A Project for Better Journalism chapter
Condor Profiles, The Bigger Picture

Social studies teacher Jan Podgorni looks at freedom as a privilege, not a right

Most Americans take freedom and free public education for granted, but not Curie history teacher Jan Podgorni who grew up in the southern part of Poland in a ski town call Zakopane.

Life in Zakopane was much different than here. “I grew up under Communism where you would not challenge your teachers. If you did, you were sent to a special school to be re-educated,” Podgorni said.

Podgorni said being re-educated meant that the government would send you to a boarding school where they would fix your political beliefs if those beliefs challenged the government.

Freedom of speech was not a protected right where Podgorni grew up. People who often had strong political beliefs could not express their thoughts towards the government.

“We didn’t have freedom of speech in class. We could not question the teacher. They represented the government of Poland. They were the absolute authority,” Podgorni said.

Everything that Podgorni had in Poland, he had to work towards. Even though his family was well off for where they were, it was still hard. Once he got to the United States, things were very different compared to the life he had back in Poland.

“To Polish people, the concept of eating meat every day was unthinkable. Nobody could afford that,” Podgorni said.

When asked to compare his life in Poland to his life here, Podgorni hesitated.

“You can’t even make that comparison. When I came to the U.S., it was unbelievable the amount of food you could buy and amount of money you make. Even if you had a low end job, it still did not compare to communist Poland at the time.”

Podgorni also had trouble with the language when he immigrated.

“It was my third year in the U.S. English was kind of difficult, but you had no choice but to learn very quickly. It also made it hard because most of my friends were Polish. When we got into college, not many of them followed, and I had to learn very fast.”

Podgorni said that he wants to make education more fun for the students by finding things that they can connect with, but education now is different from when he first started teaching.

“There are things that teachers are asked to do which I find don’t help students in any way,” he said. “The amount of work that teachers are required to do, I find, doesn’t help the students further their education.”