AN Essay Contest HOSTED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH
SCHOLASTIC & CHOICES MAGAZINE
Embark on a journey of self-discovery with five Girls Write Now mentees as they share unique parts of their identities in these personal essays, selected by a panel of Scholastic judges.
The Secret Letter
By Victoria Siębor
Listen to Victoria read an excerpt of her essay.
When asked to write my full name, I am always tempted to include the “ę” in Siębor.
Unfortunately, that letter only exists in the Polish alphabet, one of the extra six letters that don’t fit into the English alphabet. Though the tail on the “e” is a minuscule alteration, I see myself as two different people depending on the American or Polish pronunciation.
I remember learning English somewhere around kindergarten, even though I was born and raised in New York City. As my second language, English seemed easier to remember; yet it also excluded the vowels and “cz, rz, sz” sounds I was so used to hearing, the ones that couldn’t roll off American tongues.
To ensure that I wouldn’t forget about my culture, my parents enrolled me in Polish school on Saturday mornings, where a small group of kids memorized the months and various nouns, with all 32 Polish letters hung up around our classroom. Each letter was written in a textbook script, with a template of three dashed lines to follow—a corresponding image drawn on each glossy paper, including everything from an apple to a woman with a distinctly 2000s-style pixie haircut. The letters with the tails especially fascinated me, the “ą” and “ę”, which we never quite discussed in sophomore year Latin. Phonetically, these letters had nothing to do with English, and so I felt they couldn’t possibly have anything to do with me.
Unlike many Polish kids, I didn’t experience the pause before someone butchered or Americanized “Kowalski” or “Lewandowski,” let alone other (less popular) last names ending with “-ski.” When people asked if they pronounced my last name correctly, I would often say that they could call me whatever they liked. I thought “See-boar” was the easiest to explain, one that didn’t cause confusion or sounding out the syllables. Upon first glance, Siebor could be seen as American, a descendant of a descendant from an unknown immigrant who came to the United States during the Industrial Age. It allowed me to blend in with my American peers, just as “Victoria” blends in more easily than the Polish spelling, “Wiktoria” (which many still butcher as “Wick-toria” when there is no phonetic difference). While I tried my hardest to assimilate, an even smaller group of Polish teenagers would spend a few hours learning about Polish grammar, history, and geography in Polish school. We discussed more complex books and literature eras as I complained more and more about wanting to skip my sixth day of school.
I often joked that I already worked as a part-time secretary by creating my parents’ accounts and emails, writing their emails for them, doing legal work, calling companies, and so much more. In the moment, I would get frustrated at the fact that I never chose to take this job. I never submitted an application or attended an interview to become a translator. It took me a few years to appreciate being able to translate for not just my parents, but for a larger population of people who were displaced within New York City, thousands of miles away from their home culture. Without fail, I’ll hear someone speaking Polish no matter where in the world I go; I can find a Polish community anywhere. Thanks to Polish school and my parent’s influence, I’m now bilingual and able to connect with more people.
Once I got to high school, I grew even closer with my fellow classmates at Polish school, bonded by years of poem recitations and November 11th Independence Day assemblies. I became proud to compete in spelling contests and history projects, growing more fluent in all aspects of Polish life. Eventually, I stopped conforming and began to explain to Americans how to actually pronounce my name, something resembling “Sh-ee-em-bor.” The “ę” letter was a small but mighty way of claiming my identity and distinguishing myself from the restricted English alphabet.
My Americanized name hides my Polish identity, and I refuse to deny my family’s name and history. I will never fully be “American” and frankly, I don’t want to be. A name is a defining factor for each person, so I’m grateful that I’m able to continue my ancestor’s legacy.In a city full of immigrants’ children, I enjoy seeing how other first-generation families translate their experiences and cultural traditions into the American present. Where there’s a potential for life, there will be migration, immigrants flocking to the United States in search of something new, like migrating birds not quite in a V-formation. I’m just one of those stories, creating memories in a city full of abundance and noise while still honoring the rich language and culture that my ancestors passed down to me.
An Essay Contest & Story Collection
What’s something that defines you as a person, yet few people know about? Girls Write Now mentees and alumni bravely answered that question in the My Life With… Essay Contest. This contest was produced in partnership with Scholastic and Choices Magazine.
“Are you okay?” The Hispanic woman wearing a disposable medical apron asks me as she comes back into the x-ray check-up room after scanning my braces. No.
Victoria Siębor is a writer and first year student at Yale. She has worked with her mentor Stephanie Golden since last year. The pair met up over Zoom to talk about writing, identity, mentoring, and more. Watch their Q&A below.
Victoria Siębor was born and raised in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Though she loves the city’s glass and concrete buildings, she’s constantly drawn to the hum of the leaves and anything related to trees, mountains and lakes. Victoria has an avid love of learning Latin, doing social science research and reading literature. She enjoys all forms of dancing, especially jazz and contemporary. She hopes to publish short stories exploring her upbringing as a child of Polish immigrants.