|Oct/Nov 2008 Nonfiction|
The first day of September 2004 began the school year in Russia's town of Belsan. The film clip in the evening news showed smiling happy faces of Belsan's school children eager to meet their friends and their teachers after the long summer vacation. For the seven-year-olds it was the first day of school ever. The first graders felt grown-up but also apprehensive, judging from the way some children chewed their nails, bit their lips, or squeezed their small hands in to fists. Some hung on to their parents, not ready to enter the school building alone.
According to the school code, girls with large white bows in their hair, sported navy blue skirts, white tops, and white socks. Boys wore navy blue pants with white shirts. One or two stylish lads also put on a bow tie.
In addition to backpacks and bookbags, all Belsan students carried flowers.
Most of us know what happened next. The events that transpired that fatal September day remain unthinkable and incomprehensible. To the whole world's horror, students, teachers, and parents in Belsan became hostages of a terrorist group. At the end of three days, more than 200 people were dead, adults and children among them.
The tragedy in Belsan happened 34 years after I graduated from high school. It occurred in Russia, not in Poland where I had gone to school. But I saw many similarities between the beginning of the school year in Poland and in Belsan, Russia.
In Poland the school year also begins on the first day of September. It did when my grandmother went to school in the part of Poland occupied by the Tsarist Russia, and in the so called "free" Poland between the two World Wars, when my mother and my uncle were of school age.
On the first of September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and started the Second World War. For my mom and uncle's generation, the first day of school became also the first day of a six-year war. Instead of entering university, my uncle joined gorilla freedom fighters and my mom took nursing classes and worked at a hospital helping with the war's first casualties.
For the next six years, Polish children embarked on clandestine education in schools hidden in convents, forests, or private homes. This kind of secret life wasn't new to Poles. Mother tongue was the most important national characteristic that bound together our country and its people. In Poland occupied by Russia, Prussia, or the Austria-Hungary, our great grand- fathers and their grandfathers studied Polish in underground schools during more than three hundred years of foreign control. Despite each aggressor's prohibitions, intimidations, penalties, arrests, and executions, Polish people succeeded in preserving the language and traditions indispensable for the existence of our country.
Mikolaj Rej, a Polish poet of the Renaissance said:
"We'll have it that all and sundry nations be aware
That Poles are no geese, they have a language that they share."
Rej's appeal to the nation also ruled out Latin from church. Catholic priests began to preach in Polish, the language understood by their congregations.
During the following years, Polish people extrapolated Rej's idea and never succumbed to the pressure exerted by the occupying forces. Not even to Hitler's Germany.
From the time I was little, I dreamt about school. I played school with friends and with my dolls and teddy bears I sat in a circle on the floor. I couldn't wait to turn seven and start school. Alas, I was a sickly, prone-to-illness child. My parents followed doctors' advice—they had me home-schooled for the first school year to give my body more time to build up its immune system.
In our apartment complex I had two friends my age: Dorota*** and Ania. I was filled with envy when they started school. With a broken heart, I watched them from the window. They carried their school bags on their backs. In navy blue uniforms with white collars and blue school badges on the sleeves, they skipped across the courtyard swinging their slipper bags. I couldn't wait to join them.
At last it was May, and my mother went to the neighborhood elementary school to enroll me for the next academic year. She told the principal that I had been home-schooled and was ready to enter second grade in the fall. But the school's principal suggested I should start in the first grade right away. It would give the teacher an opportunity to evaluate me, and at the end of June I could graduate from first grade with all my classmates. Otherwise, I needed to take a stressful exam to second grade. Mom agreed, and my dream came true earlier than I had anticipated. The following day, I was to begin school in Ms. Malanowska's* class.
I didn't sleep the whole night. The next morning, my nanny walked me to school. I was in grade '1A' with Dorota. Ania was in grade '1B' with Ms. Zdanska*.
Everything that day seemed sunny and colorful. During recess Dorota showed me around and introduced me to my peers. Other girls from my class competed to befriend me. Among them were Zuzia, Slawka, and Fela. When Fela's time came to stroll with me, the others admonished her, "Don't you dare scratch her, Fela!"
