“Memoirs of a Catholic School Upbringing by a Displaced Child” by Danielle Omelczuk

Memoirs of a Catholic School Upbringing by a Displaced Child
Danielle Omelczuk

I was enrolled in a Catholic parochial school in Chicago by my mother upon emigrating from France in 1956. My family were Polish refugees without a country. My parents could not return to their homeland, Poland, after the end of the WWII and my younger sister and I were born in France. I had nearly finished the first grade in France when we immigrated to the US in May, 1956. My father had carefully brought along my French primer and all my first grade notebooks (which I still have) as evidence of my academic skills. These did not seem to carry any great weight with the school authorities as they decided that my lack of English language skills necessitated my redoing the first grade. This was long before any bilingual education or ESL classes were instituted. I began first grade using two English words I knew the meaning of, “yes” and “no”. And with the logic of a first or second grader decided to use these words alternately with anyone who spoke to me in English. So to the question of the little girl at my left, I answered “yes” and to that of the little girl to my right, I answered “no”, and so it went until I began to gradually make sense of English. The children caught on quickly that I only knew two words of English. Nonetheless they befriended me and I remember having a best friend who shared her cutout dolls with me. My greatest asset was that I had been raised to speak Polish at home and therefore some of the nun-teachers and children who also spoke Polish could communicate with me in Polish.

I remember my father asking me what I thought of school and I replied that the children were not very bright as they were still printing while I already knew how to write in cursive. They were learning to add single digits and I had already learned to add columns of four digit numbers. My academic skills were those of a European second grader but I was retained in first grade to learn English and consequently I was relearning skills that I had already mastered, and that did not make me happy. I remember getting in trouble in second grade for letting my friends copy my answers. I remember the nun explaining to me that it was wrong of me to share my answers with my friends who had to learn on their own. I felt bereft because I could not help them anymore. My father had a hard time understanding why I wasn’t keeping a notebook in school and how the teacher could keep track of all those assignments done on loose leaf paper because he certainly couldn’t make heads or tails of them.

Looking back now I realize what a culture shock the American educational system was to both of us. We came from a culture where children were taught from primers, learned how to write cursive instead of print, and kept notebooks where they practiced their skills. We immigrated to one in which English was taught through phonics and skills were practiced on workbook sheets or loose leaf paper. I was put back a grade not because I did not have academic skills but because it was the only way the school thought that I would learn English from the basics up. The notebook which had served as an important tool to both teacher and parent in Europe to document the progress the student was making and the lessons that were being taught gave way to separate graded assignments and more frequent parent-teacher conferences in the United States. Eventually in this mysterious American system of education, I learned English and was deemed ready to be given a double promotion from third to fourth grade. And once again I had to play catch up, this time not in language but in content matter and emotional growth, to move along with my peers.

I graduated Catholic elementary school and Catholic high school in Chicago without great distinction but with a firm grasp of English, a solid basic education and a good Catholic upbringing. When I began my university life at the University of Illinois at Circle Campus, I was so thoroughly entrenched in the daily rituals of a Catholic school upbringing that I remember standing up in my first university classes waiting for the prayers to commence before instruction and realizing that the instructor was beginning class and that I had better sit down like everyone else or end up feeling very foolish. I had entered a whole new world, one without daily periodic prayers, daily mass and daily religious instruction interwoven into every subject matter.

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