I recently attended a lovely wedding. The bridegroom was Polish, a fact pointed out to me several times. He’s a wonderful person. Please note that I did not say he’s a wonderful Polish person. That would imply that he is an exceptional Polish person. Memories came back to me about my childhood, when my sister and I played with a neighborhood girl called “Joanie” (probably not her given name), who was Polish.

Joanie’s parents ran a small grocery store a few houses from ours. All of the neighborhood kids liked to go to the store and select (point to) penny candies in the display case. “Johnnie” (Joanie’s dad; probably not his given name) waited patiently behind the case for us kids to make a choice. But “Teddy” (the butcher) was not very patient, and we kids dreaded when Teddy stood behind the candy case and demanded that we “make up our minds” too quickly for our tastes.

Joanie’s family had a large yard with hedges trimmed in various shapes and a playhouse for Joanie. The playhouse was large enough for kids to walk around in and had kid-size chairs and tables, and a play stove and sink at which kids could stand. When we weren’t playing in Joanie’s yard or playhouse, Joanie played hide-and-seek, tag, dolls or jump rope at our house.

My sister and I were aware that Joanie, her family, and Teddy spoke another language besides English. Our mother explained in a matter-of-fact way that the other language was Polish, and that Joanie, her family and Teddy were Polish. Joanie’s family and Teddy came from Poland, a country far away in Europe. End of discussion. This information didn’t change anything as far as my sister, Joanie and I playing together. And it didn’t matter that my sister and I went to public schools while Joanie went to Catholic schools; there were non-Polish neighborhood kids that went to Catholic schools and Catholic kids that went to public schools.

I didn’t hear Polish people referred to as “Polacks” (a disparaging and offensive term) until I moved to the Chicago area. I was (am) surprised at how freely this word is used as well as the telling of “Polack jokes.” The “jokes” aren’t funny; they’re ethnic insults.

People who think putting Polish people (or any other group of people) down makes them bigger and better have another thought coming. It actually reveals an inferiority (or pseudo-superiority) complex. Childhood experiences with Joanie, her family and Teddy taught my sister and me that Poles are individuals with varying personalities and intelligence like any other group.

Common sense!

Peggy Tarr

Peggy Tarr has been a columnist for the Evanston RoundTable since its founding in 1998. Born in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a degree...