Filed under: elementary school, new kid | Tags: belonging, culture shock, draft, elementary school, Germany, kindergarten, moving, Nazi, new kid, new language, new school, Vietnam War
by Elisabeth Ellendorff
Kindergarten through seventh grade
“Tell me, are you looking forward to going to kindergarten?” The friendly lady, our neighbor, bent down to ask me. I was standing next to my mother, clutching her hand for safety.
I had heard that question so often now. Everybody asked me. After all, I was four years old, and I was sure that beginning kindergarten next fall was going to be the biggest adventure in my life. And like always, I looked at her and said, “Yes.”
I thought about kindergarten. It was all so mind-boggling thrilling. They had built a brand new kindergarten in our part of Zurich, and the kids of my age group were going to be the “first” ones in it. Like with all kids, the fact of something’s being NEW added to my excitement.
As spring merged into early summer in 1961, my anticipation rose from day to day. But I hadn’t reckoned on the world of adults.
My father, a German physicist, was busy expanding his career. His big international Swiss company decided it would be a good idea for him to go to New York. So my parents packed up our household, gathered their five children together, and before I could realize what was happening, we were in a different country, different culture, and immersed in a different language. So much for my plans to attend that lovely new kindergarten.
We moved to a small town on the Hudson, about two hours’ drive north of New York City. I was placed in a preschool attached to the local elementary school. Here, in this new country, my brothers and I could prove that even if we had no say in what adults did with us, we were much better than those adults at learning languages. I don’t honestly know how it happened. I learned English like magic — at least, I thought so.
But then there was that morning at preschool. We had been doing finger-painting. When everybody was finished, we sat at our tables, looking expectantly at our teacher.
Only something was wrong. The teacher had her eyes fixed on me. And she looked very angry. Apparently, my table hadn’t met her standards of cleanliness, but I had no way to know that.
“Go,” she said fiercly, “Get a sponge, and clean that away.”
I just stared at her, not comprehending. Sponge? Never heard of it.
Now the teacher, who was usually very pretty and very composed — I liked her — glared at me and grew very loud. I think she would have liked to slap me.
“A SPONGE!” she yelled. She must have thought I was being stubborn, maybe even rebellious.
I was bewildered. What had I done to make her so angry? I think I put my head on the table and began to cry.
“Please, Miss,” said one of the other girls as she raised her hand, “Please. I don’t think she understands. She’s from Germany. She doesn’t know what a sponge is.”
The teacher stared. Then she whipped around, grabbed the sponge from the sink and practically threw it at me. “THAT is a SPONGE! And now you clean that up, Madam!”
With my heart beating and my face red from humiliation, I did as she said.
Time flew, and soon preschool was a thing of the past. I now went to elementary school and spoke English as well as anyone. But, somehow, I was always “the kid from Germany.” I never belonged. And I would have loved that. Oh, I how I would have loved to belong!
My brothers didn’t “belong” either. We had classmates with Italian names, friends with French and Spanish names, but we were somehow condemned to stay strangers.
Then one morning, waiting for the school bus, one of my classmates was bored. She began looking for trouble She pointed at me.
“My Dad says, if Lizzy is German, then she’ s a nutsie,” she said.
“A nutsie?” the other kids giggled.
“Yeah, a nutsie, nutsie, nutsie.”
They took me in their middle and began dancing around me, sticking out their tongues and singing, “Nutsie, nutsie, nutsie!”
The bus stopped to pick us up and they broke off their singing. I was more confused than sad. A nutsie. A nutsy? I said the word over and over in my mind. What could they mean?
Curious, I asked my mother after school, “Mummy, what is a nutsie? The other kids said I was a nutsie.”
My mother frowned. Then she knelt down and looked into my face.
“Listen. Nazis were bad people who did very nasty things in Germany. That was during the war. That was before you were born. You can’t be a Nazi. I was never a Nazi, nor was your father. Your grandparents were very pious Christians. They got into very dangerous situations for not belonging to the Nazis.”
For not belonging! For someone like me, who fiercely wanted to “belong,” this was a new aspect. My parents and my grandparents obviously were proud for “not having belonged” in those days.
Seven years passed, and my parents packed up again and moved back to Germany, where my father had been offered a professorship at a university. My parents were glad to go. My brothers were almost finished with school now. It was the time of the Vietnam War. Although we were officially “just residents,” they, like any American boys, could be drafted.
