From my usual solitary spot off to the side, I silently watched the giggling girls gossip about their fancy dresses, grown-up hairstyles, make-up, and — of course — boys. The boys slicked their hair down, fiddled with their ties, and surreptitiously eyed the suddenly grown-up looking girls. Graduating from eighth-grade caused our emotions — and hormones — to churn. Tonight, my carefree, all-American, classmates were going through a regular right of passage in their regular all-American lives: graduation from the 8th-grade.
And even though I’d finally figured out how to dress, walk, and even almost talk like them, under the surface, deep down where it really counted, we had nothing in common. Having led sheltered lives, they were totally lacking in any understanding of real life. Especially my real life. To them, I was a strangely quiet, overly serious, alien creature — the girl who talked funny, and didn’t understand their jokes. I didn’t even realize it when they made fun of me — which probably took away their fun. Even if they had been interested in me, how could they have possibly understood what it meant to be a young Jewish Holocaust survivor? No, they couldn’t possibly have any idea who I was.
Or who I’d been.
Or, for that matter, who I was going to become.
I, on the other hand, knew exactly who I was. I knew that I didn’t fit in. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
In my real life, I was a young Jewish Holocaust refugee, who had been born in Warsaw, Poland in 1935. When I was nearly twelve, after fleeing the Nazis and war-torn Europe. I arrived in the USA. In my real life, while I was in many ways accomplished beyond my years, I was also hopelessly far behind in the ways that were important in America. For example, I could speak four languages, something anyone could be proud of. But since I couldn’t speak English, more specifically, Brooklyn English—my linguistic skills were useless.
So my eventual 8th-grade graduation that night was far from just a normal event in a normal life. It was a major victory over my own experiences, inadequacies, and terrors. Instead of breathlessly burrowing into a frozen snowbank in order to escape Nazis, and instead of being ostracized by “mean” girls — I was proudly wearing my lovely white dress, along with my new, not-too-high, white heels, and my first corsage.
The moment of my victory arrived. My stomach clenched and lurched, but I straightened up as far as my almost five-feet tall body would let me, threw back my shoulders, and managed to walk across the stage toward the extended hand — and smiling face — of our school’s principal, Mr. Sammet. I could tell by the sparkle in his eye, that he was proud to see me taking those steps across that stage. He remembered the awkward, bedraggled, and confused young girl he’d welcomed to her first day at Public School 100.
And as I reached out to shake Mr. Sammet’s hand, I felt my past reach out to me — telling me to never forget . . .