager to learn. The lesson I learned from that, don’t be quick to learn things from people. Don’t trust anyone.
I started taking ESL classes to learn English. I remember getting very frustrated with the teacher at times, who only spoke English and had no idea, not even one ounce, of what I was going through. I finished it early because I wanted to fit in so desperately. While taking ESL, I was still expected to take all the other classes that the American kids were taking. There was no leniency for the fact that I didn’t speak the language which the lessons were given in. I got exceptional grades in English and Spelling. I was proud of myself for it. I, the little girl from another country, the one with the funny accent, the “stupid Polack”, was getting better grades than the American kids were. But to them, I still talked funny, and nobody discouraged their harsh words.
At first, for lunch, I brought food from home, as many kids did, but my bread was different, my sandwiches different. My mother packed, heaven forbid, vegetables in my lunch, which, heaven forbid, I ate because, heaven forbid, I liked them and grew up eating them and wanted to grow up to be big and strong. Until I noticed other kids would ask too many questions about my food.
Once, a little girl asked, “Why don’t you eat peanut butter and jelly on white bread like us?” I answered “What’s that? I never had it before.” She told me that all American kids ate it and that maybe I should “Go back to where I came from if America is so bad that you can’t even eat what we all eat, you stupid Polack.” I was 7 years old. It wasn’t the first time I was told to go back to wherever I was from because I did things a little different (never mind that I desperately wanted to fit in and never said anything nasty about what they did). It wasn’t going to be the last time I heard it either.
In fact, I heard some very strange statements about Poland from other children. That we were all Communists. Did we have tombstones, tomatoes, diapers, cows, cars? That we owed the USA for everything because the USA rescued Poland during World War II because we were too stupid and lazy to fight the Nazis. I could go on for hours.
At home, I tried to speak English all the time, even though my parents wanted me to still speak Polish so that I would have that as a job skill later on in life. They were right, of course, but with what I went through at school, I didn’t care. My parents spoke to the teachers about my issues with my peers and the first couple of teachers cared and had me sit at tables where the children were not judgmental and nasty.
But then, I got a teacher who didn’t care at all and probably secretly was a nasty little racist herself. My schoolwork suffered for a while under her. I began to draw back emotionally from people and not focus. In the beginning of the school year, when she met my mother and I, she requested a fellow teacher to try translating for us. When the second teacher came, she listened to us speaking English, albeit with accents, and she announced “They speak English clearly. You don’t need an interpreter.” My new teacher would go on to hold hostility toward my family. She and my mother once got into a screaming argument because she believed I should have been held back the year prior and because she believed I needed to be tested since she felt I had a low IQ. Never mind the fact that the same year we were all tested for future placement in the new Gifted and Talented programs and my results placed me two years ahead of my peers. My mother was so pleased at the results, she shared them very nicely with the teacher, who in the conversation went from her usual fake smile (it was the year I also learned that just because someone smiles, does not mean they are actually happy) to a very unhappy and angry face. She then looked at me, smiled and said “I always knew you were intelligent. You just lack focus, sweetie.” And then turned to my mother and said “I still think she needs more ESL classes” and walked away.
We did a presentation in class, my first. I didn’t fully understand what the assignment was, asked and was told to “Just do it!” It was for Black History Month. It was the first time I had ever heard of that. I asked my parents if they had a Polish History Month and my parents laughed. Apparently, there wasn’t an Immigrant History Month, either. The assignment was to pick a famous Black person and write about them. This was a new idea to me. How would I know who was a famous Black person? My parents didn’t really know either so a classmate’s mother suggested, and I wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr., who’s dream of a color blind world really touched me.
While presenting my essay in front of the class, I began to stumble on my words and speak quieter and the same racist teacher commented “Somebody needs more ESL classes! Go sit down!” I was so young and I still remember how angry and hurt I felt. I still carry hatred towards her, which I know is wrong, but I don’t care, it’s the way I feel.
The holes I have in my education are all from that year. I can’t multiply off the top of my head and I struggle to write an research essay about a theme someone presents me with. That year, we also learned about the names of other countries and their capitals. I decided in high school to learn that on my own, since I didn’t learn it that year in elementary school. I could work on it more, I know. I could shake the blame I lay squarely on her. But she was also a teacher. Someone who helps shape children into the adults they become. And I don’t think she had any right to be one.
I also feel shock and disgust at the education system because although my mother repeatedly reported her for marking all my homework as wrong, of which the answers were all always correct, even according to the Principal of the school, she continues to teach to this day. In fact, when we moved to a new school district, my younger sibling was assigned her as a teacher in the new school. She attempted to fail my sibling as well, and state that she could not understand their “accent” which they did not have, being born and raised in the USA. After three months of her continued harassment of my mother and sibling, my sibling was transferred to a different teacher, but that woman was never reprimanded.
I ended up losing my accent very quickly. I also forgot Polish. My cousins, both Babcie, Cioci, and Wujek would all send me cards and letters which I loved. But I didn’t know who they were. And it reminded me constantly that I was missing family. And I couldn’t call them to talk because at the time, calling Poland could cost you over $100 for just a half an hour. And I didn’t write to them because I felt ashamed that I didn’t know Polish well enough anymore to say anything.
I even had play dates with another little boy my age who was also Polish and who constantly reminded me that he “was more Polish” than I was. Surprising, he and his family later in life were confused why I didn’t marry him. I’m actually glad I left the neighborhood I lived in, because shamefully, many Polish Americans had that same “I’m more Polish than so-and-so” attitude. I don’t think that is a Polish trait, I think it was specific to that neighborhood.