"Does she scratch?" I asked, alarmed.
"Sure. Just like a cat!"
"If you make her mad, she'll scratch," said one of the girls philosophically.
Later I often witnessed Fela banned to stand in the corner of the classroom because she had scratched someone. Otherwise Fela was a nice girl, and I made friends with her despite her bad reputation.
On that first morning, I got bored after a while, so I stood up and packed my belongings.
"What are you doing, Monika?" Ms. Malanowska asked.
"I'm going home. I'll be back tomorrow," I said.
To my dismay, the teacher told me I had to wait till the end of classes and for nanny to pick me up.
Later that day, my parents asked how was school. I told them about Zuzia and Slawka who both lived right next to school, and Fela who scratched if you made her mad.
Janek, the son of my mom's friend, was also in my class. We had known each other since we were little.
"This Janek gets "Fs" all the time and says he wants to be the worst student in our grade since Dorota already took the best student's place. Besides, I think he's in love with me. During recess we played Cops and Thieves and he imprisoned me on a bench and wouldn't let me go till the beginning of the next period," I concluded.
My parents exchanged glances and asked about my teacher.
"She's nice but very old," I said.
"How old do you think she is?"
"Oh, at least twenty!"
My real first beginning of school year experience happened the following September when I entered second grade. The whole summer I missed school and my classmates. On the first of September, I hardly recognized my school friends. Everyone looked suntanned and rested. Boys had fresh haircuts; girls' fringes were short and their hair braided and tied with new ribbons. Dorota had the thickest, the most beautiful braid in the whole grade. Boys wore navy blue pants and white shirts; girls dressed in navy blue pleated skirts, white tops, and socks. Even the worst slobs looked neat, with their hands free of ink stains, their shirt collars still clean, tops having all buttons. Every single student had the blue shield-shaped school insignia with the school's number sewn onto the shirtsleeve. High school students' insignia were also shield-shaped, but red.
Many students brought flowers for their teachers. First, everybody gathered in the gym used as an auditorium. The principal welcomed teachers and students and wished everyone a good year filled with learning success. Next we formed pairs and went to our classrooms. Ms. Malanowska welcomed her 43 students. I belonged to the baby-boomers generation. Classrooms were filled to the brim, and Poland had too few schools. The government tried to rebuild the war-ruined cities as well as to build new schools. The slogan of these days was, Thousand schools for the thousand years. It referred to the coming thousand-year anniversary of Poland's Baptism in 966, when the Polish king converted to Catholicism.
The teacher asked us to sit down and took the roll call. Then a student-delegate presented her with a huge flower arrangement from the whole class. A few other students gave her flowers, too. Pani Malanowska gave a bag with candy to the person sitting in the first raw to pass along. Each student was allowed one piece of candy. Once everyone was busy chewing their sweets, the teacher asked how we spent our vacations. Most of us went out of town with the government-organized youth camps, some also spent time with their families in the country or with their parents in holiday resorts subsidized by the parents' work place. Time passed fast, and before I knew, we had to go home. Classes started the next day. I didn't realize it at the time, but that day began the next nineteen years of schooling for me. On the contrary, my parents' friends' son gave his education more thought. After returning home from his first day in the first grade, he asked, "Will I have to go to school much longer?"
The first day of high school was a much different experience. I felt grown-up. I had behind me a tough entrance exam and two long summer months of anxiety, wondering whether my mom's endeavor to enroll me in the high school of my choice would end in success. After my father died, mother and I moved to a smaller apartment located in the district of the high school I liked. My elementary school was in a different district, but having only a year left to graduation, I continued my education there after we had moved. According to the existing rules, I had to attend high school in the same district as the elementary school I graduated from. Bureaucracy of the time didn't deal with situation changes in citizens' lives that fast.
My friend Ela*** found herself in similar circumstances due to her parents' divorce. Ela and I became close in fifth grade, and until now she remains one of my best friends. Fortunately, our mothers succeeded in enrolling us it the high school we selected, because we both wanted to take French as a second language not offered by our district high school.
