If Jan Zaleski is holding his head a bit higher today, he has good reason.
Not only did the 64-year-old grandfather become a U.S. citizen Dec. 2 — his accomplishment was celebrated Tuesday in the form of a surprise party at the Bradley School in Derby, where he works as a custodian.
The kids yelled “Surprise,” naturally, after Zaleski, a native of Poland, walked in. It stopped him dead in his tracks.
Then, when the kids sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” Zaleski put his hand on his chest and swallowed deeply a few times, getting a bit choked up.
He smiled broadly upon realizing his wife, Kazmira, and his 20-year-old granddaughter, Dominika Mazan, were also in the room.
“I was surprised, 1,000 percent unexpected,” Zaleski said.
Both Jan and Kazmira came to the United States from Poland about 15 years ago. Jan has been working for the school district for about seven years.
Zaleski, now a Seymour resident, said he wanted to obtain his full citizenship status because he had a desire to be “more.”
“It was very worth it,” he said.
Each of the 50 fifth-grade students — from classes led by teachers Lois Caprio and Cynthia Klabonski — gave Zaleski and his wife hand-made congratulatory cards.
In addition, Bradley students signed an oversized, hand-made U.S. flag — along with a card reading “You are American as . . .” followed by photos of items such as hot dogs, American pie and the Statue of Liberty.
“In elementary school, we focus so much on reading, math and writing, it’s important to remember social studies,” said Bradley School principal Christine DiGrazia. “Part of social studies includes being a good citizen. I wanted to children to remember that this country is a great country, despite what they may hear or see on television, and that there are millions of people around the world that go to extreme measures to live in this country and to become citizens.”
Prior to Tuesday’s shin dig in the cafeteria, Bradley fifth-grade students had been studying the questions Mr. and Mrs. Zaleksi had to answer on their citizenship tests.
Those questions included:
How many amendments does the Constitution have?
How many U.S. Senators are there?
The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
What is the name of the Vice President of the United States?
If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?
The Zaleskis knew their stuff — and so did the Bradley students. After the ceremonies, while the guests chowed down on apple pie, a teacher quizzed the students on citizenship questions. The Zaleski family helped to supply the questions, which the kids were able to answer.
“For those of us born in this country, we often take it for granted,” said Derby school superintendent Stephen Tracy. “It is nice to see someone work very hard to get what others already have. Maybe that causes the rest of us to reflect a little bit.”