My grandmother told me this story when I was in grade school, and too young—and too callow—to understand its pathos.
She was a second-generation German-American, born in 1911, and so she entered first grade the same year the U. S. entered World War I.
When Germany became our enemy, German-Americans immediately became the enemies of America too. Propaganda posters of the era depicted Germans as bloodstained brutes:
My grandmother understood the danger of being German at that time; everyone in the German-American community did. It wasn't a particularly difficult conclusion to draw, when you're depicted as a bloodstained horror and an impaler of babies. So no one spoke German in public, and everyone kept their heads down, trying not to make waves, not to call attention to themselves, not to provoke a fight or a beating or worse. German-Americans lived in fear in their own country.
It’s not clear to me why, in those circumstances, a teacher would instruct her new first graders to stand up, introduce themselves, and tell the class their nationality. But that is what Grandma’s teacher did.
When Grandma told me this story, she was still agitated and frightened about being forced to declare her German background in a hostile setting. At the time I didn’t understand her fear, because I’d never had the experience of being hated solely for where my parents and grandparents came from.
Grandma was in agonies as, one by one, the other children stood up and told their names and their ancestors’ countries of origin. She couldn’t lie—that was sinful. She couldn’t tell the truth either—that was dangerous.
And then a little boy stood up. She knew him; knew where his grandparents had emigrated from. And he told his name. And then he said, “I am an American.” And when Grandma’s turn came, that is what she said.
I wish I still lived in a world where I didn’t understand the sorrow of that story.