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All That Was: Chapter Four - School

“My first day at school was an abomination. My Mother had me all spruced up: in a brand new navy blue uniform with a round buttoned-on white starched collar, a navy blue beret, the rectangular leather 'tornister' strapped to my back, brown socks and shoes. Mother was taking me along. As we stepped out of our front door, I was terrified at the whole prospect. I made a terrible scene on the landing, yelling and vomiting all over the stairs. Nonetheless, I was eventually led to the school….’’ Lusia Przybyszewicz takes us back to 1929, the year she started school in the city of Lodz, Poland.

Lusia's wonderful autobiography, is available from PO 404, Vaucluse, NSW, 2030, Austrlia ($25 Australian, plus postage).

In my youth, school consisted of three Kindergarten cum Preparatory years, known as A, B and C, followed by eight years of high school. After the first 6 years, students were confronted by the Junior Certificate exams, (Mala Matura). The last two years culminated in the major final exam, called Matura.

I started school in September 1929, only a couple of months after Bolek's birth. Father enrolled me in the best and the most expensive private gymnasium in Lodz: it was named after the early 19th century Polish novelist, Eliza Orzeszkowa.
It was almost impossible in those days for the Jewish students to pass the entry exams to the sole State High School for girls. Consequently, all private girls schools teemed with Jewish students. At our school, for example, an average class of 45 girls would include only three or four Catholics.

The school building on the outside resembled all the other blocks of flats. It still stands at Al. Kosciuszki 21. Before the war, this used to be the only tree-lined avenue in Lodz. The street was so named to honour the national hero, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a famous 18th century Polish general who fought the Russians, was captured, and then released by Czar Paul the 1st. In Australia, the highest peak of the Australian Alps has been named after him by the Polish explorer Strzelecki.
Only the front buildings belonged to the school: the remaining three blocks across the familiar courtyard were let out to tenants. Such an arrangement afforded many of our classrooms the view of the tree-lined avenue.

I visited the school in 1977 with my son Claude. The ornate
Baroque facade was unchanged. As we passed under the familiar 'brama', we discovered, to my great surprise, that the former school had become an extension of the new, post-war Lodz University.

Before I ventured to pull the heavy door on my left to enter the inner sanctum, I told Claude that we would find a huge mirror in a gilded frame, set in the wall straight in front of the worn marble staircase leading to the five floors of the school. That was the spot where we always used to adjust our hair on our way out. Indeed, nothing had changed after some 50 odd years. It was good to have my son there at that moment. I wanted to cry.

(During our August 1997 visit, we found the run-down buildings of my former school locked up. They were in private hands and awaiting restoration.)

My first day at school was an abomination. My Mother had me all spruced up: in a brand new navy blue uniform with a round buttoned-on white starched collar, a navy blue beret, the rectangular leather 'tornister' strapped to my back, brown socks and shoes. Mother was taking me along. As we stepped out of our front door, I was terrified at the whole prospect. I made a terrible scene on the landing, yelling and vomiting all over the stairs. Nonetheless, I was eventually led to the school.
Like many of my contemporaries, I skipped Azerowa, (the A class) and I joined the B class from the outset.

My very first teacher was a middle-aged spinster. Her fading looks were not enhanced by a pair of crooked legs on which she waddled amongst the rows of desks. Each row was occupied by a pair of bewildered children, sitting very still. With motherly warmth and kindness she chatted to each one of her new recruits. She put an enormous effort into making us feel at home and to build up our self-reliance in such unfamiliar surroundings.

Unfortunately, for me, the process of adjustment to this new concept of becoming part of a team was not easy. For a long time, I remained too timid and scared to mix with my schoolmates. I recall feeling very envious of an overconfident little girl (Hania Sz.). She raised her hand to gain permission to speak. She then stood up and told the teacher: 'My uncle said that you have crooked legs and that you can't sing.' The silence that followed was deathly. The poor teacher's face turned ashen. That girl is now a retired journalist. She lives in Warsaw, and I met her there in 1977 and again in 1997.
Classes began at 8:15 a.m. We brought sandwiches and fruit with us for the 'second' breakfast which we ate at school at about 11:00 a.m. We returned home in time for the main meal of the day at about 2 p.m. We had no school sessions in the afternoons.

For the duration of the 1st Term, my Mother would come every day at 11:00 to help me eat up my second breakfast and talk to the other children. On my return home from school, she waited in the kitchen with a tablespoon of 'tran' (whale fish oil for my health), which I absolutely detested. To help me kill the taste of it, she held in her other hand, a piece of pickled herring dangling from a fork. I would devour this immediately after my medicine.

