The Gift of Education

by Jaclyn Konopka

Sprinting down the back dirt pathway, surrounded by large dreary trees and guided by the moonlight, Piotr rushes to his teacher’s house for yet another lesson.  Even though far from the main streets, he attempts to keep his pounding feet extremely quiet, afraid of drawing the German soldiers’ attention.  If they only knew he was illegally still attending classes, he would surely be taken away or even executed.  No Polish citizen is allowed to attend school.

“Piotr!” whispers a hushed voice at the end of the pathway, leaving Piotr stunned and frightened.  Having come to a near halt, he inches towards the voice with his heart pounding, not sure whether to trust this woman who is covered by the shadows of the trees.   Finally, the moonlight reveals that she thankfully is just his teacher’s neighbor.   She quickly discloses that the German soldiers just took his teacher and family away, and if he was seen anywhere near the house they would surely take him away too.

With a quick kiss to her cheek and many thanks for risking her life to warn him of the danger, Piotr rushes away to the wheat fields nearby.  He slowly creeps past the large stalks and comes to an immediate standstill after hearing the murmur of voices nearby.

On the edge of the field, he sees the silhouettes of two German soldiers begin to shine their flashlights into the wheat.  He stands like a statue, praying to God that they don’t notice him.  Sweat and tears build up on his face, and the sound of his heart beating consumes his body.  At last, he hears the sound of footsteps growing fainter as the officers walk away.  Too frightened to move, Piotr remains in the same position for nearly an hour.

When he finally returns to his farm, his parents look at him with worried eyes and strained, tired faces.  As he and his parents embrace in hugs, his mom demands a reason for his late arrival.  Just another confiscation, he explains.  In tears, his parents tell him that they only hope that his own children will one day be able to safely go to school.

A few years later the war is finally over, and instead, Poland now faces oppression from the Soviet Union.  Poland has transformed into a communist nation that is forced to follow the rules and guidelines of the Russian regime.  Polish citizens look upon their nation frightened to accidentally cause a commotion or bring attention to themselves.  New soldiers now patrol various streets throughout the countryside.  Warsaw, the capital, is in complete ruins.  During this time, Piotr has already been a graduate from his private high school for over a year.  One afternoon in 1947, he excitedly returns home with his fiancé, Nusia.  He quickly checks the mail for any responses from his college applications and finds a letter addressed to him and rips it open, only to learn that because his father owns some land he is not eligible to attend college.  Stunned and fuming, he angrily throws the letter to the ground, stomps on it, and flails his arms in the air.

How are he and Nusia going to be able to support a family now?  Days later, Piotr decides to attend a Polish seminary to become a priest in an attempt to eventually attend a regular university.  Two years later, he transfers to the University of Warsaw and marries Nusia.  Thankfully, the paperwork for transfer students is not looked upon closely.

It is now 1954, and Piotr is in his fourth year in college.  He soon has a newborn child to add to his family, Jacek, who is my father.  Not only a student, Piotr is also working as a high school teacher as well.  With events such as the Katyn Massacre, where a quarter of a million Polish intellectuals were secretly killed by the Russian Army during WWII , and the continued  executions of Polish scholars afterwards, the number of individuals eligible to teach high school students is inadequate.  Because of this, college students like Piotr are forced to take on these positions.  Soon enough, he is trying to manage three jobs at once in order to make ends meet for his family.  He works as a high school teacher, night school teacher for adults, and dean of the dormitory for another high school, all so his wife and son can live comfortably with enough food and shelter.

Within a few years, Jacek’s energetic attitude leads Piotr to send his son to a nursery school near Warsaw.  Jacek’s earliest memories are those of the single room he, his parents, and his uncle lived in.  Because of Piotr’s role as the dean of the dormitory, his family is spared one room to share in the dorm.  The room is large enough to fit two beds and a small stove, leaving minimal floor space.  Unlike most families, who are scavenging to find reasonable places to live, Jacek and his family happily enjoy their small room.  With the burning of nearly every building in Warsaw during the Warsaw uprising, the number of available apartments is severely limited and the number of homeless people has skyrocketed.  For years the continual reconstruction of the city has made the pounding noises a familiarity to everyone living nearby.  At the young age of four, Jacek listens to the continuous beating of hammers as he gets ready for his first day of pre-school.

Jacek looks up at a tall, brown-haired lady who is standing in front of him at the entrance of the school and feels disappointed to learn that he must attend nap time and leave the bright morning sun.  He’d been hoping for an adventurous day instead, where he could play on the swings in the cool early fall air.  Surrounded by all of his boring friends who are fast asleep, he slips out of the room and then out of the building into the middle of a busy street.  He is determined to head back home and as a result nonchalantly boards the train and finds his way to the dorm room that his family is living in.  Not able to open the front door, he sits calmly in front of it, waiting for his parents to return home.  At the same time, his parents are panicking at his pre-school, searching for their missing son.   In the moonlight, they arrive home in tears only to look down and see Jacek smile back at them with excitement, tired of having to wait for them for so long.

Nearly two years later, Jacek, already familiar with the public transportation system, is sent on a journey to his grandparent’s farm.  At the age six, he is faced with a long five-hour train ride.  He cannot sit still on the train and walks up and down the corridor, watching the Polish grasslands go by through the windows.  This little boy must carry his luggage three kilometers to his grandparents’ home from the train station.  Finally arriving at the farm, he wraps his arms around his family, ready for another exciting summer with the horses.  What he doesn’t realize is that this summer and every summer thereafter will be inundated with various chores.  From cleaning stables to scooping the manure, the work becomes tedious.  He soon begins to dread summers, not looking forward to having to clean the chicken waste that covers the chicken coop.  Repulsed by the smell of rotten eggs here, he believes that the stench will soon be embedded in his skin.  Then, the endless amount of wood to chop for the upcoming winter feels never-ending.  One day, not in the mood to clean the stables, he spits at the face of one of the horses, only to feel gooey saliva covering his face immediately after.  Confused, he spits at the horse again, and again the horse spits back.  He soon rushes to wash his face with some water and leaves the stables annoyed.  On a positive note, at least he finally has an interesting story for his friends back home.

Now, already in middle school in Warsaw, Jacek plays soccer with his other eighth grade friends after a long day of school.  He rushes after the ball that has been kicked out of bounds only to grow aggravated.  He sees a short, scrawny sixth grader look at him and kick the ball in the opposite direction.  In anger, instead of running after the ball, Jacek attempts to kick the boy in the butt but the little kid puts his hand there and instead Jacek accidentally breaks the fifth grader’s hand.   The boy runs away screeching in pain as Jacek stares dumbfounded.  Soon enough, he is called down to the principal’s office and is forced to apologize to the boy and his family.  He swears to never hit the boy again.  Two months later, though, the same fifth grader walks by him on the sidewalk and spits into Jacek’s face.  Having promised to never hit the boy again, he decides to instead throw him over the eight-foot fence into the bushes.  Never again does he see this boy.

A year later and Jacek begins his first year of high school.  Dreading most of his classes like Polish, he instead rushes daily only to his mathematics course, even staying afterwards to ask the teacher further questions regarding the topics being studied.  He puts off his other homework at night so that he can go ahead and read further in his mathematics textbook.  Within weeks, he has mastered all the freshmen mathematics concepts and is in search of a sophomore level math textbook.  At times, his teacher, seeing him reading sophomore to senior level mathematics textbooks in the back of the room, in fact has Jacek teach the class the lessons in order to encourage his involvement.  By the end of his freshmen year Jacek has learned all the topics covered in the mathematics department at his high school.  He spends his next three years breezing through his math tests, stunning his math teachers, and dreaming of the days when he will be in college.

Soon enough, Jacek and his friend sprint down a cobble stone side street in Warsaw yelling in laughter and excitement for having been accepted to their college of interest.  With the scorching summer sun gleaming down on him, Jacek playfully jumps up and hits a leaf on a tree as if spiking a volleyball, exerting his energy and enthusiasm.  The police soon come and arrest him for vandalizing the tree and completely ruin his uplifting mood.  Turning bright red, Jacek explains that he did nothing wrong.  When the officer in charge arrives he thankfully is released.  His excitement had within seconds transformed into anger and annoyance with the Communist officers.

For years, Jacek has wanted to come to America for the supposed endless opportunities that he heard rumors of at Warsaw Polytechnic University.  He finally gains an excuse to leave Poland after receiving a scholarship from the Kosciuszko Foundation to further his studies at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.  Leaving the country, however, isn’t so easy.  By law, since he just graduated from a university, he is obligated to join the Polish army.  In order to get out of joining the army, he gives the officer in charge a bottle of cognac and in return is given a one-year waiver from joining.  Also, after graduating, he is obliged by law to find a job so he has to convince the Department of Labor to give him a waiver.  Even his passport is rejected, so his father has to write to the president of Poland.  Afterwards, his rejected passport is reconsidered, and he is allowed to study in the United States.  With only one-hundred dollars in his pocket when he arrives in America, he is determined to utilize every opportunity that an American education provides.  Living off of bread and butter in a small roach-infested apartment, he pursues his studies and eventually receives a masters in mechanical engineering.  With that, his life in America begins.

As I rush down the infinite at MIT to class, even though distracted by endless homework and track practices, I know that I am here because of the obstacles that my grandfather and father faced and the experiences they went through.  Beginning with my grandfather’s struggles to attend school during World War II and ending with my acceptance at MIT, as a family we have taken on great challenges from generation to generation, especially in our efforts to gain more knowledge.  I admire my grandfather for risking his life just to attend lessons at his teacher’s home and my father for his drive to take every opportunity to learn as much mathematics as possible during high school.  My mind flashes with imaginative scenarios as I listen to them recall their lives in Poland: what would I have done in those same situations? Events like attending a seminary in order to eventually attend a University greatly shaped my grandfather’s character, which partially even contributed to my father’s personality.  While my father’s own experiences and adventures, like working on his grandparent’s farm, further shaped his own identity, and this too eventually rubbed off on my own character.  Today, for example, I can be seen staying up till four or five in the morning studying.   From one generation to another the persistent quest for knowledge has never disappeared.

Jaclyn Konopka is from Michigan and is a member of the class of 2014.  She is double majoring in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Physics.  During her free time she runs for the Varsity Track Team at MIT, plays basketball, tennis, goes hiking, and participates in student run organizations such as BrainTrust.  Spending time with animals, especially her own dog, always relaxes her.  While writing this piece, she thought upon all the stories her father and grandfather told her while she was growing up, whether it be outside in the cool evening air or beside her bed as a bedtime story.  They inspired her to reach for even the hardest of goals and taught her the value of hard work and to never give up.


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