Once again, we children were not asked. The adults decided for us. With heavy hearts we said good bye to our teachers, friends, and neighbors. I never really had succeeded in belonging, I never was invited to the really cool parties and social events, but I did have one or two dear friends I knew I would miss.
But, no matter, we were going back home now. We were Germans, and for the first time in my life, I would be living in “my” country. That would make up for a lot of sadness. Now I would belong.
So I thought.
I adapted to the so very different German school system. I gained new friends. I got used to speaking German, rather than English.
Then one day, one of my new girlfriends said to me, “Do you know what everyone calls you? How the kids who don’t know your name refer to you?”
I shook my head. “No. Tell me.”
“They call you ‘The American Girl’.”
Filed under: new kid | Tags: cheating, duplicity, first grade, French, French School, kindness, language immersion, new kid, outcast, playground hierarchy, prejudice
by Dan Moreau
Age eight at the time
At age eight, my parents enrolled me in the French School. Unlike the American School, which cost more and was farther from our house, the French School embodied my mother’s ideals of sophistication, culture and civility. She herself had been raised by French Catholic nuns and instead of rebelling against them, as so many other girls did, she embraced them.
We had just moved from Miami, Florida to Bangkok, Thailand. In Miami, I had just finished the first grade, but because I was starting at the French School with no preexisting knowledge of French, the principal thought I should repeat the first grade. My parents didn’t object, nor did I.
In early September my parents dropped me off by the front gate to my new school and wished me luck. I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to find my classroom. Our teacher’s name was Madame Unarat. She was petite and plump with short dark hair and owlish glasses. That first morning I sat quietly at my desk, pretending to understand everything that my new classmates and teacher said.
At noon, the bell rang for lunch and Madame Unarat let us out into the courtyard. All the other kids had brought packed lunches. Everyone except me. I think my parents had sent me off to school without lunch, assuming—and perhaps rightly so—that the expensive tuition they were paying would at least include meals. It didn’t.
As I sat by myself on a bench, biting my fingernails, my stomach growling, a woman who worked at the school approached me. She was wearing lipstick and perfume and the collar of her blouse was stylishly raised up. She asked me if I had eaten. I didn’t say anything. She repeated herself, this time in English. I shook my head in reply.
She took me to the school cafeteria. They called it a “cafeteria,” but it was more like a French bistro with a chalkboard out front that displayed the day’s specials. It was where the teachers and school staff gathered for lunch, coffee and cigarettes. She bought me a chicken drumstick and took me back to the courtyard where I devoured the drumstick down to the bone.
A boy from my class sat next to me on the bench. He was the biggest kid in our class and looked older than the rest of us with the lip shadow of a prepubescent mustache. He spoke some English and, unlike the other kids who as a rule ignored me, he was friendly to me. Too friendly. But where he was talkative and warm, I was aloof and tightlipped.
Though it was only my first day, and though I didn’t understand a word of French, I instinctively knew where this boy stood in the playground hierarchy and even though I had no friends I wanted nothing to do with him. Without knowing it, I had made a swift and vital decision. I would rather have no friends at all than be associated with this social pariah. In approaching me so early on, he might have befriended me before I caught on to what the other kids were saying about him. And in hindsight, it was the right decision. Slowly but surely, as my French improved, so did my rapport with my classmates. I made new friends; he didn’t. We never talked much after that.
Because of my age and because of the mistaken belief that children pick up languages like head lice, by proximity and by immersion, my parents thought I would come home one day, fully fluent in French. That wasn’t the case. I had to learn French like any adult would, through repetition, rote memorization and trial and error.
Every day after school I met with Madame Unarat for an hour or two. That was when my true instruction began. Her methods were simple yet effective. She would read from a primer, pausing after each word, which I repeated until she was satisfied with my pronunciation. It was painstaking, frustrating and laborious and sometimes she would raise her voice in anger when I couldn’t sound out a word correctly. But it worked. By the end of the year, I spoke enough French to get by on and was admitted to the second grade.
