The blog is turning ten this year. Yeah, the teen years are upon us!!!!! While I’ve had the blog, I’ve stayed away from making political statements up here. Politics and political discussion is fraught with controversy and never really leads anywhere good so I just kind of stayed away from it. Anyway we had for eight years a wonderful, classy man as president who I supported and voted for twice. I am in real life a political person but up here I choose to stay away from it.
Well that’s recently changed since a maniacal orange crayon was elected president. I didn’t say we elected him and I don’t want to even call him our president. He isn’t. First people said he wouldn’t get elected. Then people said give him a chance.
Then he decided to ban the entry of people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia for 90 days. He also put restrictions on green card holders from those countries. This happened on a Friday. Two days later, massive protests took place at airports, in big cities. Marty Walsh, Boston’s mayor and a stand up fellow pledged to use City Hall itself to shelter people from this disgusting order on the part of the president.
Even before the ban went into place, it struck me that the election of that man smacked of a certain kind of racism taking over in the United States that I experienced on my own skin as a kid. I’m going to share that experience and bring it back around to what I’ve seen developing recently. Since the blog is turning ten this year, I thought it was time to share a lot more about the person who actually writes this thing.
In 1989, I moved with my parents to a place called North White Plains. Before that we lived in Manhattan for seven years. Before that, I’d been born in Poland. The years living in Manhattan were some of the happiest years of my life. Manhattan in the 1980s was an incredibly wild place to live. It was the birth of hip hop culture, drugs, AIDS. Everything that it was in the movies was how it was in real life. I was just a kid but the adults I saw in the city were the adults I wanted to be.
Being a kid in Manhattan too meant that I was in a community with people from a lot of different places in the world. It was normal in the school to have a classmate arrive not speaking one word of English and by the end of the year, be able to speak English. I had classmates from every religion and every country. Nobody could make fun of anybody for being an outsider because we all were.
In 1989, my dad changed his job and we moved to North White Plains. I’ve referred to the place I went to junior high and high school in as the heart of darkness, a total and utter shit hole and a lot of other things that I can’t even put on this blog because my parents read it and they’d get angry at me.
Why do I refer to it that way? Imagine you are a kid who has happily gone to school for seven years and then you get plopped down, completely by accident in a place you hate? Why do you hate this place? Well, as soon as you arrive, your classmates start picking on you for being a foreigner. That’s what happened to me. Despite the fact that we’d lived in the United States for eight years by the time I went Valhalla High School in Valhalla, New York (I’m naming names here) I was suddenly a foreigner. To say that the bottom fell out for me at that point was an understatement.
I’d go to school everyday and get harassed by my classmates. I’d get an answer wrong and people would yell out “Dumb Polack” at the top of their lungs. One classmate named Justin Bergin used to call me “whore bitch commie slut” everyday. Another classmate named Mark Elmore stole my seat in a computer class and asked me “who won the war?” What war are you referring to Mark? World War II, where the United States and Russia fought on the same side and Poland was occupied by the Germans?
I asked another classmate named Chris Wynne one day why I got picked on so much and he goes “you looked like other Polish people we had seen before,” as if this was a good reason to pick on a 12 year old kid. Another person, whose name I can’t even recall came up to me and said that I shouldn’t even be allowed to play on the sports teams in the school because I wasn’t American.
Somehow, some twenty-five years after this all happened, so much of it sticks in my mind. Another classmate named Paris Von Thomas would walk up to me everyday and call me a Bolshevik. This is so goddamn funny with the passage of time. Basically the girl was calling me a member of the majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party, which was renamed the Communist Party after the 1917 October Revolution. How I could in 1989 at the age of 12 have been a Bolshevik defies all imagination? Was I hiding a time machine? Did she know about a previous life of mine? I mean the comedic possibilities are endless. I guess she was calling me a communist. After she’d said this to me for about the 100th time, I told her that my father and my uncle had been part of the anti-communist movement in Poland. Still Paris would not be placated!!! She simply replied “you’re still a Bolshevik.” Paris Von Thomas, if you ever google yourself and end up on this blog, I hope that in the last thirty years you have cracked open a book or an internet portal of some kind and educated yourself on world history. And if you haven’t, read what I previously wrote. Oh and obviously enjoy the photos and no, I won’t be taking your name off of this blog. As long as this is still the United States, we have freedom of speech.
There wasn’t even any point in fighting back against all of this ignorance, kind of like the atmosphere in America is now except I was dealing with a pack of middle schoolers. One day when the tormenting had really gotten to me, I yelled something back at one of the kids that I immediately regretted. This got around the old Valhalla High School rather quickly and in a moment that I will never forget, I walked into the seventh grade wing of Valhalla High School to kids lined up on either side of the hallway, waiting for me. It was a scene directly out of the movies, where one of the characters in the movie is about to have pig’s blood thrown on her or something. One of the junior plastics, I mean sub-popular kids, a girl by the name of Stephanie Rinaldo says to me “did you call so and so [this particularly nasty name]. Obviously I had done it. I was guilty. I wasn’t going to deny it so I said I had. I added “you guys call me names all the time” and at that moment, Stephanie Rinaldo uttered words that stuck in my head for the next twenty-five years. She said “you do not matter.” Thanks Stephanie Rinaldo for that trip to the therapist. Put your address in the comments. I’ll send you my therapist’s bill.
