Because I wasn’t a Kid, I was a Foreigner

By Ganna Milenko

A knock on the door of the classroom. The teachers stops the lesson. All eyes on the door that opens. The Vice Principal stands by the door with a A4 paper on hand. He apologizes to the teacher and takes a formal look.

“The foreigners, please, stand and follow me”, he says with a loud and steady voice, as if we are in a concentration camp.

My breath stops. What should I do? What should I do! I wonder in panic.
I look ahead of me.
Foreigner – doop!
Foreigner – doop!
My heart beats like a drum roll. Not here, not in front of everybody. Not here, please. My breath is lost somewhere between my chest and my neck.

A kid stands up. We hear his chair dragging against the floor. I look at him. I sit still. Everyone is looking at him. He heads to the door. He passes from the first line of desks, he passes the second one as well. Some are whispering.

The Vice President nods to the teacher and leaves the classroom. The kid follows. The door closes. The door closed. What do I do now, what am I going to do?
The door – one
The door – two
The door – three. I count the seconds. I hear in distance the voice of the teacher.
The door – fifty. I keep on counting. The lesson keeps on going.
I come back to reality. I focus on the light of the sun that enters the classroom.

“Pull yourself together, pull it together”, I order myself. It’s over, they are not going to search you any more, they forgot about you, I comfort myself. On recess I’ll go to the Vice Principal’s office and ask him what he wanted, a provide myself with a solution. I check my watch. Only fifteen minutes until recess. I relax my breath. The knot slowly backs down. Everything is okay, relax, I think to myself with some relief.

“Open your book at page 84 and read it”, says the teacher. I open my book at page 84. I read. The door opens again. I slowly look up. Nods at the teacher. Stands by the door. My heart slows down. No, no, please.

“The foreigners follow me, Ganna Milenko, come with me”, the voice of the Vice President. The earth opens in two, the tiles break, the cracks get bigger. I lose myself, I fall in its dark. What a wonderful end that would be. I would be such a lucky girl if only the dark would swallow me.

I push my chair slowly. The lesson has stopped. All eyes are on me. It’s my turn. I get up slowly with what’s left of my strength. The knot has reached my neck and it goes up. I breathe through my mouth. My ears are clogged.
Step one – doop!
Step two – doop!
Step three – doop! The drum roll follows.

Some laugh, some whisper. The earth is not moving. Ugly faces, ugly smiles. “And you wanted out”, I hear someone say. I’m half there. A little more. Come on, like before step one, step two, step three…
I walk out of the door. It closes behind me. I stand there, no expression on my face, no strength at all.

“Ganna Milenko, are you from Ukraine?” he asks me. I nod with my head.
“Alright then, you can return to your classroom”, he responds.

I stand speechless, unable to move. I cannot understand exactly what happened. He turns his back and leaves. I watch him as goes further. But he knows I am from Ukraine. We have talked a lot of times in recess about my origins. And he knows my name, he knows me in general. He has been teaching in my classroom for two years. Couldn’t he simply call my name without calling me foreigner in front of the whole class?

I hold at the doorknob. I enter. Some boys are laughing ironically. I look down. I look with guilt at the floor. I don’t remember how I arrived at my desk. The blood in my veins is still, it becomes solid. I am aware of the girls looking at me secretly, who either way avoid me politely. I feel guilty. I feel guilty for being from Ukraine. What am I doing here, I listen to myself scream inside me. Why, what is the reason for all of this, the screaming continuous. Humming in my ears, and this earth is not opening to fall inside, to lose myself, to hide from their looks.

The recess starts. The sound of the dragging chairs, screams, laughs, steps. Some more minutes and then silence. The classroom is empty. I am left all alone. Still. Same posture, same place.
Foreigner – doop!
Foreigner – doop!

Only a foreigner, a person who came from somewhere else to reside in this country, someone humiliated, can feel this word. They make him feel it. Foreigner, in other words marginalized, lesser, almost a criminal.

I never managed to make friends for six years in high school, no matter how much I wanted. It’s been 12 years now, and I returned there only once to take the certificates for the citizenship application for kids that had completed 6 years in Greek schools.

I never got it, though. It was rejected because I graduated a few months after I came of age. And the whole thing ended with the clear, loud, Greek voice of the General Secretary of the Ministry of Interior:

“The Greek Citizenship is not like a suite, miss, to wear whenever you want and then throw it away.” And continued:“If you want it so badly, your only option is the naturalization interview, but the list is full for the next 4 to 5 years. As you can understand it will not be examined until much later. You need to gather all the papers from the beginning, pay 1.000 euros and each day of your residing in Greece will be counted to make sure you completed 10 years in the country. Summers are off, unless you can prove you were here and not in your country.”

I responded nothing. I had no strength anymore. I left. I continued my studies in France. Master, doctoral and then a job. I took the French citizenship after 5 years of residing there and getting 2 degrees in the country, without losing any of my dignity.

I am a bearer of different languages, cultures and truths. Only when I think about myself as a child I find endless moments of misery and humiliation, because I wasn’t a kid, I was a foreigner. And I want to change those memories but now it’s late. The past doesn’t come back.

* Testimony from a Narrative Life Seminar