High School Reunion in a WASP Village
“The Polish-American last names staggered me,” said Ann Corson, my high school French teacher, at the 50th reunion of the Armada High School “Class of ’66,” August 20, 2016, at the AmVets Hall in Armada, Michigan. Armada was her first teaching job out of college, and it surprised me that she would remember that, of all things, since I often tell colleagues in Chicago that I did not grow up in a Polish community, did not think of myself as particularly Polish until I was almost 50, and felt no special kinship with other members of my class simply because they had Polish names. I felt a kinship with Cynthia Brodacki, my first cousin who was in the same class, but we were not so much friends because of our Polishness but because our families made us close. My mother was her godmother. Her parents were my godparents. Our grandmother, Busia we called her, was also part of the bond, since I lived with her and watched her prepare pierogi, kielbasa, and stuffed cabbages for family gatherings all through my childhood.
During this high school reunion, with Mrs. Corson’s words echoing in my ears, I asked some of my former classmates if they remembered anything much about being Polish in WASP-ish Armada. Phyllis Laskowski, one of my dearest friends in high school and a co-conspirators in constant laughter, said no, there was nothing about our friendship that had anything to do with being Polish. I noticed for the first time in the class list that there really were many Polish names: Wolak, Roszczewski, Raciki, Borowski, and on Phyllis’s and my bus route the Przedwojewski family, the mother of the clan called “Lottie PZ” by one of my aunts because she couldn’t get past the first syllable.
When we graduated from high school, St. Mary Mystical Rose Catholic Church held a special gathering for Catholic graduates, the culmination of our Catechism training, which had been held after school in the school building with nuns bused in from nearby Richmond. The names of Catholic graduates, however, were mostly not Polish: Blake, Van Paemel, DeBacker, Hauler, Schoenherr, Slankster, Dresden, Harmon, Geno, Clawson, and so on.
Textbooks about American history, in those days, placed little or no emphasis on Poland, even though it was central to World War II and the Holocaust, being both the country attacked first by Germany and the chosen killing field established by the Nazis, where six million people were murdered.
When the reunion ended and I was once again alone, I fell asleep counting not sheep but the beautiful young faces, now beautiful old faces, with which I grew up. They reminded me how lucky we were to have great teachers in a progressive school that made the boys take home economics class (including sewing and baking) and the girls shop class (including woodworking and auto mechanics). The teachers I remember best are the ones who tried to demonstrate to the Class of ’66 that there was a much bigger world out there, waiting for us. And yet, those classmates who stayed in Armada and nearby areas of Michigan have had rich and rewarding lives. They reminded me that Emily Dickinson, one of the great American poets, seldom left her room in Amherst, Massachusetts. It’s not where your body goes that matters; it’s where your mind goes.
Photo (click to enlarge): Back row: Cindy Brodacki Williams, Carol Keigley Blackman, Leonard Kniffel, Dennis Holmes, Dennis Adams, Bob Harmon, Janie Mosher-Kuiper, Mark Zebelian, Stan Roszczewski, Don Mendham. Middle row: Ann Corson, Barbara Bower Levengood, Janet Zuelch Jacob, Charlene Job Pype, Phyllis Laskowski Troppens, Linda Steinbrink, Ruben Camacho, Linda Tilton Balaze, Bob Schluentz, Mike Yeager, Lynn Geno Baitinger, Mary Lodico, Alynn White. Seated: Nancy Racicki, Rebecca Rosalez Patterson, Ann Bambach Bannasch, Theresa Placencia, Linda Baumstark, Margie Fetty, Joyce Clawson Nedbalek, Howard Parkhurst. Attended but not pictured: Margaret Berger Gibson, Mike Fisher, James Samel, John Schoenherr.