On my end, I didn’t really behave very well either and in hindsight, my behavior probably fueled the other kids behavior towards me. We’d have “spirit week” in the school when we were supposed to show school spirit and I’d show up wearing all black. I tried to start a club for those whose views on our school matched mine with a completely unprintable name. The only other person I got to join was another friend whose face had swollen up as a result of medication she was taking. She was sick, the victim of something out of her control and of course the kids picked on her. We were in the same boat. For what its worth, we’re still friends now.
One day in a tenth grade English literature class, the teacher asked us if we’d ever sell our soul to the devil. My hand shot right up and I said I would totally sell my soul to the devil if it meant I didn’t have to live in North White Plains anymore and I didn’t have to go to Valhalla anymore. I’ll never forget the look of shock on the faces of my classmates. It was a teenager thing to do, claim that you’d sell your soul to Satan but it was also an example of how I never stopped letting them all know how much I hated that town and that school.
The treatment extended to the faculty in the school. The school principal, a man by the name of Frank Ehrhardt stood by while the kids in the school hurled insult after insult at me until I just started screaming all kinds of obscenities at them and then took action to get me into trouble. It was fine to have the kids calling me all kinds of things, but once I fought back, well then the principal sprung into action. That same man would mispronounce my name at every school assembly. Every year the school would give out an award for being on the honor roll and every year that man would either mispronounce my name or just laugh at the hilarity of having to give a certificate to someone who obviously did not belong there. Foreigner.
For my part, I wanted to wash off that foreignness from myself. When people asked me where I was from, I just said Manhattan. It seemed crazy to me that I was being punished for being from another country and for a decision I had no part in. My parents never asked me if I wanted to move to the United States. We had to leave Poland. The country was falling apart and here I was ten years later being blamed for that.
That experience haunted me for years afterward. Every time something good happened to me, all of those memories came rushing back to me. I spoke to different people about it. The least understanding said “ah, kids will be kids” but other people understood why that happened. Time did heal the wounds of that whole thing but it didn’t really go away until another important chapter started in my life.
In 2010, I started working in an English as a Second Language school and in 2011, we started getting a lot of students from Saudi Arabia. A lot. Like half of our school was made up of Saudis. As soon as I met them I felt an immediate connection to them. I knew that they were going to be discriminated against just based on where they were from, as I had been. Further, they had been sent here as the result of political movements way beyond their control that they had no part in at all. It all sounded really familiar to me, mirroring what I had gone through in high school. Being racist towards Eastern Europeans isn’t cool anymore in the United States. I meet people all the time that tell me they had a grandparent or somebody in their family that was Polish, Russian or Czech. Poland is in the EU and NATO so they aren’t so unknown “other” anymore. The racism had moved off of us onto other people. Now the racism had turned towards the Arabs and I thought it was my job to show them that they would be supported here in the United States. It was my job to show them that I knew what it was like to be punished for who you were and for actions that were beyond your control.
The time with the Saudis was almost the exact opposite of what I had experienced growing up. To them, I was totally American. I had to teach people from Saudi Arabia to finally be American. My Saudi friends even got a nickname — Team Saudi Arabia. Imagine that when I met all of them, I assumed that they all hated America. Imagine my further surprise when they showed up at the fourth of July wearing American flag t-shirts.
The Saudis were like these total goofballs. I like to call them the Deltas, like the zoo fraternity from Animal House. One of them came up to me one day and said “host family have big dog, big dog” and spread his arms out to show me the host family has a dog the size of a horse. Another just came to class wearing glasses with no lenses in them. He also delivered to me the immortal lines that not only had he in his career as a nurse delivered a baby, but that he had also delivered an old man.
Somehow I’d always end up having to tell the Saudis that I wasn’t actually American and we’d have a little geography lesson to figure out where Boland was on the map. There’s no P in Arabic, so the country of my birth would get turned into Boland time and again. I just got used to it. I also slowly realized that I was the first Polish person most of them had ever seen. One day I was talking to one of my favorite Saudi boys, a kid who I consistently describe as looking like broccoli, and I saw another Polish guy in the school out of the corner of my eye. I walked my friend over and said “look. That’s another Polish person.” My Saudi friend grabbed his face in disbelief, still one of the funniest moments with my beloved team.
I spent every holiday and birthday with the Saudis for over five years. One of my birthday parties was fully Arabic themed, complete with hookah and Arabic food.
My interest in the Saudis stemmed from my experience of being discriminated against by people in Valhalla but it went further. If I had some kind of preconceived notions about them and judged them by where they were from, the friendships never would have formed.
We can’t wash off who we are and we shouldn’t have to. Cultures should be respected and not washed off in the name of what? Homogeneity? To what? For what? I frequently wanted to ask Christ Wynne or Paris Von Thomas what solution they had to my otherness. I think in one of those middle school exchanges I might have even said that and one of them might have responded with “go back to where you came from.” Again, if selling my soul to the devil were actually a viable option, I would have done it to leave that place forever. I heard Aziz Ansari give the best answer to that. Go back to where you came from, Aziz asked. You mean my mom’s uterus? Where were you Aziz when I was in middle school?
We’re all from somewhere Donald Trump and NOBODY should ever be discriminated for that. Here are some photos from today’s protest against your stupid executive order. May your time as president be short and may it pave the way for an understanding, welcoming United States: