Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Duty and Obligation, Faith and Patriotism: A Five Year Old's Ethical Perspective

      This is the conclusion to yesterday's "Writing By Osmosis", in which my father describes how his burning desire to learn to write provided the impetus for convincing his parents to allow him to attend first grade a year early. (If you haven't read it, please click on the link below). In today's passage, Dad recounts two important life lessons he learned while innocently playing hooky and the game of Red Rover, lessons which were strongly influenced by Poland's long history of occupation, as well as the political and religious climate at the time. I find his cultural and historical recollections fascinating and relevant; they are snapshots of a time and place foreign to most of us, yet strangely familiar. Perhaps this is because we were all children once, and the honesty and inquisitiveness with which children approach life is something which, thankfully, never seems to change...


     "In the beginning, I did not know the difference between play and schoolwork. One day, I excused myself to go to the outhouse behind the school building, and on my way there, I met my playmate, Tadek, the janitor's son. He had a little frog, and we played for a short while, watching it jump. Then, we went to the river bank to see if it could swim [the Czarna Przemsza (CHAR nah PZHEM shah) river was less than a block from the school house]. I don't remember who found us there. The next thing I remember was being in our kitchen, with my father sitting on the maid's bed, and me lying face down across his knees. He applied two token, flat-hand slaps on my bottom, which were not painful at all, their symbolic significance being to impress upon me the fact that school was not "take-it-or-leave-it" play, but a duty and an obligation. This is the only time in my life that I remember being spanked by my father, or anybody else, since in the Polish school system, physical punishment was not used at any level. I had heard tales of horror from children attending other schools that some teachers were using rulers to slap their hands. But, this was illegal, a relic of the Russian school system, which was phased out in 1918.
    My second disciplinary encounter with my father took place in another context. I was taken to his office as a result of an act I committed during PE class. We were playing a game of przecinane wojsko (pzheh CHEE nah neh VOY sko), which translated into English means "cut through the army"; it is equivalent to the American game of Red Rover. I was acting in the role of the attacker. As I ran across no-man's land, I brandished a wooden toy dagger which I had concealed under my shirt, hurling myself across the enemy line, my intention being to frighten and intimidate the enemy, as opposed to using it as a weapon.
     In order to understand why I did what I did, it is necessary to know the indoctrination to which I was exposed, both at home and in school. I remember very well when there was a change of currency. A new coin was minted, bearing the Latin inscription: "Salus Rei Publiac Suprema Lex Est (the welfare of the common-wealth is the supreme law). My father had translated this to me in simple words, explaining that the sacrifice of an individual for his country or team was indeed a proper guideline for behavior. In the mid 1920s, Poland's independence was still less than ten years old, after 150 years of non-existence as a political entity. Patriotism and pride in this newly won freedom and national identity was impressed upon us while we were still in our cradles. Readiness to defend that freedom was thought of as the most desirable trait in a boy's character, and veneration of our national heroes was inculcated in our young minds, starting in first grade.
     When I was taken to my father's office, I was not awed by the place because, at one time, it had been our bedroom to which the living room was adjoined. The telephone was located in that room, so I was familiar with it from as far back as I could remember. However, the man I had to face seemed to be quite different from my daddy. The stern look in his light blue eyes cut like steel, and was enough to make me dissolve into tears. My defense was that wielding the toy dagger to intimidate my opponents on behalf of my team was right and noble. This time, my punishment came in the form of a lecture, a very long lecture which I thought would never end. When my father/principal finally finished talking, I was left with an indelible impression, a lesson to be remembered the rest of my life. I do not recall my father's exact words, but the gist of it was his admonition that "the ends do not justify the means."
     I wonder if my father suspected that all the patriotic indoctrination I was receiving might be getting out of hand, leading me to adopt a chauvinistic, narrow-minded frame of reference. Perhaps he made a conscious decision that some de-programming was in order. Shortly after this disciplinary confrontation, he took me to the Russian Orthodox church. This in itself was a shocking thing to do at a time when the vestiges of the Russian occupation were still very visible. The Cerkiew (TSER kyef) was such a vestige. It was built before the war by the German industrialist owner of a cotton-spinning mill, as a token of allegiance to the Russian government. It was considered an eyesore, and in the mid 1930s, it was torn down. First of all, the presence of the onion-shaped steeples at the intersection of the city's two main thoroughfares was especially objectionable. The other problem was that there was no Russian Orthodox congregation to speak of; the handful of remaining faithful individuals could not support such a big church.
     When my father took me to the hated Cerkiew, he did not say anything. I asked him questions, wanting to know what kind of God the Russians worshipped. His answer was that the God and the Mother of God were the same as ours (Roman Catholic), except that the way they worshipped was different. Without giving me any lectures or ecumenism, my father planted a seed in my mind, the idea that God is one. I am not sure if he knew what he was doing, but in retrospect, I think he did because before I was ten years old, he'd taken me to a Protestant church as well as a Jewish synagogue. The fact that I have never been an altar boy may have also had something to do with my father's religious convictions. I think he was, at heart, what nowadays one would call a Unitarian Universalist."

     Seventy-seven years later, my father was still asking, "Why?" and "How?" His natural, child-like curiosity about the world around him was a stable part of his personality, infecting those of us who were lucky enough to have known him. He was the epitome of a life-long learner, but his thirst for knowledge did not die with him; he imparted it to his legacy. Although Dad's physical body died a long time ago, his spirit is still very much alive, and I can't think of a better way to honor him than by sharing his extraordinary story through his own timeless and timely reflections.

Writing By Osmosis 

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