When I was 10 years old, my father took a job with the government at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. (Yes, it’s where Netflix recently purchased a big parcel of land.) In January the family loaded up the Chevy and we headed east from Butler, Pennsylvania, to Long Branch, New Jersey. I would still be attending a Catholic school, but the community of sisters would change from the Franciscan Sisters of Millvale, Pennsylvania, to the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, New Jersey.

Susan Bassler Pickford, second from left, and her friend and Red Bank Catholic High School classmate Hans Ziegler, second from right, accept prizes for winning the oratorical contest sponsored by the Monmouth County, N.J., Catholic War Veterans. Courtesy of Susan Bassler Pickford

The Franciscan Sisters had a lovely tradition of making a big fuss over a new student. They assigned a boy or a girl to be a friend and guide during the adjustment phase. So I thought that’s how I would be treated in the new school in Long Branch. I was actually excited about being the “new kid.”

World War II was over and the U.S. government was hiring many people, including German scientists, to enhance the Signal Corps at what would be the start of the Cold War.

I remember clearly my first day in fourth grade at my new school. I was told to walk to the door of the classroom and wait for my teacher. So I stood in terror, as the whole class walked past me, stared and identified me as the “new kid.” It was mid-year for them and they all walked confidently to their assigned seats. It seemed to last forever. Finally my teacher approached and told me where to sit down. Ah! Relief! Anonymity! Forget the special treatment. Just let me fade away.

But I was not the only “new kid” that day. When Sister read the roll call, a tall, blond and handsome young man, who answered to Hans Ziegler, jumped to an erect standing position and clicked his heels in respect, as he had been taught in Germany. Now I and everyone else stared at him. He had endured wartime, left his country and learned a new language – far greater challenges than I had had to overcome.

Most of us graduated from eighth grade and moved on to Red Bank Catholic High School. As members of the Forensic Club, Hans and I entered speech contests together and enjoyed friendship throughout high school. It was wonderful meeting him again at our 50th reunion.

There’s little doubt that being a new kid is traumatic, but it can teach resilience, self-awareness and self-confidence that the new kid will never forget.

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