“Who Am I?” – „…Ja jestem Polakiem”

“Polska jest, prosze pani. Ja jestem Polakem!” Powerful words of a powerful climax of a powerful play. Chances are they don’t mean much to you, but they meant a tremendous amount to the audience who heard me recite them on stage; and to me, whose self-esteem had been faltering because of the disease that plagued my eyes.

“Mooooom, please don’t make me go. I know Polish just fine, I can speak it perfectly, see?” It was my eighth grade year, and I had convinced myself that the saints, demons, and Greek gods of boredom had embodied themselves in the abomination of Polish School. Every Saturday morning, my mom heard the same suppliant request: “Let me stay home from Polish School today.” Every Saturday morning, I experienced the same simple response: “No.” Every Saturday morning, I had to sacrifice the new episodes of Pokemon that I held so dear to my heart. Polish School had always been a part of my life, and only recently had I decided that I was “too cool” for it.

After a ten minute car ride of more begging to turn back home, we arrived at the little school that hosted my Polish classes. My mom would spend a few minutes talking to the teachers about various boring adult, Polish topics while I would try to hide in the unused classrooms with my other Polish-School hating friends. After the bells rang, we would inevitably be found and forced to attend our classes, which included Polish music, Polish language, more Polish music, more Polish language, and occasionally some Polish history. I dreaded all of this and was thus quite a little troublemaker. I didn’t even know anything about Poland except that my family lived there and that I could speak its language just fine. Wasn’t this enough? So my friends and I always sat through the three hours of torture every Saturday morning. God how I wished it could just finally end.

I saw my mom talking with the head teacher again but didn’t bother to stick around. I decided it would behoove me to wait in the car and not get involved too deeply with the affairs of the place. After all, why would I want to sacrifice anymore of my time that could otherwise be devoted to video games and cartoons? I opened the door to freedom only to find that it was raining outside, a perfect ending to a perfect morning.

So I rushed to the car, hopping the deep, dark puddles and dodging gutterfalls until I reached my destination: the escape car in which I patiently waited for my mom. A few minutes later, the door swung open and my mom poked her head in.

“Whew, glad that’s over,” I said to her in Polish. We always spoke to each other in Polish. Aside from the teachers at Polish School, my mom was the only person whom I spoke Polish to, excluding my godparents, whom I saw once every few months.

“I have good news for you, sweetie.”
“Yeah, Polish School’s over and we can go home.”
She chuckled and said, “Come back inside for a sec, the teachers want to talk to you.”
“Yeah alright,” I replied with a shudder. I knew this trip to the dungeon would not be too painful, because classes had been concluded for the day. When we reentered, the teachers were in the music room waiting for us. They smiled at me when we came in, and made a stunning revelation.
“Adrian, your Polish is very strong, and we’d like you to be in our school play.”

Oh no. It couldn’t be. There was no way I would accept. Sorry teachers, sorry Mom, not this time. No afternoons of mine would be snatched away by Polish School.

“Oh cool. Thank you! Sure I’ll do it.”. My response was surprisingly sincere and heartfelt. When they chuckled and handed me the lines for the part of the shepherd I had to memorize, my mind raced. Oh God, what had I done? Why? Why!? Curse you subconscious, you unholy, backseat driver of man’s decisions! Now this was surely the perfect end to a perfect morning.

Although I complained constantly about having to memorize my lines for a play that wasn’t even for “real school,” I knew I had no choice now. It was a commitment. I would suck it up, memorize my lines, perform the play, and undergo the whole process kicking and screaming.

Many years prior to this, when I was four, I played the role of Jack Frost (difficult to translate into English. It was not the snowman, but more of a Father Winter figure) in a Polish School play. Two years later, at age six, I had the role of a shepherd. Not a big role, but I still stole the show from the older kids with my one token moment; I played a Polish carol (Jesus: Little One) on the piano and sang it to the audience.
Now I was a shepherd again, but without the piano song. There were still some songs though. I would have to work extra hard to steal the show this time, but I didn’t want to devote too much time to Polish School. I had to keep the old “rebellious teenager” reputation. During rehearsals, however, I soon realized that none of the other kids really had any intention to act well, so the bare minimum of work for me was enough to still impress the teachers. My recital of lines received very few complaints from the teachers. Definitely a plus.
The night of the play. Nervous as ustal.

Everyone was; nobody showed it. We just encouraged each other to do well. Showtime. The curtains are drawn. I awaken and stretch. My fellow shepherds do likewise, and our song begins. A star shines in the sky. We cower in fear and obey the words of the angel that speaks to us. We arrive at the manger in Bethlehem, adoring Baby Jesus. I notice and point to the approaching three kings, admiring them in awe. My lines for the play are over. My stress is gone. Take it away, magi! Only a few songs remaining, but no solos. A few more lines are recited, and the play ends. We receive a standing ovation from the crowd. Something stirs within me as I look upon the vast array of viewers condoning us for our good work. A feeling of accomplishment and self-worth overwhelms me. Forget video games, Pokemon be damned. THIS is what it’s all about! THIS was why my subconscious had spoken on my behalf that one fateful Saturday morning during Polish School. Thank you subconscious, you ever wise aider of man’s choices!

After the curtains were closed, I wiped my brow and did a little victory dance on stage before leaving. It was over, and I could return home to contemplate the meaning of life. But as I walked down the stairs, I was congratulated and condoned by every audience member on the way.

Without exaggerating, I must have spent an hour or so just speaking to people about the play and my role. Gees people, I was just a lousy shepherd. Then I made it to the final level of the night, my mom and Polish teachers. They were beaming. That night I was invited to officially join the Polish theater group called Patria. I, of course, accepted. Surprisingly, none of the other students received the invitation. After this night I started taking Polish School more seriously.

Eight months passed, and I was finally free of Polish School. I had been so for about three months, but now a new challenge arose: Saint Ignatius High School. I was overwhelmed with work, coming from half an hour of homework a night to three hours of homework a night. Needless to say, I was now the biggest ball of stress ever. One month later, still before I had gotten into the flow of things, I get my first call from the Patria. Great! Just what I needed. Something to drain away my homework time. Polish School had found some way to creep back into my life.

The role was that of young Polish boy, Marcin Kozera, who was born and raised in England during the 19th century when Russia, Prussia, and Austria owned Poland, effectively robbing it of its existence at the time. Marcin is forced by his father to attend Polish school. He Desn’t really take the school seriously and horses around most of the time he is there. But after getting involved in one of the Polish plays, his interest in Poland becomes heartfelt and sincere, and he is eager to learn about it. At the end of the play, when his grammar school history teacher explains to the students that Poland is not a country, Marcin confidently stands up and decrees, “Polska jest, proszę pani. Ja jestem Polakem!” “Beg your pardon ma’am, but Poland does exist. I am a Polack!” The line sounds silly and loses its effect in English, (Polack means “Polish person” in Polish), but when I recited the line on the night of the performance and saw the tears streaming down audience members’ eyes, I was truly proud of my heritage. All stress left my mind, and my confidence shot up through the roof. Retinitis Pigmentosa be damned. I had a talent to foster now and four years of high school to do it.

Adrian Bien

Forum, 11/2006