Childhood Lessons from Adversity

I was born in the 1970s and my childhood and youth was spent under a communist regime in Poland until the end of the 1980s when Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa led the start of the fall of communism. Shortly after, the former electrician became the president of Poland.

Education was one of the primary responsibilities (often the only one) of children and youth. School was only ‘easy’ during the first three years of elementary school. As early as grade 4, in addition to the Polish language, math and music studies as well as physical education, we were taught biology, second language, history and geography. Physics, chemistry and political studies followed shortly after. On most weekdays after school as well as on the weekends, kids worked on their homework, a time-consuming responsibility that would not leave much time for anything else. Even more time had to be committed to studying when getting ready for the many tests and additional assignments.

Being promoted from one grade to another was not automatic. It was not uncommon for an elementary school student to repeat a school year. All it took was failure in one subject. Grade 8 students had to pass exams to be accepted to high school. There were additional requirements when applying to more prestigious schools. Successfully passing written and oral exams was a condition for obtaining a High School Diploma. More tests had to be passed to be accepted to any university or college.

The 1980s was a very difficult decade for Poland. Rising prices of basic products along with wage freezes caused many strikes including hunger demonstrations amongst the blue-collar workers. On December 13, 1981 martial law was declared and it lasted until mid-1983. Although as a young child I could not fully grasp the gravity of the events. I recall the many restrictions of that period: phone lines being cut-off, curfew, inability to travel between cities without permission, ration cards needed to buy basic food products, huge line-ups to the stores, just to name a few. At a very young age I learned the difference between the absolute necessity and luxury (e.g. an extra pair of running shoes would be considered a luxury). Also, as a teenager I knew more about politics than an average adult in many of the Western countries.

I completed 12 years of education before leaving Poland, which was still under the communist regime. I lived in West Berlin for nearly two years before coming to Canada in 1990. While in Berlin, I went to German language school. I witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which was a very interesting experience. My college education was completed in Canada. I have no work experience from Poland as it was not a common practice for youth to work.

The 1990s was a period of major transformations in Poland. I did not experience it personally since I was already living elsewhere. However, each visit to my home country during that period was full of surprises. The once empty store shelves were now full of goods and products. Business was slowly picking up, the number of private investors was growing rapidly, political transformation was taking place.  All areas of life were slowly being affected by the positive changes.

I came to Canada with my husband at the end of 1990 and the first two years we lived in Montreal, the city in which my brother chose to settle down over a decade earlier.

1990 was a year of recession in Canada so it was somewhat difficult to find a job. In addition, my husband only had a basic knowledge of English, I only spoke German and Polish at the time and neither of us knew French. My brother’s friends helped us with the job search, but the first question most employers would ask was whether we were bilingual. Eventually we found a job at a clothing plant.  Shortly after we enrolled in a French language school, and for several months we were both working and learning the language, which left us with just enough free time to get some sleep. In the meantime, I was self-learning English.

What we are experiencing today worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic brings back some of my childhood memories. The line-ups are somewhat similar, but after the short wait we have access to a great variety of products and don’t have to worry about all the shelves being empty. We are told to stay home to save lives, however, we can still be in touch with our families and friends thanks to today’s technology whereas only a few short decades ago the only way to stay in touch was to meet in person. Some may question the methods the government are using to ensure safety, but at least we know that we’re all in this together while my childhood reality was war between those in authority and the “others”.

What I learned as a young person is that tough times don’t last forever and they have a way of teaching us valuable lessons. Difficulties tend to bring the worst or the best out of people and it is our choice which one this is going to be for us personally. It is when we are limited the most, our creativity manifests even more.



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