PRECIOUS GIFT OF LANGUAGE

PRECIOUS GIFT OF LANGUAGE

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrates Teachers

PRECIOUS GIFT OF LANGUAGE

Holly Warchol, a moonfaced girl in first grade, gave me a gift I will never forget.

Every time I speak, I realize that it is because of her kindness and encouragement. In the loneliest part of my childhood, she taught me to speak the language and understand life in America.

For a number of years, my father tried to get our family out of Poland.

The government did not allow us to leave. Warsaw would give us a passport but then not our visa. Once the passport expired, we would be granted a visa.

You can imagine my father’s frustration.

One day, a Polish Communist official was expelled from France. This man was a friend of my father. So my dad asked him to intervene on our behalf in Warsaw. Our papers almost miraculously appeared.

I said good-bye to my teacher and schoolmates. Fearing some unknown reversal of fortune, we took only what we could carry and quickly departed for the United States.

I met Holly when my parents put me into St. Stanislaus Catholic School in Youngstown, Ohio. This was a Polish parish. Almost all the nuns who taught at St. Stan’s spoke Polish. My parents knew that a language barrier would cause me difficulty in an American public school.

Even though in 1964 I was almost eight, the nuns decided that I should begin in first grade. They knew of a little girl in the first grade who possibly could help me.

My desk was put into the back of the classroom, right next to Holly’s. When the teacher spoke, Holly occasionally would lean over to me, brush her shoulder-length, dark-mahogany hair away from her face, hang it over her right ear and whisper to me a Polish translation of what the teacher had just said.

At first, I spent most of my time staring as I looked around the classroom. In my school in Poland, there was no statue of a man nailed to a cross hanging over the blackboard.

In my classroom in Poland, we did not have one single picture on the walls. Nor had I ever seen a picture of a black-bearded man with a tall hat or a silver-haired old man who appeared to be trying hard not to smile.

Holly told me that they were among America’s former presidents and that they were being honored that month.

Holly seemed to enjoy helping me. Her birthday party was the only one I was invited to that year. She even took time from her friends Grace and Cheryl and played with me at recess.

She was my translator on the playground. However, when kids called me a “dumb Polack,” she would explain to me that they were not being nice. To this day, I still don’t understand why some of them called me “Herman the German.” Maybe it was because I was European.

Even though a nun taught our class, Holly was my true teacher. By teaching me English, she allowed me to become involved in class.

I soon forgot about my cherished ice skates, which I had left behind in Poland. I stopped crying at night for my Polish friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Holly made me look forward to going to my new American school.

By the end of the school year, because of Holly, I was starting to understand English. And the little girl who had given me the gift of language had also become my friend.

That summer, we moved only a block away from Holly’s house. She and I played together as often as possible.

To Holly Warchol, wherever life has taken her, I would like to whisper dzekuje—“thank you” in Polish—into her ear.

Stan K. Sujka

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