School, the Polish Way
from Stuyvesant High School for a week of mid-winter recess, I
crossed six time zones to see a different school. Motivated by
a love of my native country and a desire to experience daily life
there, I went to my father’s high school, Liceum Ekonomiczne,
in Kalisz, Poland.
I showed up for classes on Monday morning, armed with a knowledge
of Polish and a blank notebook. I was assigned to 2C, a sophomore
homeroom. When the principal introduced me to them as “a new friend,”
they asked, “Forever?” Unfortunately, no.
I immediately became aware of how closeknit everyone was. At the
Liceum Ekonomicze, as at Stuyvesant, the homeroom stays the same
for all four years of high school. The weekly homeroom hour is
used for discussion and organization, certainly more useful than
our ten-minute homerooms. In Poland, the homeroom students study
every subject together, unlike at Stuyvesant where classes and
faces change every semester. The only exceptions are physical
education, which is not co-ed, and language classes.
While Polish students study about 18 subjects a year, Americans
study only six or seven. The difference is that we study ours
every day. Such daily exposure is good, especially for languages.
It also limits our choices. Sophomores at the Liceum take math,
history, geography, a foreign language—English, German or Russian—Polish,
economics, environment, chemistry, physics, technology and vocational
subjects such as statistics or marketing.
One of the teachers commented, “In Poland, we make students memorize
certain information. In the United States, you are taught how
to find it.”
Instead of SATs and Regents exams, they take huge exams—maturs—in
their senior year that cover several subjects and determine university
entrance. Religion is taught in school, but those who are not
Catholic are not pressured to attend.
In general, the school feels more like home than Stuyvesant: it
has three floors and a basement, not ten. There are curtains in
the windows and lots of houseplants. The national symbol, a white
eagle, adorns each classroom wall. There is a great deal more
respect towards adults; the students rise when a teacher walks
into the room.
My greatest disappointment was that Polish students do not enjoy
a full lunch period. Instead, they snack during breaks that last
from five to 20 minutes. This is because dinner is usually served
right after school.
Among Poles living in New York, one often hears stories of a troubled
Polish youth, a group that can’t reconcile tradition with modern
Western culture. But I’ve brought back photos and memories of
the Polish students who welcomed me warmly into their school with
smiles and questions, never with silence. And now, the most persistent
question remains: Which school do I like more?
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