September 1, 1967, was sunny and warm. Ela met me by my house, and we walked together through the park admiring our new red school shields of the prestigious high school #2. Before the Second World War, it had been an all boy school. In the Communist Poland it became co-ed, but still retained its fame as one of the best in Warsaw. Beside the compulsory Russian, it offered French, English, and Latin in its curriculum. Ela and I wanted to take French. (I already spoke English as I took English classes for a few years and I spent summer vacations in England with my half-brother, a biophysicist at Manchester Christie Hospital.)
Anxious and excited, Ela and I traversed the park. I had taken off my jacket and stuffed it in my backpack. We walked down a steep street, dangling our slipper bags. At last we arrived at the school housed in a pre-war building with thick walls that still bore a few bullet holes. The edifice had a majestic appearance with its spacious windows and extensive grounds that contained a soccer field, a garden, and unkempt tennis courts.
At the entrance, older students welcomed us, checked our school shields, and showed us to the basement cloakroom ruled with an iron hand by a corpulent woman who insisted on being called Auntie. Under her supervision, we hung up coats, jackets, and bags holding our shoes as we had changed to slippers. After we passed Auntie's inspection and she delivered a grumbling okay, she screeched for us to go to homerooms on the second floor. On the way up, I searched the corridors for a glimpse of my 10th grader friend, the chestnut-haired Paul I had had a crush on since fifth grade. However, I didn't see Paul. Ela and I arrived in our designated classroom next to the teachers' lounge.
I liked our large homeroom with sunlight glowing through the windows that faced the school entrance and the street.
Ela and I sat at a center row desk, right next to the teacher's table and in front of the black board. I looked around but couldn't see anybody I knew. Apparently, everyone else from our elementary/middle school, including my best friend, Zuzia, went to the other high school, which belonged to our former school's district. I fidgeted in my seat.
An only child, I was shy and didn't make friends easily, unlike the outgoing Zuzia who befriended me in the first grade. My father passed away when I was twelve, which didn't add to my sense of security or my self-confidence. Now, I only had Ela and perhaps Paul to brighten my days at the new school.
The bell rang with a shrill, the classroom door flung open, and a rotund, middle-age woman rolled in. Conversation and bickering died down, and we all stood up in attention.
The lady scrutinized us for a moment, then said, "Good morning, Class. I'm Ms. Bead*, your homeroom and chemistry teacher. You can sit down."
"Good morning, professor Bead," forty voices thundered.
In Poland, we addressed high school teachers as professors.
Ela and I suppressed smiles at the teacher's last name and sat down. Ms. Bead plopped in a rickety chair on the other side of her desk and focused her dull blue eyes on me. She shook her head with disdain. Opening the Roll Call Book, she started to call out each of our names. Upon hearing your name, you had to stand up and face the class for everyone to see you. When she arrived at my name and I stood up, Ms. Bead scrutinized me with her small beady eyes, opened her mouth as if to say something, then must have thought better about it because she just hissed, "Sit down, Lange!"
I had been mistaken thinking I didn't know anyone in this student group. When I heard the name Tempest* and a skinny, timid student got up, I recognized a girl I'd met a few times at the mountain resort for the dignitaries. Her name was Hanna*, and rumors had it that she was an illegitimate child of the prime minister and his dentist, Mrs. Tempest. She did look like her father, with big blue eyes and a round face. Only her father was bald and she had a mop of thick, dark-blond hair. Years later, I found out that the prime minister shaved his head every day to look more notable but in fact he, like his daughter, had lots of hair. In those days, though, everybody knew him as the Bold Jack*.
Hanna Tempest, the last student on the class list, had just turned to face her peers when the door opened, and a gray-haired, distinguished-looking man entered. Ms. Bead told Hanna to sit down. The girl obliged with such readiness that she almost knocked down the books piled on her desk. Giggles arose at her clumsiness, but they died down when the newly arrived gentleman's stern look swept over the class.
He addressed Ms. Bead: "How do you find your new students, Ms. Bead? Is everyone dressed and behaving to your satisfaction?"
Our school dress code was simple—navy blue or black, long-sleeved coat with a white collar for girls, and a similar but shorter garment for boys. On the first day of school, girls were allowed to wear a dark skirt with a white blouse and boys dark pants with a white shirt.
