Sladjana came to the East Side of Chicago 35 years ago. “I felt like I had to become a different person, with a different personality,” she told me.
I remember my sister and I getting picked on in school. It was hard, being a kid and not speaking the language. I remember some girl picking on us when we were walking home and calling us Commies. Or, you know, Go back to your own country. In second grade, I drew a picture of the American Flag and I wrote, “I do not like this flag.” And one of my teachers saw it and really demonized me. She called me out: go back to your own country. It was just horrible.
I just remember, growing up in Yugoslavia, I was very independent, I was very free. I really had the Rousseaian childhood, where I had nature, and I got to play all by myself or with friends, it didn’t matter. I was just very content, very happy, in a very loving environment, and totally free. I had a very strong personality, and coming here, that just didn’t mesh with what a girl at that age was supposed to be like.
My name was Sladjana, but there was a girl in our apartment building, and her name was Sladjana too. And she had Anglicized her name to Sue. Sue! So I went by Sue for a long time. In fact my grade school friends on Facebook, they’re like, “Hey Sue! How’ve you been!” [Laughs.] I don’t know—the teacher I ended up having was just like, “Oh, that translates into Sue.” I felt like, when they gave me that name, Sue, it was almost like a new personality I had to take on to acclimate to this society here. I felt like I had to become more friendly.
I dropped the name Sue in high school. It wasn’t until high school that I finally had the sense to say, That’s not even me! I finally had the sense to stop going by that name. Now, I’m OK with it. It’s just a name, who cares? But then, it meant a lot. It meant a lot. It was becoming a different person. What did I know? I didn’t speak the language so I just kind of went with it. It was hard.
The way the Chicago Public School system did it was, they just put you a year back until you learned the language. And when you learned the language, they would move you to be with your classmates who were supposed to be in your grade level. I was supposed to be in second grade, but they put me in first grade. So I was first grade, second grade, third grade, and then after third grade they thought I learned the language well enough so I skipped fourth and went right to fifth.
In fifth grade, we ended up moving to 110th Street and Ewing Avenue, so then I switched schools, too. Still on the East Side. I started off at Taylor School, and then we moved and I went to George Washington Elementary and George Washington High School. I ended up adapting to it.