We do not teach for the school but for life...
Schools for Polish community. Classes on Saturday, in the morning. In the times when patriotic feelings are said to be over, such schools are full of pupils. They are located close to churches; they are run by associations or Polish immigrants’ organisations. In Great Britain they are packed. In the United States, although the Polish community is decreasing, the schools are luckily not empty, which testifies that the Poles living in the U.S. still think of their Homeland. The teachers say that now the pupils are slightly different than those who were several years ago. These who were born in the U.S.A. prevail. It was not the case before. In Poland Saturday schools would have miserable existence. Young people would rebel against them. How dare anyone break ‘sacred weekend’, the time of rest from school and all duress! It turns out that in foreign countries one can learn on Saturdays, even one should do that. Furthermore, participation is voluntary. Well, people come because they want to.
We have visited one of such schools: Nicolaus Copernicus School of Polish Language in Niles near Chicago. The surrounding is fairly wealthy, tidy comfortable houses; from time to time you can see a red-white Polish flag. It is inhabited by those Poles who are affluent. Nicolaus Copernicus School is located in the building of the Parish Community of St John Brébeuf. The building is large but it can hardly accommodate 500 pupils. Both pre-school pupils and secondary school graduates come every Saturday. There are 25 forms, 25 teachers, tidy corridors, aesthetically pleasing classrooms. Polish literature is tightly placed on the shelves in the library. Plenty of good literature, not only the required reading and not only the classical authors. There are enough books to read. A group of sweet pre-school pupils are just leaving the classrooms. Someone tries to ask the small children the classical question, ‘Who are you?’ We know what answer to expect. But a little girl from the first pair, wearing a blue hooded coat, answers politely, ‘Me? I am Zosia...’ We are laughing when after a while the kids recite the whole poem without faltering. We talk to Zbigniew Piwoni, School Board President, about the specific education of immigrants’ children and youth. Zbigniew is a young man but full of passion and energy. ‘Teachers are sculptors of souls...’, he explains, ‘that’s why, they cannot be treated as ordinary workers of another branch of the economy. Their profession is a kind of mission, calling; they are like missionaries... We must remember that school is not a furniture factory where we work on another piece of wood. And when we fail we throw the piece away and take another one... If a teacher does something wrong it will remain for years. People live quickly and intensely in America. We do not make up for losses. If we lose someone now the chance to make up for the loss in the future is small. We simply cannot afford such wastage...’
That’s why the school in Niles cares for good staff. Since the teachers must do extremely difficult jobs – make young hearts and minds love the country of their parents, grandparents; the country they have often never seen. They can do that in various ways. A few years they invented autumn trips to Poland. They turned out to be a great success. ‘We thought that it should be a kind of reward for the secondary school graduates who spent 12 years in the American Saturday school to learn the Polish language, history and geography. For four years we have travelled around the country, from Gdansk to Zakopane; we have visited museums and churches; we have tried to meet interesting well-known people. We have visited the President’s Palace in Warsaw, the Polish Parliament, the monastery at Jasna Gora; we have visited Krakow and many other places...And believe me the kids became enthralled and fascinated with Poland. They say they will never forget the trip...’, the president convinces me. Alicja Maciorowska, school headmaster, adds, ‘Most participants of these trips were born in the United States. Many have never been to the country upon the Vistula, so our trip is an adventure into the unknown. What we show them and the way we do it will influence their perception, whether they will be proud of their Polish backgrounds. They usually like Krakow. During the last trip the best experience was a sleigh ride with torches in the Chocholowska Valley. Children attending other schools are also invited to take part in these trips since it is good for young generations of Poles to get to know one another. They are together for nine days; they make friends that change into valuable contacts in the future. Since apart from these trips the only even that can integrate the young Polish community is the party held a hundred days before the school-leaving exams. In Chicago only one party of this kind is organised for all Polish graduates. Then 700-800 pairs begin a polonaise dance. What a breathtaking sight!
We have a thousand years behind us
According to many teachers the Polish Saturday School should not only teach Polish and evoke patriotism but also make the young immigrants get rid of complexes. It is worth fighting for the awareness of what we are as the nation, that we have had over one thousand years of Christianity, wonderful culture, eminent people who have influenced the fate of the world. The American society regards Poles as ‘contractors’, rarely as someone who is higher in the social hierarchy. Polish people work as cleaners or baby-sitters. Few people know that our fellow countrymen have other professions. And they are good at them. ‘We invite such people, people of American success, to visit our school’, says Mr Piwoni. ‘Andrzej Kulka who runs a travel agency has visited us; we hosted late Moskala, President of the Polish American Congress. Its present president Frank Spula has also visited us. We have hosted Marek Rzepkowski who has succeeded in real estate and Barbara Bilszta-Niewrzol, who founded the Paderewski Symphony Orchestra. By the way, I do not know whether any other ethnic group has its own symphonic orchestra and we do have one... Now ‘the meeting with an interesting person’ is the meeting with the editor-in-chief of the biggest Catholic weekly in Poland Rev. Msgr Ireneusz Skubis, which really makes young people impressed. A chief of a big paper is identified with a man of success and this value is extremely appreciated in America, especially among young people. They are impressed by the fact that the paper has been in the market for so long (since 1926) and the fact that ‘Niedziela’ also owns a radio and television studio. The pupils are interested in the technical aspect of the enterprise. When they hear that we work on the level similar to American media they are extremely proud. The editor-in-chief tells them about journalists’ work in the Catholic paper, about advantages and disadvantages of this profession and explains the threats the media face. We arrange to meet in Poland when the young people visit the country of their forefathers.
The school in Niles has 500 pupils and it would have more if it taught religious instruction. Why cannot the school teach it? This neither depends on the teachers nor on the school board. The matter is complicated since, as it was explained to us, the question of religious instruction is not an obvious thing in the U.S.A. The school in Niles does not advertise in the press but the fact is that there is a specific competition between Saturday schools. ‘We seek pupils’, Zbigniew admits, ‘because the Polish immigration to the U.S.A. has practically ended. Poles prefer to live in Europe. So we do not have many new pupils. The school must do its best to attract children; otherwise they can choose other schools. We try to draw children of our former pupils. The atmosphere in school should be so nice that our pupils will remember it for long... We teach 3 hours and 15 minutes in primary school and the time is prolonged to four hours in the grammar school. Foreign language classes (including Polish) are sponsored by the department of education of Illinois, which means that pupils can give up learning a foreign language at university. This is a considerable financial relief and it facilitates studies. In a word, they kill two birds with one stone. It turns out that pupils have concrete advantages in their mature lives; their bilingualism can let them find better jobs. The end of classes. The corridors are full of noise and joy. The mood is like in any other school. Pupils are chatting in English and Polish. We are looking at the faces. Who will these young people, so joyful and careless, become in the future? Will they carry their Polishness, which the Polish school and home have imparted to them, into the world? In what ways? Will they be convinced that ‘Pole is a proud sounding name’? More information: www.kopernik.org.