Ms. Bead addressed the gentleman: "Everybody is fine, Principal Till*, except for the naked and indecent one."
To my horror, her chunky finger pointed at me! I felt flames creep up my neck and face. I wished to become invisible or that the Earth would swallow me. No such thing happened. Instead, I heard Bead's shriek in my ear. "Stand up! Yes, you Lange. I'm talking to you, Miss." The fat finger aimed at my bare arms. "Isn't your name Lange?"
Propping myself against my desk, my legs shaking, I stood up.
"It... is..." I stammered.
"Like the famous Lange?" she asked.
"Your father would be ashamed of you," she screeched. "Sit down. Tomorrow I want to see you dressed according to the school regulations. Understood?"
"Yes, Madam." I hung my head, thinking I would never have the courage to face the principal or my classmates again.
During recess, Ela somehow managed to get my jacket from the dreaded Auntie so that I could cover my arms and shoulders that Ms. Bead had found so offensive.
Such was my long anticipated, first day of high school. After classes, I dragged myself home thinking, "How am I going to survive four years with 'The Bead'?"
At home I related everything to my mother. I found out that before the war, Ms. Bead had been a member of the PSP (Polish Socialist Party) and had known my father, also a PSP activist. After the war, Poland had the misfortune of finding itself in the communist block and under the control of the Soviet Union. The government ordered members of PSP to merge with the Polish Communist Party (PCP) and thus create the Polish United Workers Party (PUWP). Evidently, Ms. Bead never forgave my dad for becoming a PUWP member, and for working with and for Poland's communist government. When she met me many years later, my deceased father's old "sins" sparked her animosity toward the daughter of her former comrade who had "betrayed" their party. In the days, months, and years that followed, I suffered many more humiliations not only from Ms. Bead but also from the new principal who took over principal Till's position after the unrest in March 1968** and a wave of ensuing anti-Semitism. A Jew, principal Till was fired and forced to emigrate, joining the fate of 20,000 other Polish Jews. He died in Sweden a few years later.
*—Names marked with an asterisk have been changed.
**—In 1967, 20-25000 Jews lived in Poland. Stress caused by the Cold War and Poland's political dependence from Kremlin forced Wladyslaw Gomulka, the PUWP's First Secretary, to ignite the anti-Zionist campaign. Gomulka needed people to turn against Polish Jews he called the disloyal to Poland "Fifth Column." Anti-Semitic feelings were to serve as distraction and prevent protests like the one known as "March '68", led by students and intellectuals. The Ministry of Internal Affairs made a list of all Jewish Polish citizens who subsequently were fired from their jobs, and with no means of support, they had to leave Poland.
"March '68" protesters demanded to exercise their right to free speech without repercussions, and the ending of Soviet censorship of Polish press, books, and other publications.
The anti-Semitic sentiments encouraged and stirred by the communist regime in the 1960s Poland divided the nation. The campaign also caused a long-term alienation of intellectuals and eventually led to the birth of "Solidarity" and the fall of the PUWP dictatorship.
***—Zuzia, currently one of the editors of Reader's Digest's Polish edition, remains my best friend. Thanks to e-mail, we correspond daily.
—Ela lives in the U.S.A. and with a PhD in chemistry, she works as a scientist in a private company. We often talk on the phone and meet as frequently as the distance between the East and the West coasts of America will allow. I found out about her Jewish origin after March '68. Riding the wave of anti-Semitism, many of our classmates and teachers under Ms. Bead's leadership subjected her to frequent mistreatment and mockery.
—During one of my latest visits to Poland, I found Slawka. We keep in touch since.
—Fela's father was Jewish, and the whole family emigrated after March '68. Fela and I lost contact.
—In early 1980s, Dorota perished in the plane crash of a Polish airliner on its way to New York.
—Ania lives on the U.S. East Coast.
—Hanna Tempest is Zuzia's boss and friend at Reader's Digest.
—-Janek lives in the Tatra Mountains where he owns a popular restaurant, "Szymkowka," and a few cabins and ski lifts. He always welcomes visits from his friends so if you happen to go there, just say you are my pal.