Immigrant Childhood Trauma


My family came to the United States from europe when I was three-and-a-half years old. My father had seen enough. He had survived service on a German u-boat, spent six momths in a British P.O.W. camp, started a family in the midst of the socio-economic turmoil that was post-war Austria, and something told him that we might be better off in the country that had just kicked everyone’s ass. And so, with a wife, two boys and fifty dollars in his pocket, we set off on an adventure entailing a train ride to Bremerhaven, twelve days on a converted troop carrier and a bus trip from New York to Cleveland.

Second and third generation immigrants can be quite judgemental when newly arrived immigrants speak their mother tongue, cook the food to which they are accustomed, wear strange clothes and join church congregations or social clubs made up of ethnically familiar faces. Relocating in a strange country is not magic. You don’t get off the boat speaking flawless english, holding a box of Hamburger Helper in one hand, an Eddie Bauer catalogue in the other, and asking around for the nearest Rotarian’s meeting. Blending in can be traumatic…and good for some laughs as well.

I had my share of “what’s wrong with that immigrant kid” experiences. Before I started attending school, my life was exactly as it had been before the move. I played with the same toys and looked at the same picture books, and aside from a bit of teasing from the neighborhood kids who ran the alley behind the house, I was fine. Then I started Kindergarten and it all changed…fast.

My biggest problem was that I didn’t speak English. This deficit made itself painfully apparent during my first week at Sackett Ave. Elementary school. Twice a day we were led, single file, to the rest room. I learned by observation that this was where they kept the toilets. One morning, my oatmeal was in a particular hurry, but class hadn’t started yet and my teacher wasn’t there to lead us, single file, to that porcelain oasis. I went on my own and stood outside the green door of salvation, my bowels in advanced cramps, and waiting the patient wait of a scared little kid accustomed to mindless regimentation. I didn’t dare go through that door unless I was led to it, single file, by my teacher, Miss Curtain. So…i stood there,,,and shit my new school pants!

Well, I’ll never know how they found out, but they called my mother on the telephone which was an instrument of horror in her mind as she spoke less english than I, having just learned from my classmates that “pee-yoo” is English for “who shit their pants?” They told my mom that “Peter soiled himself” so she thought I had dirtied my clothes (which was the case to a degree). When she got to school and learned what had happened, she was mortified. SHE was embarassed! I was standing in a brand new pair of shit-filled school pants, in an office full of strangers, and SHE was embarassed. The long walk home was my private death march. I couldn’t help walking stiff-legged and with my feet as far apart as I could manage. But my mom insisted that I walk as normally as possible. She didn’t want to be known as that foreign lady with the foreign kid that shits his pants. At one point, I was striding wide and she forgot herself and smacked me on the ass. That was extra nice for both of us. Right then and there I promised myself that I would never shit my pants in school again. And I kept that promise clear into college…

The point is, being a non-English speaking five year old with a pantload of former oatmeal in a strange land can be traumatic when you’re trying to make a good impression. And if you think that was tough, tomorrow I’ll tell you about the time I said “fuck” to a Nun…in first grade.