Renie Szilak Burghardt
When I started school in my new country, the United States of America, in January of 1952, I was classified as a Displaced Person. And at fifteen, "displaced" described not only my legal status but my fragile self-esteem as well. My family and I had lived through World War II in our country, Hungary, followed by four years in a refugee camp. The relatively carefree life that our new country offered took some getting used to.
So there I was, a mousy, shy, D.P. girl who spoke with a thick Hungarian accent, and was barely noticed by her beautiful American peers. For beautiful is what they were to me, those girls with their pony-tails, bobby-socks, and carefree mannerisms, and I longed to be just like them. But I was different; my past still haunted me.
The school was an all-girls school run by nuns, and girls attending came from all parts of the city of Cleveland, Ohio, the older ones driving their own cars to get there! We lived in a small rental house near the school, so I walked to it. And I knew that it was a great sacrifice for my grandparents to send me there since money was still scarce in our household, and the school had a tuition, and uniform and book expenses. And I felt lucky to have been accepted, since my English was not up to par. One of my Hungarian friends had not been so lucky. She was placed back in the sixth grade, and was so mortified that a year later she quit school altogether and got a job in a sewing factory.
By the time June rolled around I had been in my new school six months. I was still shy and mousy, and barely noticed by the other girls, but despite my poor academic performance, they passed me to the tenth grade. I was relieved. I spent my first summer in America working part-time at our local dime store and hanging out with friends at Edgewater Beach, on the shores of Lake Erie.
Good things always come to an end much too soon, and in September of 1952 it was time to don the old blue and gold jumper and white blouse and go back to school. I entered the building with trepidation, and although some girls greeted me cheerily, I had not turned into a swan over the summer, and I knew it. Then I walked into Sister Mary Ann's sophomore English class, and everything changed!
Sister Mary Ann had blue eyes, a kind face, and a gentle, understanding nature. She asked me questions about my life in front of the class, something none of the other nuns had ever done. It was so my classmates could better understand why I was different from most of them, she explained, while my mind happily concluded that an angel had come into my life! Then she gave us our first assignment of the new school term.
"I want you all to write an essay of at least four pages about something memorable that has happened to you. It will be due a week from today," she said. When we left her class room, I wasn't too sure I knew what an essay was, but for the first time I put my heart and soul into an assignment.
I wrote about being crammed, with hundreds of other hopeful refugees, onto a ship taking us to our new country. I wrote about Dave, the young American who befriended me and bought me my first Coke. I wrote about seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. And I realized that I liked to write!
The day after we handed in our essays, Sister Mary Ann asked me to come up and read mine to the class. And to my great surprise, my classmates gave me a big hand when I finished. Then I was sent to the other English classrooms and got the same reaction. Suddenly, girls mobbed me in the hallway telling me how much they liked my essay and asking me questions about my life; asking me about Dave. Suddenly, I was more than a mousy D.P. girl. I was a girl who could tell interesting stories!
Sister Mary Ann then suggested that I send my essay to a popluar girls magazine called American Girl, and they published it in their By You section, paying me a whopping ten dollars for it. When it came out, my classmates asked me for my autograph! What was important to me, however, was that I was finally accepted by them.
Teachers like Sister Mary Ann, who inspire and change the lives of their pupils for the better, are worth their weight in gold. They are never forgotten by their grateful pupils.
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