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It was her first day at school in a brand new country. Mother had fussed over dressing Ilonka for this special occasion and she was dressed in the finest clothes they could provide from the country they’d been forced to flee. Traditional dress with all the embroidery and aprons that marked Ilonka as European stood out as she viewed herself in the mirror with pride.

Mother stood at the door with one of those proud smiles parents can be seen wearing as they watch their children at work or play. Only when Ilonka was completely satisfied with her appearance did she hold out her hand for her mother to lead her on to her new school.

Ilonka could hardly contain her joy. It had been so long since she’d attended elementary school in Europe and she’d missed the fun and games with her friends terribly. In her childish imagination she placed her new school, which she hadn’t yet seen, in a familiar setting with surrounding Black Forrest visible in the distance and the rolling green slopes on which animals grazed close by. The provincial language of her teachers intruded into her memory.

Concrete factory walls they passed as they walked did not fit into that scene, but Ilonka somehow imagined those unfamiliar and unfriendly walls would soon give way to the familiar scenery she longed for. But when they arrived at a gate in one of those concrete walls and walked inside she turned to her mother with a puzzled face. Where was her school, and why had they diverted to this place?

She looked around in alarm. Where were all the elementary students? There was no one dressed like her there. There were children in abundance in their sweat shirts and jeans playing around on the large campus inside the wall shouting to each other. Then almost as one they stopped what they were doing and stared at Ilonka as she made her way with mother to the administration block. They followed at a distance whispering and pointing. Ilonka began to feel very much out of place and turned pleading eyes to mother.

“Can we go home now?” Ilonka whispered.

Mother looked at Ilonka with compassion as she steered her into the administration building to attend to formalities.

Mother was used to this. War in Europe had pushed the family from one place to another constantly re-inventing their place in society and desperately trying to survive their dislocations. She’d hated the obligatory urgent move from one culture or one language area to another. She knew Ilonka was too young to understand how they’d somehow protected her within their own family culture through it all. She knew what was ahead for Ilonka, but it had to be faced. There was no alternative. She would have to now add English to the two languages she already understood and learn to fit in to this new culture. Ilonka was no longer a baby.

In broken English mother explained the situation to the school head. The headmistress was a kind lady and promised to take personal interest in Ilonka’s well-being and entry into what she understood would be a terrifying experience. She spoke kindly to Ilonka who turned to look at her mother pleadingly to understand what was happening.

Mother could barely restrain her tears, but remained silent. This was something Ilonka had to work out herself. She knew it, the teacher knew it, but Ilonka didn’t.

With firm voice mother told her to listen to what the teacher told her. She’d be back to collect her after school was finished for the day. Half way across campus Mother finally broke down and tears flowed freely. The children gawked, pointed and laughed as she hurried through the gate.

The Headmistress had been through this experience before. A lot of migrants had come to this country from a devastated Europe. Language was the first barrier to their success in a new country and their children had suffered much in bridging years between no comprehension of what was going on in their school to comprehension and excellence.

The trauma of orientation caused some to drop out and spend the rest of their lives in unsatisfying roles in society. But most had used that trauma to seek skills more diligently than local children so they could rise above the laughter and gain the respect they craved. Later a grateful nation would acknowledge the value of their achievements.

Ilonka’s first years were so traumatic much of it was a black hole her memory could not later penetrate. She’d later remember though people laughing at her accent, her clothes, her food and customs. She remembered the initial shunning by school children, which was counteracted by the kindness of teachers.

But she’d also remember laughing at words in English which had much different connotations in her family language than her school teachers would have wished to communicate.

Her overall aim though was to assimilate and excel, and that she did.

“© Copyright Ian Grice 2013 All rights reserved”

13 thoughts on “ILonka.

  1. oh my heart went out to the dear girl, to be that young full of day dreams and to go through constant changes…add to it the different cultures, languages, not easy for a kid.
    wow very powerful and engaging write up.


  2. When I started school, I too did not know a word of English. I can related to this girl. Esther

    On Wed, May 29, 2013 at 9:23 PM, ianscyberspace wrote:

    > ** > ianscyberspace posted: ” The above image belongs to > It was her first day at school in a brand new > country. Mother had fussed over dressing Ilonka for this special occasion > and she was dressed in the finest clothes they could provide from the > country”


  3. Lovely name lLonka. Your story, together with the ensuing commentary, reinforces the questions which I have about our local schools in which the elementary students are given much of their instruction in their native language – Spanish rather than English. Children learn language so fast that I am convinced that full immersion is a better approach. I suggest that having loving parents, such as lLonka’s mother, provides a backbone with which the trauma of school and even multiple school changes can be borne without serious personality flaws in later life. It sounds callous but I think that we sometimes mollycoddle our children too much and forget that school is for learning. Nice provocative piece! Jane


    1. I think results prove you are right. Those who refuse to adjust to the language of their adopted country as a first language set themselves up to be marginalized for the rest of their life. For some strange reason they blame the culture they have willingly moved into for that. Our western cultures are being whiteanted by the diviseness this causes.


  4. It is fiction Eric, but naturally some of the thoughts arise from my wife’s experiences as a refugee fleeing the Russians from country to country and eventually settling here in Australia though it does not fit her situation entirely. She has positive memories of her teachers, unlike me. I was beaten black and blue at times for my pranks though I didn’t seem to learn a lesson from those beatings. LOL. In today’s Australia teachers would be sacked or jailed for doing what I experienced. But those were the times and we survived. I think it made us more capable in dealing with adult life later on. These days governments over protect us as we grow up.


  5. Oh, my did this story ever bring childhood memories rushing back to me. I can certainly relate to Ilonka having attended 16 schools in 12 years. Only completing one school year at the same school. We did not move to another country but we moved from the south to the west US and they made fun of my southern accent. My sister and I both are in awe that we learned anything in school but we both turned out okay. I enjoyed reading this but sure felt for Ilonka and her mom too having to make all those changes. Thanks for sharing another of your terrific stories sweet Ian.


    1. Yes our kids had to attend school in three different countries and they turned out just fine. I know they had adjustments to make in each country but it gave them an appreciation for the best (and the worst I suppose too) in each country. It made them tolerant and capable as I’m sure you experienced too. The southern accent is rather cute.


  6. In one sense I can relate to this – in the 1960s we were desperately poor. All the children – Chinese, Malays and Indians – stuck together. It was the teachers – the middle class privileged – who behaved as tyrants.

    Years later, I learnt that it was a unique experience – though teachers in other schools were strict – they never ill treated the children the way my school teachers did.

    Drawing from my childhood and now, as a father – I feel for Ilonka and her mother.

    A snippet based on your family history, perhaps. Thank you for sharing, Ian.



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