Wednesday, April 13, 2011

America's Child

I guess I never felt like I fit in anywhere, but public school was the worst. On the days I felt like running away, my dad would offer comfort by telling me that he felt the same as a kid. Though this was meant to make me feel better, instead it made me even more melancholy.

He would begin by remembering a question posed by his first grade teacher:

“Who would like to tell the class what they ate for breakfast this morning? OK, George, you had your hand up first. Go ahead.”

“I had fross-ted, fluck-us!”

“I don’t know what that is George. Can you explain it?”

“Fross-ted Fluck-us! You know… Tony the Tiger… They’re GRRR-ATE!!”

The whole suburban first grade class burst out laughing once they understood. Even the teacher laughed. My dad, an immigrant from Germany, flushed red and sat down. But he found a language to recount the story years later and could even laugh at himself about it.

Tenement Museum Educator Jason Eisner with a photograph of his father as a child in Germany

I grew up listening to this kind of English when we would travel on weekends or for holidays or birthdays to my grandparent’s house. Their accent was thick, but I understood them… the thing is I don’t remember now what they said.

Instead, I remember heavy food smells, and running down the hill on the side of their house. And I remember a densely packed basement full of boxes and treasures and laundry drying on a line. I remember sneaking into my grandparents' bedroom where I was surprised by how cool it felt, always, and by the rose smell that made me think of grandma. There was a picture on their wall from another time and place, with grandpa in a uniform fighting for the wrong army.

There were times I didn’t understand what they said because they spoke in German or Czech. My dad didn’t understand either, but we both knew we were being talked about.

The language of my grandparents was a private code. A secret. It was their intimacy and their history. It died with them. I am the son of an immigrant who has lost his tongue and his history. I am the ideal lost American son.

Jason Eisner is an activist visual artist who migrated to New York from the suburbs of Chicago a decade and a half ago. When he is not working full time on his art production he works as an Educator at the Tenement Museum, where he is committed (though story telling) to changing the world, one visitor at a time.

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