My second grade teacher didn’t have Madame Unarat’s patience and treated me as any other student. Monsieur Stricte was a dark, wiry, morose man. By then, I had quit having afternoon lessons with Madame Unarat. It was assumed that I was fluent. I wasn’t. I spoke a hybrid of playground argot and slang. Yet I went to great lengths to conceal my failings. I copied off of classmates, I cheated on reading comprehensions by looking up the answers in the back of the book and, most of all, I kept a low profile. To my parents and everyone else, I seemed to be doing just fine.
One day, in the middle of the semester, Monsieur Stricte asked me point blank if I spoke French. I had just handed in an assignment on which I had done better than everyone in the class. Like with every other assignment, I had cheated on this one too, but my mistake was to give myself too many correct answers.
Monsieur Stricte stared at me coldly. His eyes said it all. I knew what answer he was looking for. To say yes would be to perpetuate a charade he plainly saw through. It was also a lie. Yet the truth was more complicated. Yes, I spoke conversational French. No, my written French and reading skills were awful. After a few awkward seconds, I shook my head. The following day, I was demoted to the first grade where Madame Unarat welcomed me, literally, with open arms, wrapping me up in a tight bear hug in front of the entire class. I was never so happy to see her.
Filed under: "Can I Sit With You", bully, Canada, Dutch, Holland, immigrant, kindness, lost in translation, making friends, new kid, Ontario, siblings, teasing, translation, twins
by Wynn Putnam
Age seven at the time
When I was almost eight years old, my family emigrated from Holland to Ontario, Canada. We spoke only Dutch, so when we went to school in Ontario, the teacher put my twin sister, me, and my two older sisters all in grade one. Once we learned how to speak English they would reevaluate us to see if my twin and I should really be in Grade three, and my older sisters in Grades four and six.
This was a one-room school house so we felt awkward and big sitting in the grade one row while kids our own size sat on the other side of the room and at the back. When the older, bigger kids would point and snicker at us we did not know what they were saying so we smiled at them. We wanted to learn to speak English, and be able to join in with their fun and sit with them.
This was a country schoolhouse, so everyone brought their lunch. At noon we followed the other Grade Ones, got our lunch bags from the hall, and started to eat. But one day when we went to get our lunch bags, a couple of the bigger kids went in front of us and grabbed them. They looked in our bags, ate what they liked, then tossed the bags into the garbage.
My sister and I went back to the classroom and tried to communicate to the teacher that these kids had taken our lunch. We could not say what had happened, and she thought that we did not have a lunch that day. Apparently a kid at the back said that we had already eaten our lunch and some other kids laughed. We started to point at the kids who had taken our lunch and made gestures with our hands, when the teacher took an apple out of her own bag and started to cut it in half. We shook our heads and started to cry. All of a sudden a few of the younger children came over to our desk and gave us some of their lunch, a cookie, an orange — I can’t remember exactly, but they wanted to share. We stopped crying, smiled, and told each other in Dutch that the foods we were now being given were delicious, even better than what had been in our lunch bag. We communicated our thanks to these kids by smiling and making gestures of what we were trying to say.
For the next while we put our lunch bags in our desks, because it took quite a bit more time before we could speak English well enough to tattle on the few kids who tormented us because we spoke a different language. Most kids in the class tried to help us belong, even when they could see how big we looked in the grade one row, and that we talked in a strange language.
Smiling faces are the same in every language, and it’s easy to communicate with other kids that way and join in their fun. Kids like to sit with you when your face shows a friendly smile — even if you cannot speak their language, they understand.
Filed under: elementary school, English, Jesus, lost in translation, name-calling, new kid, Spanish, teasing, translation
by Suzanne Maclyn
Age seven at the time
In second grade, I was the new kid, again. My family moved ten times by the time I was twelve years old. I went to so many different schools that while eventually being “the new kid” became normal for me, it was never easy. Every time I started a new school, I had no friends, and I didn’t know the rules. Sometimes I cried because I did things wrong—or at least the wrong way for each new school.
Going to a new school usually meant that I had learned different things than the kids at my new school. In second grade, I knew how to read and spell better than the kids in my new class. Because of this, my teacher would have me tutor the other kids, most of whom did not speak English at home. We always had a spelling test on Mondays. If kids missed spelling tests because they were absent, she had me give them the make up spelling tests during lunch and recess. That was okay by me since I had no one to play with at recess anyhow. If there were no tests to give, I would pick up all the trash in our classroom. Sometimes I helped the teacher correct papers.
