New Britain, Connecticut, was once an industrial town, home of the Stanley Steel Works. The population is primarily Polish-American, with a strong Irish-American thread weaving through. Since my family was Catholic, it was a congenial enough place for my parents to raise children; in that respect, at least, we fit in. My sisters and I attended Holy Cross, one of the local Catholic grammar schools. Until my sister Mirna started kindergarten, I was the only South Asian child in the school. There were a few East Asian kids, a few black kids. And a sea of white faces. Maybe it was because there were so few brown kids that I encountered so little overt racism growing up -- there just weren't enough of us to be a threat. We were curiosities.
The ethnic tension in our school was between the Polish and the Irish. I grew up hearing plenty of 'dumb Polack' jokes on the playground -- sometimes told by the Irish kids, with spiteful intent, sometimes told by the Polish kids. Why do Polish dogs have flat noses? From chasing parked cars. I couldn't tell whether they meant to insult themselves, or whether they just didn't care.
The school was predominantly Polish, to such an extent that we all studied Polish for four years, from third grade through sixth. Dzien dobry Panie Bukala. Dziekuje. We met with Mrs. Bukala for language lessons, for culture lessons. We decorated elaborate Easter eggs together -- not simply purchasing dye and dipping, but scratching designs in the surface, or adding paper cut-outs. Crowns, flowers, hearts. We learned many Polish Christmas carols. Jezus malusienki, / Lezy wsrod stajenki, / I drzy z zimna, wzdycha nad Nim / To serce Matenki. And we studied the history of Poland, and of the Polish flag.
The Polish flag is a simple white bicolor officially, white stripe over red. But Panie Bukala preferred the version which incorporated a crowned white eagle on a red shield, After the defeat in 1939 and during the German and Soviet occupation of the country the White Eagle, as Poland's coat of arms, was strictly forbidden.
As a result, of course, it became the symbol of fight for free Poland. It was used by the underground army at home and by the regular Polish army abroad. The left-oriented armed forces, however, as well as the Polish army created in the Soviet Union, adopted the White Eagle without the crown. And such became the official Coat of Arms of Poland after 1945. Removing the crown from above the Eagle's head meant a change of the State's political system, based on the principle of "people's democracy."
That form of the White Eagle, though officially used till the end of 1989, was never commonly accepted by the Polish nation, so much attached to their previous, centuries-old national emblem. The people may have wanted a more democratic system, but they didn't want to give up their monarchic history, their tradition of grandeur and glory. And thus, when in consequence of the events of the 1980s, the political system in Poland was changed, it was possible again to restore the crowned White Eagle. In 1993 traditional emblems of the Polish Army were restored, among which was the Crowned White Eagle.
I didn't remember all of this from grammar school, of course. But I do remember how passionately Panie Bukala spoke about the significance of the flag, and of the crowned eagle. She loved that eagle, and as a result, I, a small brown child, loved it too. I rejoiced in the glorious Polish heritage; I preferred pierogies to my mother's rice and curry. I was tremendously proud to be one of the best Polish speakers in my sixth grade class, complimented frequently on my accent, though my grammar admittedly left much to be desired. I was a Polish patriot, in love with an adopted country.