FORUM: Discrimination

My Mother’s family was captured by KGB in the first week of WWII. Her dad, my beloved Grandfather, was an estate owner and Officer in the Polish Cavalry.

The eldest of three children, Mom was in third grade when two soldiers armed with machine guns entered her classroom and announced her name. Standing at attention she saluted the Polish flag and said: “niech żyje Polska” (long-live Poland). She believed she was being taken for execution—to gratefully become a Polish national hero.

Mom was disappointed when she was placed in a cattle car as a political prisoner on a train bound for Siberia. She didn’t know where her family was, and the soldiers weren’t answering questions, only giving orders. Mom cried softly praying for her family. Seeing that Mom was young and alone, a compassionate fellow prisoner shared a loaf of bread.

The family was reunited in Siberia. Guards were unnecessary in the Polish camp. As large as the US, Siberia was undeveloped: brown bears roamed grasslands like squirrels, tigers perpetually patrolled their territory, and there were no roads.

The Poles decided to walk 4,000 miles to India, and most died along the journey. After arriving in Teheran and then making their way to India (Pakistan didn’t yet exist), the Poles lived in 12 different Indian cities. Many went to Bangladesh to board ships to take them to Africa. Mom’s next refugee camp was in Uganda on the shore of Lake Victoria.

When WWII ended, many Poles living in Africa immigrated to the US, and many others moved to southeastern Australia. Warsaw and Chicago became the cities which were home to the largest numbers of Poles.

Polish was my first language, but we spoke English when Dad was at home: he spent a lot of time at work and on the missile range. I was already in first grade but hadn’t yet made a good friend with a kid my age. This was in part attributable to the fact that it was the so-called “McCarthy era” in the US.

Anyone speaking with my parents or me had an FBI file opened on them, because they were considered a possible “Communist sympathizer.” Neither the fact that Dad was making the guidance system for the anti-ballistic-missile interceptor (the Sprint missile) which motivated the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, nor the fact that Mom was a Polish hero who escaped from a Siberian gulag, was of material significance to the FBI.

I was nearing the end of my first grade in elementary school. I’d already been a student in various schools during the year because we moved when Dad’s worksite relocated—we followed the missiles.

The teacher gave the class an assignment. She would hold up a total of ten drawings of common household items, one at a time. Each item had a name by which it was called. For example a broom, or a dust pan.

We were instructed to print our name at the top of a sheet of ruled paper.

Next, on the line beneath our name, we were to write the first letter of the word used to describe the item in the first drawing.

On the following line we would write the first letter of the word used to describe the item in the second drawing.

This would continue until we wrote the first letter of the name of the item in the tenth drawing.

I recognized the items in the drawings, so I thought I’d performed well on the test. When the teacher returned my graded test, I had zero correct answers.

At home I showed my failed test to Mom, who asked what happened. I thought perhaps Teacher may have given me zero points because I was half Polish, and Americans don’t seem to like Polish people.

Mom made an appointment and we went to see Teacher, who explained the test—which Mom already understood, but she was a very patient, respectful person.

Teacher showed us the first photo, a broom, and said the correct answer is “B” for “broom.” I explained that at home we call the item “that thing to sweep with,” so its name begins with three consecutive “Ts.”

Teacher showed the second photo of a dust-pan, for which my answer was again “T” for “that thing to sweep into.”

The name of all ten items of the test began with “T” in my home, and in my test answers.

After Teacher verified that I knew the first letter of the actual words used to describe all ten of the test items, I received a perfect score.

A little less than a decade later I became US champion in various formats of competitive speech and debate, but that is a story for another time.

Live and let live…


Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

January 20, 2021

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