Silesian Summer: A change of seasons (Albina Angel’s First Day of School in Poland)

Albina walks confidently beside mother on the way to school on Sept. 1. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Albina walks confidently beside mother on the way to school on Sept. 1. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Almost a month has passed since school has started, but I figured I would be remiss in not mentioning something about the end of our Silesian summer. After all, the change of seasons marks a further step toward settling my family safely in the cosmopolitan Polish city of Wrocław.

Our reality is, thankfully, far different from that of the desperate souls fleeing the unadulterated evil of the so-called Caliphate straddling the border regions between Syria and Iraq. The culture here is not that foreign to us, even though we’re still regarded as immigrants from “Poland B” to some who live here. Compared to the Syrian refugees who might first appear at the train and bus station any day now, we’re welcome, even despite our varying degrees of incomplete command of the Polish language (mine being the worst). Naturally, out of all of us, our daughter Albina is the one that is most rapidly overcoming that obstacle to life in Poland. Although kids generally have a distinct natural advantage in learning new languages, part of the reason for this improvement clearly stems from the fact that she has successfully enrolled in school here.

Although I remember being surprised by the fact that I was being taken to school on my first day of Kindergarten more than four decades ago, well, a kid’s first day of school should be something special. In Russia, they call the day of the first bell the “Day of Knowledge,” a celebration of learning that introduces children to their teachers and prepares them for the work ahead. In places like Belarus, they are fully dressed up in suits and uniform dresses, and they bring flowers as a token of respect and affection.

Here in Poland, the rules are similar. You have the first day ceremony, usually on or around Sept. 1, and kids meet their teachers in black-and-white dress. No classes are held the first day. Instead, teachers introduce themselves to their students and to all the parents, and with the information conveyed that day, the event becomes an opportunity for the parents to take an important first step to becoming deeply involved in their education.

Albina arrives early for her first opening day of school in Wrocław. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Albina arrives early for her first opening day of school in Wrocław. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Our first day of public school in Krzyki

For my daughter, the first day of school was an exciting and long-anticipated day. We all woke up, got dressed up for the occasion, even little brother, and left the house in time to be 15 minutes early. As I’ve heard said by some of managers over the years of working, to be 15 minutes early is to be on time, and to be on time is late. It seemed good advice to start living by on the first day of school. Mom, however, who usually tries to get everyone just perfect before getting herself dressed up, was the last to leave, and we weren’t quite that successful at this goal as a result. But to her credit, we all did look good.

Meanwhile, while waiting, we watched as all the other children went by toward our relatively newly-built public school in Krzyki. All the kids were well-dressed, and all the parents were… well, a lot of them were equally well-dressed. But there seemed to be an endless parade of young pupils going by, some of whom would be Albina’s classmates. Because of that, we were surprised when we got to the school, as Albina was among the first to sit down in her section on the school gym floor.

There is not a lot I can really say intelligently about the first day assembly. All of it was in Polish, naturally, and being that I’ve only a handful of words mastered in the language, the significance of the words were lost to me. That is, the significance of all of it was lost on me other than the Polish national anthem, sung by many of the older kids as flawlessly as one would hope.

For our daughter, you could tell a lot of this was not easy to follow, and probably a bit boring. I guess the schoolmaster said something, as had the head of the parents’ committee, and a couple others. Then the older kids went away and left the first year students, which assembled in a tighter group closer to a quickly assembled stage. Then a clown came in and began entertaining the kids, apparently offering helpful advice for the coming year (though again, I couldn’t tell for certain, as it was all in Polish). At around this point, little brother started getting bored sitting in the stands almost simultaneously with other younger-than-school-age spectators who came to see older brother and sister go to class, and we went to join them.

As a result, for the remainder of the program, I spent running after Little Ben, who soon got to know just about the entire first floor of Albina’s school. So did papa, who chased after him. Still, by the end of the day, Albina was still quite excited about transitioning from a preschooler to a real student. Of course, no one was under the impression that it wasn’t going to be a challenge, but optimism prevailed.

Albina drawing up her weekly schedule (she's so much more organized than her father was at her age). Photo by Ben M. Angel

Albina drawing up her weekly schedule (she’s so much more organized than her father was at her age). Photo by Ben M. Angel

As the week went by

The second day of school was apparently still quite an exciting one. Albina followed her parents’ guidance and sat at the middle of the first row as she began learning her basic studies. A religious class was also held, in which time she started to pick up a bit more about the Catholicism to which her mother was so strong an adherent. Apparently, an option did exist not to take religious studies for those from families that are not so Catholic – the alternative class is called “Ethics” – but that wouldn’t be an option we would be exploring.

On the third day, my daughter’s schedule included a computer class, with which Albina apparently was a bit disappointed with. Of course, to her the web’s main significance revolved around YouTube, and more specifically cartoons on YouTube. But that would not be what this class was about. Indeed, it seemed on this day that there were a few setbacks as her mother noted from her crestfallen mood. When trying to get more information from Albina, she didn’t really want to talk about it. However, whatever was wrong appeared to be short lived as on Friday, Physical Education (P.E.) day, she came home in a brighter mood. In addition to her extra-curricular out-of-school ballet classes, and organized in-school basketball playing, she’ll have plenty of physical activities to round out her sit-down learning.

Homework didn’t really start until the second week. However, when it did, Albina took the initiative to do it. I learned the hard way the cost of trying to be “too smart for homework”, and she again took her parents’ advice to get to work on it as soon as she got home. This smart study habit, if she keeps it up, will pay off by the time she gets to college. Again, this I know from experience.  Marina, meanwhile, took on the role of being the participating parent in the school’s parents’ committee meeting, while I stayed home and watched Little Ben. I can’t say I was watching Albina so much anymore as she was such a proper little student, and hardly in need of watching. Little Ben, however, is becoming more and more interested in his sister’s things, now that she has so much stuff to take to school. It’s going to be tough to control him.

Albina preparing a collage on her first weekend as a schoolgirl. Photo by Ben M. Angel

Albina preparing a collage on her first weekend as a schoolgirl. Photo by Ben M. Angel

On the Monday following the first school year weekend, I finally got to see her class. In part this was my chance for the teachers to get to know who Albina’s foreign-language papa was. I guess her classmates got the chance to confirm Albina’s multi-lingual background as well. After all, Albina might not speak much Polish, but she’s still clearly smart. At the door, my daughter greeted me as “Ta-ta”, which is Polish for papa, which told me she was growing more comfortable with her new language. Following the advice I continue to give her from her days at “Detsky Sad” in Belarus (“Have lots of fun, make lots of friends, and learn lots of stuff”), before long, she will be speaking Polish better than even her mother, who has been more or less the family translator with the non-English-speaking Poles we met in our settling down period in Wrocław.

In the meantime, I continue to write in English for a living, which means that I’m doomed to fall farther and farther behind everyone else, relying on an ever increasingly more pathetic: “Przepraszam, nie rozumiem, czy mówiłem tu ktoś po angielsku?

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