Peter McBride left his parents, his siblings and his homeland — England — when he was 18 years old. He boarded a tramp steamer on Nov. 4, 1948, and arrived in Halifax, Canada, 24 days later. He eventually settled in Burdett, N.Y., north of Watkins Glen.
Fifty-six years later, he stood in a room full of fourth- and eighth-graders at St. Frances-St. Stephen School in Geneva, telling the story of his childhood in England and his experiences as an immigrant. His visit to the school was part of an immigration project students in the two grades were working on, according to eighth-grade teacher Mary Ann Bender.
While working on this project, students break off into “family groups,” and research what their experience would have been like if they had emigrated to America from an assigned country, with the older students acting as parents and grandparents to the younger students. Through this interaction, eighth-graders learn how to become leaders, and fourth-graders look up to and learn from their older counterparts, Bender said.
Toward the end of the project, students come to school wearing the types of clothes an immigrant from their assigned country would have worn. Each “immigrant” carries a pillowcase containing one cherished item he or she would have brought from their old country.
Hearing about the experiences of someone who came to America as an immigrant helps make the project come alive for the students, Bender said. McBride spoke to this year’s eighth-graders four years ago, but the students told her McBride was so interesting that they wanted to listen to him again, Bender added.
“The reason I came here was because of the way things were in England. Of course, in the old countries, the father always wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Well, I wasn’t about to become an engineer,” McBride recalled as he spoke to the students Dec. 2.
His father wasn’t thrilled with his decision, but McBride said he was determined to leave the country and create his own future.
“When you’re that young, you don’t think of it as a big step. You would today, but not then,” he said.
Young people in England viewed international travel differently than did American children and teens, since they were only a short distance away from countries like France, Belgium and Holland, he said.
“We could go across the English Channel and we’d be in a different country. It was so much easier for us to do it than it would be for you to do it,” he said.
McBride described as “adventuresome” his voyage and the months immediately thereafter. His ship encountered two hurricanes during its passage to Nova Scotia, and once he arrived in Canada, McBride took a train across the country. He later worked on a ship that delivered coal to Canada from other parts of the world.
McBride said he has no regrets about leaving England and eventually coming to America, and urged the students to take advantage of all their country has to offer.
“Really enjoy the United States. It has so much to offer,” he said. “Just buckle down and do it. Make sure you graduate from school, college, and get on up with the rest of them.”
McBride also told the students about the hardships he faced as a child growing up in England during World War II. Although they were young, McBride, along with his sister and his friends, used to help defend their country in any way they could. At night they would walk the cliffs near their homes with dogs. If they saw enemy soldiers approaching from the shore, they would set the dogs on the soldiers, McBride said. They sometimes had to dive into the bushes if they saw soldiers coming, he added.
“It was hair-raising at times. All the time you were doing that, you had the German bombers going over,” McBride said. “It sounds glorious, but it’s war. It’s hard.”