In one form or another, I have been an observer all my life. It started during infancy and early childhood in my birth country of France. But that was only the beginning…
I was born in 1950 in a small town in France. My parents, Displaced Persons from World War II ravaged Belarus, were “undisplaced” in northern France, in a town that needed more workers for its coal and steel industries. My father came from a family of comfortable farming, while my mother’s German-ancestry family originated in Russia where her family owned a flourishing grain mill. The story of how she ended up in Minsk is much like the Proletariat takeover of the house in which Dr. Zhivago grew up in the movie. Her family ended up in Minsk because they had relatives there. However, the relatives had already left–either through escape or through evacuation because of their German heritage–and my mother’s family was stuck there for a while. Minsk turned out to be a major battleground between Russian and Nazi forces, and male family members who had not already been conscripted by the Communists back in Russia were conscripted or arrested by either the Russian forces or by the Nazis. My father’s family fared a little better initially because my grandfather was shrewd enough to negotiate with those who would take his landholdings by demonstrating how he could run the newly expropriated farm. Although my father’s family lost all personal possessions, they were allowed to move into a small home on the property from which my grandfather could serve as overseer of the new cooperative. However, during the “negotiations,” my grandmother was badly beaten for trying to save her chickens (primarily laying hens) and died shortly thereafter.
Somehow, when the Nazis were defeated through the joint efforts of US and Russian forces, my parents ended up in a camp for Displaced Persons, where they met. Neither of my parents talked much about their experiences in this camp, although they managed to become part of a theatrical and choral group that met in the evenings after work, where they met each other and eventually fell in love. I am not certain, but it seems to me that the camp was in Germany, because they talked about how their German marriage certificate was not valid in France and they had to marry all over again.
In France, they lived in a community of Polish immigrants. The effect on me was that my first language was Polish, as that was the language of the community. So, when I started pre-school at two and a half years of age, I was an outsider looking in on other kids whose native language was French. To participate, I had to learn French. To become part of the group, I had to learn to communicate; so I learned to speak French. Now, science has taught us many things–one of which is that children pick up the languages used around them. In general, the first language children learn to speak and respond to is the language of the home. However, if this is different from the language of the community in which the child lives, the most likely language in which the child learns to respond is the language of the community. When a child begins to attend school, the language one speaks is the language of the school, which usually. Or responds to the language of the community. In my case, at a very young age, I was simultaneously moving through three languages simultaneously, probably learning none to any great degree of fluency, and having to contend with a fourth language–German–when we trekked to Germany to visit my grandmother, aunt, and uncle. Talk about potential confusion! Yet I managed, according to my parents. And then, at age four, we immigrated to the USA–where yet a new language needed to be learned–English.
It didn’t take long for me to end up in what was called a nursery school back then. Again, I had a new language and a new group of children to adapt to. Again, I found myself in the role of observer. By age 4, language skills are pretty well developed, so I had to start at a higher level of “beginning English” than where I started with “beginning French.” Although I observed and observed, it was not until a WWII veteran who worked as school custodian began to help me that I made any real progress. For whatever reason, he took an interest in helping a young child learn English. He was a natural teacher, and led me through naming objects and putting together words and phrases so I could communicate with the other children. Because of his help, I was able to catch up enough with English so that I could attend kindergarten from mid-year (January) in my neighboring school a year after my arrival in the US. Interestingly, not even the kindergarten teacher realized–until the first parent-teacher conference–that I was not from an English-speaking home. In fact, my teacher–Miss Oxenford–so quickly forgot that I did not start the school year with my classmates that she inadvertently provided me with my first sense of “differentness” when we were working on a circus unit.
Each child had been given a circus animal to color. At home, I was not limited to the box of 8 Crayola crayons that is characteristic of what kids got in schools back then; my mother insisted on as wide a pallet of colors as she could provide, and always purchased for me the 32 or 64 color box. I, even then too much of a realist apparently, knew that elephants were gray. I had a personal experience with an elephant just before we sailed for the US, when an elephant at the Paris zoo and a monkey in the same area became involved with a bow that my mother had affixed in my hair. The monkey stole it from my head; the elephant stole it from the monkey and actually returned it to me! Thus, I knew that elephants were gray, and–from my Crayola collection at home–knew there was such a thing as a gray crayon. However, there was no gray in the 8-color box. When I asked the teacher if she had a gray crayon, she turned to the class and asked how she had taught them to make gray. The response was that you use the black crayon very lightly. She had forgotten that I had only joined the class a short time ago, and I remember her blushing when she saw my own embarrassment. The good part of this exchange, however, was that she had established my sense of belonging in the class.
The importance here is that I used the observation skills I had been using for almost 3 years to blend in to a great degree, and to do so in a relatively short period of time. However, I should also add that the embarrassment that I felt forced me to observe even more carefully so that I could avoid future episodes of “standing out.”
These observation skills, due partly to self-preservation and partly to a need to communicate and belong, continued to be useful to me as I grew older. That’s not to say that I always applied the observations good behaviors and shunned the less socially acceptable ones; it’s just that I became an expert on observing and assimilating those observations as I grew older.
The difficulty with being an observer, however, is that it can interfere with genuine and sustained social interaction. And I can look back and see how many times I interacted or responded in a less than socially “proper” way. For example, although I learned to observe behaviors, I cannot say that I ever developed a fashion sense, or that I ever fully understood how I interacted with other children. Because of my parents’ background and their jobs, the social skills that were reinforced were not necessarily those of American children. Because my parents’ ethnic community was more scattered than the communities of other ethnic groups, that led to fewer interactions with local children than were perhaps helpful to my overall social development as a child growing up in America. Home and “community” expectations were simply at odds sometimes with American expectations. So I grew up functioning with one foot in two different communities, without adequately filling either set of expectations–this despite my observation skills…
Li’l Ole Lady Ellie