I was only seven years old, but I was tutoring classmates and giving them spelling tests, which in hindsight is just weird. The kids in class sure thought it was, and they were not nice to me at all.
One day I brought a new pencil box to school. I had decorated it by writing, “I love Jesus” and drawing special Christian fishes on it. I really liked going to church on Sundays, and thought that my pencil box was pretty. I was sad when the kids in class started to make fun of my pencil box, pointing at it, and singing in a teasing way, “She loves Haysoos!”
Haysoos was a boy in our class, but I didn’t really know him. His friend Raul yelled across the class and told me that Haysoos didn’t like me. I was angry at the way everyone was laughing at me, and I told him that I didn’t like Haysoos either!! I finally said that I hated Haysoos, even though I had no reason to hate him. Raul pointed at my pencil box and told me that I loved Haysoos. I was confused and told him that I hated Haysoos. I could not figure out why he kept pointing at me and laughing. Haysoos was mad and he was making mean faces at me.
I wanted to stay in the classroom during lunch, but the teacher needed to lock up the classroom, so I had to go outside. On the playground, the boys started running around me in circles singing, “You love Haysoos! You love Haysoos!”
I was getting so mad! I didn’t even really know Haysoos! Why were they saying this? I was screaming at them, telling them I didn’t even like Haysoos! When we went back to class, Raul came over to me and showed me on my pencil box where I wrote “I love Jesus.”
When Raul read it to me, he said, “You wrote it right here: See? I love Haysoos.”
I argued with him, “That says, I love Jesus!”
Raul retorted, “That is Haysoos! You spell Haysoos J-E-S-U-S!”
Now Raul was trying to give me a spelling lesson. But I still did not understand how J-E-S-U-S could be pronounced “Haysoos,” so I just kept fighting with him even though it only made me cry. Finally other students in the class told me that in Spanish, the name Jesus is pronounced “Haysoos.” I didn’t know what to do. I was very surprised, and finally understood why they were making fun of me, but it only made me mad at myself. I felt stupid.
When school finished that day, Raul and some other boys followed me and teased me even more. I was so aggravated,that I threw my pencil box into the trashcan. I wanted to show them that I didn’t love Haysoos.
I was very sad when I got home. All I could do was cry when I thought of my pretty decorated pencil box in the trash. I kept thinking of how happy I was when I first brought my pencil box to school, and how sad I was when I found out Haysoos’s name was spelled the same way as Jesus’. I was angry that the kids at school were having fun teasing me, too.
I thought that if I threw my pencil box into the trash, Raul and his friends would stop taunting me. Well, they kept harassing me anyway. But I wasn’t the only person that they picked on. They were mean to a lot of kids, and even to each other sometimes. I learned to stay away from them whenever I could. Plus I was just waiting. Waiting until my family had to move again. Then I could go to a new school.
Filed under: books, japanese, making friends, mixed race, new kid, reader
Age 13 at the time
When I was in school in the United States, it was miserable. Before then I had lived in Japan, as a military dependent with a Japanese mother and lots of family who accepted us mixed-race kids. Life was so great. Then we moved to Tacoma, Washington, where my father was stationed, and all of a sudden I became a pariah — for having a Japanese mother, for looking like the local kids with German ancestry even though I was mixed-race (how dare I!), for getting good grades. So, instead of trying to make friends, I closed in on myself. I turned to books and they became my friends; science fiction books and mystery books became particularly wonderful friends. Andre Norton became one of my favorite authors, and Mr. Spock on Star Trek was the character I could identify with. Simon and Garfunkel’s song “I Am a Rock” was my anthem: “…and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”
When my father returned from a year’s tour in Vietnam and we moved to Warner Robins, Georgia for my eighth grade year, I thought life might be a little better. The teachers seemed to like me, and the other students didn’t really notice me, so I didn’t get into trouble. There was even one girl who said she wanted to be my friend, that we should exchange Christmas gifts. I bought her the best gift I could find for my $1.00 monthly allowance (this was back in 1968), and I wrapped it and took it to school the last day before Christmas break. I gave it to her, and she thanked me and said she forgot my gift at home. She never did bring it by, not to my house, not to school. And now, 39 years later, I can’t remember her name. It took me years before I would ever take a chance at making a friend again.