In fifth grade, I was in love with my teacher, Mr. Kopczyński. Now I struggle to understand my 10 year-old mind. Mr. Kopczyński was neither young, nor attactive. He was far from the most attentive teacher I ever had, and maybe middling on intelligence. Still, I loved him. I was his Favorite.
Mr. Kopczyński said he was a distant cousin of Grandpa’s, Mom’s dad. Mom just moved her eyeballs underneath her closed lids. “Well, yes, ” she sad, with her eyelids still covering her eyes. We’re all related if you go back far enough.” Then she picked up a sheet fresh from the clothesline and told me to take the other end and help her fold. She told me I was related to a Polish author with a name I could never say, and who I never even heard about in my whole entire life. Mom said Polish people helped out a bunch during the Revolutionary War, like General Casimir Pulaski. I never heard of him either, but I could tell by the look on Mom’s face that everybody knew about Pulaski, and I should be super-proud to be Polish, ’cause Polish people can write stories and sing songs, and fight in wars too, and they were almost all Catholics.
Mr. Kopczyński was proud to be Polish, just like Mom was, and he knew something Mom didn’t. He knew how to talk and sing in Polish. Mom knew how to pronounce Polish, like she came from the old country, but she didn’t know what anything meant, except she and her brothers did know that lody and lodziarnia meant because that’s what Grandma and Grandpa said when they wanted to go get ice cream and they wanted to keep it a secret. My Mom was super good at figuring stuff out; most of the time she used books, but sometimes she just figured things out on her own. That’s what I got from my Mom, that and being bull-headed, but I never told her I got that from her, I just kept it up in my head for myself to know.
Dad only knew pig-Latin; he taught it to me in no time flat, lickety-split, or icketylay-plitsay. Mom was 100% Polish ’cause both her parents and their parents lived in Poland; Dad said he was a Heinz-57, made from 57 different varieties. I was a plain old American, nothing special.
Anyways Mr. Kopczyński knew how to talk in Polish and he knew what all the words meant. He even knew how to sing Christmas Carols and other songs in Polish. He taught the whole fifth grade to sing songs about the May Crowning in Polish, which is all about Mary, pronounced Maria, in Polish, with the Polish substituting “lilia,” meaning “lilly”, instead of roses. Mr. Kopczyński said that was just so the Polish words rhymed.
“My Buscia taught me how to count in Polish,” I told Mr. Kopczyński.
“Very good. Let me hear you count,” he said and his blue-blue eyes sparkled when he looked in mine like I was the smartest girl he ever met and he was proud as my own grandpa.
“I only remember ‘pinch’ for five,” I said and then I pinched him right in the butt, just like I did with Grandpa, which never failed to make him laugh and hug me tight, no matter how many times I did it. Mr. Kopczyński was soft all over, like a new pillow; not like my pillow that was all scrunched down, flat as a pancake and hardly worth using, and full of old feathers that made my nose twitch and tickle, and which Dr. Cookingham told me to go without so my headaches would go away. Mr. Kopczyński was soft as the brand new pillows in J.C. Penny, all plump and cushy, so my hand sunk right down in. I never came upon a butt like that before, most everybody I knew was a little soft looking, but more hardened up under the surface. I was pretty darned surprised. Not as surprised as Mr. Kopczyński. I could tell ’cause the light went out of his eyes and his smile pulled into big capital O.
“It’s pięć. not pinch,” Mr. Kopczyński said, with the corners of his mouth pulling down and his hand on his butt cheek. “You say it p-yench, not pinch.” First his neck got red, then his whole face looked like a boiled beet. That mighta been right when I started loving Mr. Kopczyński, ’cause I never saw a grown-up stay so calm when I could tell he wanted to shout. I might have already loved him, I don’t remember for sure, but that cinched the deal tight.
After that Mr. Kopczyński said he could teach anyone who wanted to speak and read Polish during recess or after school. He gave me a pretty picture book that was only in Polish, no English. I learned to say and read, ‘here is the fox’ and ‘I’m in 5th grade,’ and other stuff like that. The only things I remember for sure is pięć, which I already knew and would never forget, and ‘dzien dobry,’ for good morning, and of course, all the polish food I liked: glombkies, Pierogi, and Pączkis, and poppy seed rolls. And of course, lody, ’cause I ice cream was my very favorite.
Years later when I traveled to Poland, I found it near impossible to wrap my mouth around all the Polish consonant sounds. When asked if I knew any Polish, I said “pięć?” For some reason, that never failed to create a broad smile and a chuckle or two. I could still pronounce all the food and I could say good morning and thank you, dziekuje, and of course I remembered lody. I guess I remained just a plain old American. I still love Mr. Kopczyński for trying so hard to teach me what he knew, and taking me under his soft wings. And for letting me for once in my life, be The Favorite. I suppose that’s the part I loved the most. If I could, I’d buy take Mr. Kopczyński to the lodziarnia and say dziekuje. Feeling special is the best gift a teacher can give.