English Feature #7-34640 Broadcast March 26, 2001
Compared to some of the ethnic groups living in the Washington, D.C. area -like the Vietnamese, Korean, Salvadoran and South Asian communities - the Lithuanian community is tiny, with less than 500 individuals. Nevertheless, like the larger groups, it, too, maintains a Saturday school to teach the children and grandchildren of immigrants the language, history and culture of the land of their forefathers. Today on New American Voices you'll meet some of the students, parents and teachers of this school.
"Oh, yes, I intend to teach my kids Lithuanian, cause I really like it and I want everybody who's - like - going to be part of my family to know at least a little bit of Lithuanian. Sometimes when people come to America they forget Lithuanian, so it's important that everybody remembers it, because it's a very special language, and a special history and culture."
Fourteen-year-old Alina Naujokaitis looks like a typical American teenager. She is a typical American teenager. With one difference. Since the age of four, instead of spending her Saturdays watching cartoons on television or playing on a soccer team, Alina has been attending Lithuanian school. Her mother, Sigita believes that ten years of driving her daughter to Lithuanian school each Saturday have paid off handsomely.
"It's given her an enormous love of Lithuania. When she goes to American school she's an American, she's born here, her life will probably be here, but she knows that this is like a treasure that she has. It has given her not just self-esteem, but a sense that she is very rich in many ways, and many dimensional."
The Lithuanian school in Washington has been in existence some 40 years. This year it has 13 students. The school has three teachers, two of them born and raised in Lithuania. Kristina Nakas, the director of the school, says the school has benefited from the re-establishment of an independent Lithuania ten years ago. It gets not only teachers, but also the children of young families coming here from Lithuania, and they bring with them a current knowledge of the language and the country. Mrs. Nakas says there is another real advantage of an independent, accessible Lithuania to the kids in Saturday school.
"Lithuania is definitely no longer just a fairy-tale land, which it used to be when I was going to Lithuanian school. When I was going to Lithuanian school Lithuania was of course occupied by the communists, and everything that we heard about it was always just extremely good, extremely pure, it was really this idealized country and place. And of course since we didn't have the opportunity to go there, it just seemed like something in our fantasy. Now, many of the children actually have been to Lithuania, and they've seen the sights that we talk about in history or geography, and so it becomes much more real to them."
The subjects taught at the school include grammar, writing, reading, history, geography and folklore. Once or twice a year the school organizes cultural programs, at which the children sing songs or recite poems about Lithuania.
When Alina and her two classmates graduate from eighth grade at the end of this year, the Lithuanian school will have only ten students left. But Mrs. Nakas is optimistic about the future of her school. For the first time this year there is a pre-school class, organized by parents of children from one-and-a-half to four years old. Some of them are third generation Lithuanian-Americans, others are themselves graduates of the school, still others are recent immigrants. All of them are clearly enthusiastic about acquainting their children with their Lithuanian heritage. Playing a children's game they stand in a circle, gripping the edges of a large, brightly colored cloth to make it into a trampoline, and bounce one little child after another to the words of a nursery rhyme.
Kristina Nakas was born in England and raised in Canada. She is married to a Lithuanian-American, and they are bringing up their eight-year-old daughter to speak Lithuanian and to be at home in Lithuanian culture. This, to her - like to many Lithuanian-Americans - is only natural.
"Well, it was just ingrained in us from when we were very small. My parents always spoke Lithuanian at home, their English wasn't that good, part of it was my own interest in language. And sometimes my husband and I talk, and we wonder - it's funny, because sometimes we ourselves do not really know why it is that we're raising our daughter Lithuanian, and making her speak Lithuanian, and making her come to Lithuanian school. But it's just a given."
Next week on New American Voices - an unusual swearing-in ceremony for new American citizens.