Immigrant Child

  • by Margit Moreland

I am grateful that my first few years of life happened in an environment of a loving and supportive extended family.  A family who made me feel so very special on a daily basis.  I don’t know who I would be today if it wasn’t for having those memories to cling to as my world fell apart at such a young age.

When I was four and one-half years of age, my parents emigrated from Denmark to Northern Canada.  When I was five and one-half years old, I started Grade 1 speaking very little English.  I remember my teacher back then (Mrs. Brat) who treated me with such blatant cruelty that I have no idea how I was able to attend school on a daily basis.  My mother recently told me that Mrs. Brat informed her that I would never be able to learn very much.  My memories of Mrs. Brat include several incidents of hard core bullying in front of others for being different.

First grade:  “Stand up and let other students see you so that they can learn from your stupidity and inability to understand what is being taught.”

In the schoolyard, when I relayed that other students were ganging up on me:  “Well, that’s what happens to students who aren’t liked by others!”

Then, in second grade (oh yes, I had to endure her for two years in a one-room classroom):  “Stand up so other students can see who used such ridiculous colors in their drawing … “are these colors students would ever, ever think of using to paint a house?”

I’m sure you get the picture …

I clearly remember watching Mrs. Brat in amazement each time she bullied and abused my nature … wondering how something like this could be happening – especially to someone who had never experienced such a level of dislike and disdain – looking around for just one little friendly face of support.  I never cried, never ran out of the classroom, never took my pain out on others, and never talked back.  After all, during those days, children’s feelings and opinions weren’t that important.

Today, as I write just one little story of my life, I wonder where I found the courage (at 5 and 6 years of age), to face such a hateful teacher and room full of classmates – to face humiliation with such stoicism and calm reserve.  I never cried to my parents either and really had no one to complain to, as it truly was a tougher world back then.   After all, my parents were young immigrants with three little children and you either made it on your own in your new land or you didn’t.  Nobody really cared one way or the other.  (And, after all, less than a ¼ century earlier – if the war hadn’t ended, my Cabin-Boy-at-the-time father would have been on his way to a concentration camp because he and a few other very brave souls were caught smuggling Danish Jews to a safer haven.)

In my day (smile), children were expected to learn how to stand up for themselves.  That’s actually what my mother told me to do – remember your ancestors, stand up for yourself – tall and strong.  Be proud and don’t let what others say and do stand in your way!

What a gift when my outlandish 2nd grade drawing was chosen to be put on display at a children’s art exhibition in Toronto – a little country-bumpkin-immigrant-child gaining recognition for her thought-to-be-strange artwork.  Too – what a gift when I was presented the most beautiful blue, first-prize-ribbon-ever by the school Principal in front of fellow classmates and teachers.

Another critical and amazingly wondrous thing that saved me from a great deal of emotional harm is so special that I have a permanent image emblazoned on my mind.  I’ll never, ever forget my first connection of being able to read English.  With my little Dick and Jane reader in front of me, “See Spot run.” visually came together, before my very eyes, as a complete sentence … letter-by-letter-by-letter.  It was magical, like putting on glasses for the very first time and truly seeing clearly – so 20/15-ish (a level of eyesight that is quite uncommon in complex cultures).

These gifts of strong, independent parents; of learning how to read; of having a kind human being stand up for me in front of others, sustained my existence as being truly worthwhile for a long period of time.  Just one person vindicating the hell faced in the first two years of grade school – through such a simple act as entering a child’s drawing in a contest, and then making my greatness public to others was an amazing event.  This marvelous accomplishment helped me to immediately move past Ms. Brat forever through the awesome experience of my most enjoyable memories ever – winning first prize in the face of such powerful adversity.  More importantly though, reading became a lifetime experience of learning – as well as a wonderful way to escape and gain protection from the meanness of life into the amazingly beautiful, colorful and fascinating world of stories instead.