If I hadn't met Mr. Zbrozek

LAST night a few of our friends came to visit us. I was busy in the kitchen for a while, but soon I was able to join them in the living room. They plainly enjoyed the opportunity to share their opinions. The faces around me were enlivened and smiling. All of a sudden a feeling of quiet joy came to me. I knew that feeling. Every now and then when I listened or read, when I spoke or wrote to express myself, this feeling came back to me. It wasn't a stranger anymore, and I liked its visits. Yesterday, too, I let it stay for a while inside me, but as I actively engaged in the conversation it floated away, leaving only a smile on my face.

What is that mysterious feeling? Well, it may seem silly to you, but here it is. It's simply the joy of knowing English.

For most of you, who learn the English language because your parents, friends , and relatives speak it, it might not be such a big deal. But I had a quite different experience. I was born and raised in a little town in the northeast corner of Poland, just a step away from the Russian border. Obviously I learned to express myself in Polish. The words were easy, I instinctively knew their meanings and various connotations, they were part of my everyday experience, and I never thought another thought about it. How strange at the time seemed the idea of my parents to have me learn English! My mother, who didn't have the opportunity to go to college herself because of the war, wanted her children to learn all they could. Many a night she dreamed about attending classes, taking notes, learning new and exciting subjects, and we, her children, were to fulfill her dreams.

Our little town didn't offer much in terms of additional education, but my father knew a man who occasionally taught English. And one day he took me to meet my new teacher.

Mr. Zbrozek was a tall, handsome man in his 60s. He was retired; like my father, he too had been a forester. And also a self-taught tutor of English. He had been stranded in England during the war and learned the language there, primarily listening to BBC radio programs. I remember the scrutinizing look he gave me and the question he asked: ''Is it you who wants to study or your father who wants you to learn it?'' I was 13 then, a very shy 13, but I bravely answered, ''I do.''

From then on twice a week I took a long walk through the whole town in order to get to my teacher's dark, quiet apartment up the hill on the other side of the river. Once greeted by Mr. Zbrozek, I sat down at a corner of the large old table and opened my books. Then there would be a moment of silence, and I could hear a distant, delicate tinkling and clanging of pots and pans in the kitchen where my teacher's wife was doing her dishes. An hour passed quickly once we ventured into the magic world of new, strange-sounding words. Then I would run down the hill, back home, my head spinning around foreign words, occasionally exclaiming them out loud just to make them ring again in the evening air. They were part of my very own secret world, not understandable to my brother or sister or any of my friends.

All of a sudden I entered the world of sentences and stories that I could read and understand. Then there was another new experience when instead of a short ''yes'' or ''no'' I could actually talk to my teacher. But in spite of my progress I was still a beginner, a weak swimmer in the ocean of the English language.

After a while learning English became just another game, and at times it wasn't the most important one, either. I took up sailing and spent much of my time and energy racing around the lake. I continued my trips up the hill, although I decided to be a sailor and already planned to go to the Merchant Marine Academy.

The year I was to apply the academy would admit only five female students, all of them with straight A's in math, physics, and a foreign language. I didn't have a chance. Then my English teacher said, ''How about studying English literature?'' I said I'd try.

The entrance exams showed, however, that my feeble knowledge of English was not satisfactory. I had to wait a year and try again. My brother's wife had some relatives in London, and they invited me to their home. In just a few months I was on a ship going toward London. I can see myself: inexperienced, still childish and naive, all on my own. Then for the first time I thought of the English language as something more than just a ''pretend'' game I played with my teacher, an ''art for art's sake'' learning.

For the first time I was to have a chance to talk with the ''native'' speakers of that language, a chance to see if they would understand me and if I would understand them. Well, I don't need to tell you how exciting and challenging my trip was, and how much I learned!

Now, when I look back, I see my trip to England as just one of the beads on a string of my life's experiences, many of which have had a lot to do with the study or knowledge of English. This constantly new and surprising language opened the world in front of me; allowed me to travel more freely, understanding what I saw; let me listen actively to songs; read literature; and most important , understand people and express myself. How different would my life be if my father hadn't taken me to meet Mr. Zbrozek? Well, I don't think I would be married to George, and I obviously couldn't share this experience with you. I would not have taken part in yesterday's inspiring meeting among friends. And even if I was present there bodily, but could not have communicated, how very frustrating, isolated, sad I would feel!

Now you know why this warm feeling of joy and gratitude is a welcome guest. You know why I am happy I know English.

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