Jessica Bieniarz looks like the quintessential American teenager, with her blond hair, glasses and open, friendly face. She smiles and laughs easily, and her English bears only a trace of the Polish that was her first language.
Her parents, Stanislaw and Dorota, still wear the face of their native country. They had come to the United States years ago, before their only daughter was born, and were living here when Jessica arrived, delivered at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital in Chicago.
Jessica’s essay about the sacrifices that her parents made – moving from the Chicago area to Poland and back again – won them recognition from Maine Township High School District 207 as “Parents of the Year” at
That draws a laugh from Stanislaw, gregarious even in English, which he does not speak fluently.
“This whole family is crazy,” he said. “That’s why they gave us that award.”
Stanislaw and Dorota Bieniarz shared their story in an interview at their home, a small apartment a block from Maine East, with the help of an interpreter.
Returning to homeland with baby
It starts with Jessica’s arrival, 12 years after her parents married, when they were living away from the families in Chicago. After her birth, the pull of their home and their families became too much to resist. Jessica was a sickly baby – her parents took her to the doctor 22 times in her first year – and her mother was concerned that she and the doctor, a Korean, were not understanding one another, especially when the doctor recommended 7Up for 3-month-old Jessica’s upset stomach.
So when Jessica was just about a year old, they packed up and returned to Tarnow to show off their treasure – “She was so precious!” Dorota said -- to their families, to get their support and advice in raising her and to live in a place where they could work as teachers, the profession they had been educated for.
A child busy with music, dance, swimming
Jessica was a much-loved only child, and her parents gave Jessica what she wanted. What she wanted was to be busy. She started playing cello in her school’s extended music program when she was 7. She enrolled at a separate ballet school for five years, and won regional championships in swimming, all while maintaining top marks in her classes.
“I was going to something every day. It was crazy,” Jessica said of her school years in Poland. “But I loved it. I still love it. My last year at Maine East was my busiest, and I loved it.”
Some people said that Jessica was involved in too many activities, her mother, Dorota, acknowledged. “But she chose all of them,” Dorota said. “She wanted it. Sometimes she was crying at 9 p.m. because she wanted to go to swimming, but she had school the next day.”
And as Jessica grew, it became clear to Dorota and Stanislaw that Jessica was special – and not just to them. She is a gifted musician as well as being intellectually bright and a disciplined, hard worker.
The green card and return to the U.S.
So when Dorota’s sister gave them the news that the green card she had tried to get for Dorota way back when they were in Chicago, before Jessica was born, had finally come through, 13 years after the family had returned to Poland, they decided to explore moving back to Chicago where they thought Jessica would have a better future.
The first trip was over a winter break, when they met Hans Jorgen Jensen, a cello professor at Northwestern University, who agreed to take Jessica as a private student. They didn’t have any luck finding a school with an emphasis on music – they recall that the Chicago Academy for the Arts said Jessica could not audition for a scholarship because she didn’t have a cello with her and there was none available to borrow – and she ended up at Maine East High School in Park Ridge because a friend recommended its English as a Second Language Program.
Excelling at Maine East
The plan worked. Jessica graduated this year after doing nearly everything possible in the music program at Maine East, including singing in this year’s production of “Hairspray,” taking her lessons with the internationally known Jenson, and playing with the Music Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. This year, she received the 207’s Best award for performing arts at Maine East, and she said her friends come from all over the school – music, swim team, smart kids, Polish kids, you name it. Her financial package of scholarships, grants, work-study and loans at Oberlin Conservatory comes to more than $56,000, about $1,000 shy of the cost of attending.
While it’s a generous package, even coming up with the remainder will not be easy, and Jessica’s parents likely won’t be able to help with student loan payments when she graduates, so the family is hoping to find sponsors who might be able to offer even small amounts.
But that success has come at great cost.
She and her father have lived for the last four and a half years in the same cramped apartment that was chosen for its location rather than its amenities, and many of their possessions are stored in boxes in the living room. Stanislaw has about 10 violins there, but most of his collection of 100 or so are still in Poland. He works three part-time jobs cleaning offices to make ends meet, but the money pays only for necessities. Jessica does not have a cell phone – something most teenagers consider a necessity.
Dorota has spent most of the last four years in Poland, getting treatment for breast cancer, although she visits her husband and daughter each year. She has not been able to work for the last couple of years because of her illness, and an emergency hospitalization when she was visiting last year has put the family thousands of dollars in debt.
For the parents, the most difficult thing has been not being able to practice their profession.
Stanislaw talks of when, not if, he returns to Poland and can once again teach, but he is scared of sending Jessica off to a small college town in Ohio by herself.
The pressure to succeed
Jessica sees what her parents gave up for her – from the hours waiting in corridors at the ballet school and pool when she was a child to the fulfillment and status of teaching to the ability to live together as a family.
That has been the hardest for Jessica, who said it’s sometimes hard to learn how to get along together again when her mother comes.
Because of everything her parents gave up, she said, she has to succeed.
“They expect a lot from me. There’s all this pressure on me to succeed,” she said. “Every time I fall, it’s like, my parents gave everything up for this?”
That sacrifice might be why the family’s biggest complaint is that, after winning nearly every possible musical honor at Maine East, she was not selected for the music department award at Senior Night this year.
“She was the best student in the school in terms of music,” Stanislaw said.
Open to career possibilities
While it seems likely Jessica will succeed somehow in music, she’s not sure exactly in what area. She likes movie music and musicals, she could perform in an orchestra or play chamber music. She doesn’t really know yet.
“It’s whatever will come to me first,” she said.
Dorota shakes her head at that.
“She likes too much,” her mother said.
That makes Jessica laugh. In Poland, she said, students are placed on an academic track in high school and that’s when their options narrow. “In America, high school is when you do the most, and then you choose,” she said.