When I reached the C class, my Mother organized my 7th birthday party by inviting some girls from my class. I was too shy to do it by myself. I was always the smallest child in the class, and this, in itself was very intimidating. Very gradually, I developed some confidence, but my progress was lamentably slow.

I shared a desk with the same girl (Olenka O.) for the first couple years, and this had a steadying effect. We played together at break and occasionally visited each other's homes. Later on, O. migrated to the United States and, thus, escaped the war. I met her again in New York in 1973. She became a professor of Science at a New York university.)

The birthday party Mother plotted bore fruit. Everyone I invited had to invite me back. And so, bit by bit, sometimes painfully, I began to make friends.

In those early years I did not shine academically in any sphere, and Arithmetic was my worst subject. I used to get my tables horribly muddled. I remember developing a mental block and bursting into tears when I was asked what was three times six. I really don't know why that was so.

School discipline used to be very strict. Whenever the teacher addressed us, we remained seated at our desks listening intently (or pretending to!) To ensure that we would not fidget, we had to keep our hands behind our backs. When speaking to the teacher we stood up beside the desk. For writing things down, each one of our double desks was provided with an inkwell, into which we dutifully dipped the nibs of our scratch pens. (In pre-school we used only pencils.)

'Kaligrafja' (Calligraphy) lessons were designed to teach us the skill of rounding our letters well and joining them together by applying the correct degree of pressure to the nib. Printing was not encouraged.

Oral work was promoted from the earliest days. We learnt to speak in front of the whole class and were frequently called upon to write on the blackboard. During my long teaching career in Australia I found this aspect of learning very different here.

We spent our breaks indoors in a large hall. There were benches along the walls for eating the second breakfast.
Also of necessity, Gymnastics had to be conducted indoors. The school faced this challenge admirably, by providing a huge, well-appointed gym. Its walls were lined with special ladders. Other gear included bars, mattresses, a vaulting horse, nets for ball games and what have you.

Our gym garb consisted of black bloomers and white tops which we donned in the adjacent changing rooms. Running barefooted was unheard of. Instead, we scampered about in beige soft leather slippers and white socks.

Even breaststroke had to be taught on the gym floor. No wonder I always find it more difficult to do breaststroke in the water. I'm sure that my particular style stands out in the sea at Nielsen Park where I swim throughout the year.

Outside of school, together with some school friends, I attended private Plastyka classes for more elaborate exercises. At the drop of a hat our nimble bodies could perform splits, 'bridge,' 'candle' and the like.

Our singing classes were also held in the gym. We had a magnificent school choir. The singing professor's name was Pedzimaz: in translation this means: 'galloping husband'. We never ran out of jokes and little riddles about the galloping wife.

At one end of the hall heavy dark curtains concealed the stage. It was used for school plays or functions which were presented at the end of terms.

I twice had the dubious honour of 'performing' on that stage. As an eight-year-old, I recited a poem about being a black boy. For the occasion, Mother, babcia Przybyszewicz and aunt Cyla combined efforts to produce my black costume, complete with a mask and fuzzy black hair.

My second attempt at theatrical fame came much later. I volunteered to be a Greek slave in a play produced by our teacher of Latin, Miss W. My role was confined to walking behind my Roman master who was resplendent in his toga. I wore simple sandals and a bed sheet edged with 'meandros', a Greek motive consisting of a golden geometric pattern, in this case sewn on to its four sides. This task took my Mother over a week and she wasn't amused.

We had a resident school doctor, whose good will we often abused. To excuse us from some unwelcome chore we would do our damnedest to elicit an appropriate certificate from her.
Our timetable imposed 45-50 minute lessons, with five minute intervals in between. After the third period, we were allowed half an hour recess for the second breakfast. Under this system, six periods were concluded by 2 o'clock, which marked the end of school day.

Before each lesson, there were three blasts of the electric bell: one to return to class, the other to get the right books ready, and the last one to welcome the teacher. For this welcome, we had to stand up in respectful silence.

In the first few years of school, in warm weather, we would walk, once a week, in pairs, down our Kosciuszko Avenue, to the school garden, where every girl had her little plot to cultivate. That was in fact my only gardening experience in Poland.

On all school outings, according to tradition, the smallest children walked in front, consequently, I often had to suffer the indignity of having to hold the teacher’s hand.

Like school kids all over the world, we loved holidays. I usually spent the three week long Christmas recess skiing at Zakopane, in the Tatra mountains.

At the end of each school year we could look forward to the summer holidays which extended over July and August.


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