Homesick refugee’s language and culture academy blooms

Kids studying

After outgrowing two sites, the school meets alternate Saturdays at the Walnut Creek Methodist Church. Students range from preschool to high school and come from Pleasanton, Antioch, Dublin and Oakland. Out of its sprawling, two-county suburban reach, the school has created a neighborhood-sized community.

Parents gather with teachers and children around a table laden with fruit and pastries in the shady courtyard. Many will see each other the following day at church.

HomeSick Kids LearningCommunity is what it’s all about for Rhonda Edwards Andrade, whose children Evelyn, 6, and Elliott, 4, dance, pray and learn Polish here.

„That, and heritage,” she said.

„My little guy goes
to preschool with kids from India, Asia, Persia. Their cultures are so rich and so apparent. It’s nice for us to have that linkage so they have that, too. He’s not just this little piece of white Wonder Bread. He has his own culture as well.”

The day starts with a prayer. Some students prepare for their First Communion. But religious study is optional; not everyone participates.

The school represents a dream realized for Polish-born Krystyna Chciuk, who made her way to this country after World War II with her husband. They were Polish resistance fighters captured by the Germans after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and released to England after the war.

„I knew I couldn’t go home,” Chciuk said. „My husband came from East Poland. It was given away to the Russians. It’s now part of the Ukraine. We were very happy to become American citizens because we were stateless.”

The school began in increments: She started teaching Polish folk-dancing classes in 1968. The student performances of the Krakowiak in Golden Gate Park attracted so many Polish-American families to her school it rapidly outgrew its space in the 22nd Street Polish Club. In its 40 years and three sites, the school has drawn fourth-generation Poles, the children of Solidarnosc advocates forced out during the Iron Curtain years and newcomers who have never known any but a free Poland. Eighty students now learn the art, poetry, language, history, geography, and culture of the homeland.

Chciuk retired from teaching after a heart attack.

„I help when they need me,” she said. „My heart is there.”

On the second-to-last day of the school year last week, kids in the religion class crowded around a table and shushed each other. The soft-spoken Rutkowska asked them to identify an icon.

„Czarna Madonna,” called out Andrzej Pabianek.

Oliwia Olano asked why the Madonna in the icon has lines in her cheeks. When enemies of Poland invaded, a soldier slashed the picture with his sword, Rutkowska said. Attempts to mask the gouge marks with paint have failed.

„It is like a miracle,” Lila said.

Natalia Soja asked whether Mary can talk. Teacher Elzbieta Oleszkiewicz told her yes, she can talk to you in your mind.

Olano asked how many kids Mary had. The teachers twitched, hands hiding stifled titters. „Jesus was a very good kid,” Rutkowska sidestepped. „He worked hard.”

Language study begins with „Elementarz,” the same textbook first-graders use in Poland. A couple years ago, a girlfriend who taught at the school asked if Miluski could take over for her during her trip to Poland. She has continued, even with a full-time job as an office administrator in San Francisco.

„I loved it,” Miluski said.

The challenge is keep each child ­ they range from beginning to fluent ­ stimulated but not overwhelmed.

„I want them to have some fun,” she said. „I think I will be with them in the second grade. We’ll focus more on conversation. We meet 20 days. It’s not that many days.”

Yet they learn quickly and absorb more than it sometimes appears. One boy, on a family vacation to Poland, said nothing at all for two weeks then suddenly began speaking rapid-fire, flawless Polish, Miluski said.

Evelyn Andrade speaks Spanish and French and is learning Polish „very rapidly,” Miluski said. She won the school’s poetry-reading contest.

High schoolers in a classroom watch slides of a river framed by steep peaks and practice a song for Polish Mother’s Day, which was Monday.

Adam Jroslaw Kodzis’ is the only member of his family who was not born in Poland. The freckled 13-year-old, who loves Sum 41 and the Black-Eyed Peas, goes airsoft shooting with his pals when he isn’t expounding on Polish history.

He said he makes stronger bonds with his friends at Polish school because there are fewer people, and because they all speak Polish and English.

„Basically, life is extraordinary,” he mused before dashing back into class. „I have to thank my parents because they give me such a happy life even though they came here and struggled to get used to life in America. I personally feel like I’m benefitting a lot.”

Rebecca Rosen Lum covers religion. Reach her at 925-977-8506 or rrosenlum@bayareanewsgroup.com.
A Polish school
The John Paul II School of Polish Language and Culture meets alternate Saturdays from September to June at Walnut Creek Methodist Church. Eighty students, from pre-school to high school, attend classes, and many perform at the annual celebration of the Polish Constitution in Golden Gate Park. The school is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Information about the school is at www.polishschool.org.

By Rebecca Rosen Lum