Between 1926 and 1929 approximately 50 thousand Poles and Ukrainians immigrated to Canada, almost all without financial assistance from government.

Annie, a bright eight year old, remembered everything of the journey with her family from home in Galicia, nestled up against the Carpathians, to Gdansk a seaport on the Baltic, the big boring ship, the train from Halifax to Winnipeg and finally northward into Manitoba’s Interlake.

It was late summer when they arrived. Their first house had two rooms, was crowded and quite unpleasant. She didn’t ever go to school because her parents kept her at home to care for younger brothers and sisters and to help with the farm work.

School wasn’t compulsory at the time; it was far away and hard to get to. In winter roads drifted over with snow and when it got warmer, it got swampy all over. Then there was a new baby or farm work and the cycle repeated.

Try as she might, Annie couldn’t figure out why so many people treated her family with contempt. Later she learned it was because she didn’t speak English or French, went to a different church, and dressed differently.

Little girls daydream – and so did Annie. She married John; they worked very hard. In late spring, summer and fall, Annie and children took fresh garden produce to sell to cottagers at the beach. When the children weren’t around, the cottagers made their own change because Annie couldn’t.

John and Annie encouraged their children and they became well-educated professionals who presented them with beautiful grandchildren. When the children were themselves settled into their own families, it was finally her time and she wanted to learn how to read, write and do math.

I met Annie in the fall of 1978. She was older, small, personable, motivated and very bright. She told me with authority that my job was to teach her how to read, write and do math.

Teaching the basics is hugely complicated and is closely related to rocket science. I was familiar with adults who needed a little help to complete high school using tools they already had.

Annie needed the tools. She had life experiences, which included learning a new culture, motherhood, farming, community membership and small business expertise. She mostly needed to organize what she had using templates, conventions and symbols.

Her classmates learned by teaching and each benefited. I got a lot of credit and still wonder how it happened. Her tenacity and life experience brought her to the very edge: a little mentoring pushed her over.

Reading and math came much easier than writing. When the letters and words finally made sense to her, using conversations, a dictionary and thesaurus, she practiced over and over again matching words to concepts. Classmates, grandchildren and friends were her best teachers. She helped them learn because they taught her.

Years later, on our honeymoon, Eva and I visited Annie. Declaring she would get me the moon if I asked was most embarrassing because I knew she mostly taught herself with a little help from her friends. On subsequent visits she became an honorary bop-cha to our children.

David is supposed to be retired but enjoys being a husband, father, grandfather, friend, Jesuit alumnus, adult educator, writer and small business advisor. He flies his airplane as often as he can, for the absolute joy of it.

  • Peter Monty, SJ
    Posted at 17:35h, 21 March Reply

    David, what a touching story of tenacity and resilience!

  • Maria Skarzynski
    Posted at 12:48h, 23 March Reply

    Lovely story David. It’s Babcia by the way – Polish for Grandma.

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