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An immigrant boy’s journey of country hopping, learning languages, graduating

By John Toth

The Bulletin

How to country hop as a 10-year-old in search of a new home and graduate without losing a single year? This is how I did it, and it wasn’t all that hard.

The country hopping part was hard. Going from Hungary to Austria illegally in 1966 was no easy task. My mother has to be credited for all the planning. I was 10 and just along for the ride.

But once we succeeded, it was time for me to go to school in a country I knew nothing about and could not speak the language. How was I supposed to pass the grade like that? I didn’t.

The Austrian schools left me a grade behind. I had to repeat the fourth grade. I finished it and started attending fifth grade for about six weeks before we immigrated (this time legally) to the United States after receiving political asylum.

We started over again. I went to school a week after our arrival, at St. Stephen of Hungary Catholic School on New York’s upper East Side. There I was again, standing in a room full of students, not knowing what they were saying or where to go or sit. They did not speak Hungarian. That was just the name of the church.

My future classmates were not mean, but they probably were too shy to meet the new kid. Had they attempted to, I would not have known what they said. I knew German and Hungarian. Neither of these languages were going to help me in an English-speaking classroom.

Luckily, German and English have a lot in common, and I was able to get a working knowledge of the language in about six months - good enough to be understood, but not good enough to pass.

Because I already lost a year, I was put in the sixth grade. The reasoning was that I would fail and still be only one year behind.

I did what I could to keep up with the class. I even memorized the words on the spelling test and scored 100 on them. But I could not use those words in a sentence yet.

Patience. Take little steps, my mother urged. Achieve something each day. The rest will take care of itself.

That’s how we escaped. She took little steps each day - falsifying official documents one day, forging my photo and information on her passport the next. Eventually, it all added up to a couple of train tickets to Vienna and saying goodbye to a communist dictatorship.

I made it sound too simple. The process was elaborate and well thought-out. Each step carried us closer to freedom in the West.

The thought of being left a grade behind again bothered me. I decided to do something about it. In Spring 1967, I gathered enough courage to pay Sister Mercedes a visit. She was the school principal.

Sister Mercedes looked like she didn’t like anyone. She was strict, and no one would dare to do anything to land on her bad side. Even the parents were afraid of her. I heard that she was also very accurate with her ruler, although I personally never experienced that.

“Sister Mercedes, I really want to stay with my class. I like my class. I don’t want to be behind a year. Is there anything I can do to pass?” I asked.

I already did everything I could think of, but for all practical purposes, going by the numbers, I was not going to pass.

We had a nice, long conversation about how I got here. It was the first time I even dared to look at her close up. I got used to her cold stare. It wasn’t really all that cold by the end of our conversation. I saw a caring person behind that tough facade.

“You won’t fail, John. Now, go back to class.” That’s all she said.

That’s it? All I had to do was ask nicely? (Plus all the work I did in class.) This turned out much better than I expected.

“I won’t fail sixth grade,” I told my mom that evening. “I’m going to stay with my class. I’m going to make up the year I lost.”

“How did you do that?” She was curious.

“I asked - nicely,” I replied.

That’s how I did it. It took some courage to walk into that office, but after a while I felt like I was talking to a friend, not a “mean” principal. She wasn’t really mean, but very strict.

My mother gave me a big hug and started crying tears of joy. We called over our Hungarian neighbor from down the hall and celebrated with some delicious Hungarian food and watched our new 25-inch color TV console.

Yes, we already had one of those. Mother bargained with the store owner until he gave us credit. I translated for her. He never had a chance to reject us. The TV was delivered the next day. We paid it off in a year, in the store, with cash, weekly.

I learned a lot from her, including how to negotiate without looking like she was negotiating.

In 1970, I graduated with my eighth-grade class at age 14, right on time.


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