When I started first grade I didn't know a word of English. I think about this when I hear people discussing issues about the influx of immigrants in schools in a not-so-positive way and how, once, I was one of those kids.
By the time I started school our family had been in America for about five months. At home I spoke Polish with my parents and French with my brothers. We kids had attended school back in France where we lived before immigrating to the U.S. Playing with other kids we heard a lot of French and pretty soon we were chattering in French, too. I can still remember the entrance to the school, the building that held the toilets and the fountain with the water spigots in the middle of the school yard where we washed our hands. I had to wear this required apron - really more like a white pinafore - that my mother had sewn for me, for kindergarten. So age-wise it was right that I should start first grade that September and was enrolled at our parish school where the Felician nuns, an order that originated in Poland, also spoke Polish. I think the consensus was that, placed in the same class as English-speaking kids, we'd pick up the language and the nuns would be our go-between in the Polish and English worlds.
I must have stood out a bit what with no English and pierced ears and earrings in first grade. This was 1954 when it wasn't in yet. The nun called me Sophie, the American version of Zofia.
I was assigned a desk along the windows, third or fourth from the front. Next to me a boy had three, long, sharp yellow pencils. I thought they were beautiful but I didn't have the words to tell him.
My first book was about Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. How I loved that reader! First I loved the pictures because I certainly couldn't read the words. I can still see Jane losing her roller skate and the long ears on Spot. Puff, the cat, was in there, too. Later on educators would highly criticize this reader for being overly simplistic but I'll defend it to my last breath. My very first English words were Run, Jane, run. See, see. We repeated the words over and over again out loud with Sister leading the way, page after page. For me it was Fun with Dick and Jane.
I felt different, not knowing the language, but I don't remember anybody being mean to me. I only remember one, what was to me at the time, a huge incident. Again, because I didn't have the words, when I needed to go to the bathroom I'd raise my hand or, if it was quiet time, look-at-your-reader time, I'd walk up to the desk and ask Sister in Polish if I could go. OK, good to go. But one time, she must have decided it was time I learned how to say it in English. She stood me up in front of the class, called everyone to attention and made me pronounce each word slowly after her: May-I-go-to-the-bathroom? Those words were way, way ahead of anything I'd seen in Dick and Jane. I had to do it though, pronounce each word after her and felt completely stupid and humiliated and was in tears. All those eyes looking at me! Lesson over, I went to pee and returned to my seat. I never did see that particular topic covered in my reader but still...it'll always be me and Dick and Jane. BFF.
Photo: Google images
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.