PRIME ESPERIENZE IN AMERICA
The teacher was not always able to convey the meaning of the sentences he would use to teach us English and he used to repeat them in different ways to try to make himself understood.
He used to ask simple questions to encourage us to say at least a few sentences in English, like when he was trying to explain what people here do on Sundays.
He wrote a word on the board: CHURCH with the Italian pronunciation, but we would read it back to him as "coo-erk" and we really did not understand. The teacher would put his hands together like he was praying and make the sign of cross to try to make us understand that on Sundays people here go to church and pray.
We would interpret those gestures in a completely different way and would look at him with perplexed expressions on our faces.
Finally, he got down on his knees next to me, took my hands and put them together. I was very embarrassed and stammered something. A deep masculine voice from the back of the class yelled in Italian dialect "On Sunday you go to church and pray".
We immediately got that one. Every one repeated together "Church" in English. The teacher sighed with relief and nodded with a smile.
These situations occurred frequently during our first days of night school.
For older people it was much harder; they were clearly lost and confused. They would knit their eyebrows and complain about the lesson as if it were a personal offense directed at them. They would shake their heads and say loudly that they had not come to in the classes here to be made fools of, where to their embarrassment, their own children could perhaps be studying here during the day. The role of parents was changing: they used to be the teachers to their children during the growing up process, and now they had become the students to their children depending on their children’s grasp of English. As is usual, it was much easier for the children to pick up a new language with their active and growing minds. The parents did not feel very comfortable with this. After a few weeks, classes thinned out as people became discouraged.
In America the teacher is addressed by his or her own name, such as Mr. Smith or Mrs. Smith, in case of a woman. But we would follow our customs that we were familiar with from growing up in Italy and would address them by their titles.
We didn't know how to pronounce "teacher" and would say "tich." It could have been construed as a degrading title, but since they were "good sports", the teachers didn't say anything about it. For us, instead, evening classes were less traumatic. We were even learning to participate in class….in our own way. When we recognized a word that sounded similar to a word in Italian, such as "stop" or "article", we used to interrupt the lesson, call out to the "tich" and teach him the Italian word. It went on like this for a while; then the Teacher told us that the lesson could not be interrupted until the end, when he would ask us questions. It’s not easy to keep 25-30 Italian kids all in the same room quiet, but the Teacher was able to manage it.
The group of new friends that we made with the other young people who had recently come over was growing.
We all shared the same feelings of homesickness about our old lives and the feelings of excitement for our new lives here, as well as the anxiety we felt in class trying to learn a new language. We used to speak different dialects, making it difficult to understand each other in Italian and maybe this pushed us to learn the new language and to be able to say those few sentences that we were able to say in English. In fact, we started competing with each other to see who was able to learn more and more quickly.
There was always someone who thought he knew more than the teacher and this person would interrupt the teacher to correct him. Patiently and without offending anyone, the teacher had to pick up where he left off and repeat the lesson. The teachers really deserved our admiration: they showed patience and tolerance towards all of us. We had the attitude that we came from a great and highly civilized people, with all our great art and our rich culture. Who did these Americans think they were? We liked to brag about our country’s history.
But this was the present and, even if no one liked to admit it, there some of us that were barely able to read and write. We were at a disadvantage; we had to put our arts aside for now.
A few more weeks passed. We girls noticed that after the first half of the class, many of the boys, but not everyone, would disappear. It was a mystery that was soon solved. Apparently, the American girls liked Italian boys hat had recently come to America. They knew they were in school and used to come and wait just outside the school for them with their big American cars to drive them around. For our boys, refusing that boon would be a sin: blonde girls in Cadillacs! What more could they ask for?
When we understood this, we were a little astonished and confused.
"The freedom of choice" that a short time before had encouraged us so much and had made us feel a new sense of security, was now disappearing.
Not all the boys had left; many others remained in class until the end of the lesson.
After a few times of us "going out together," even the boys who seemed to have grown apart from us came back to seriously court the girls from their hometowns in Italy.
Evening school was getting more and more interesting. Friendships and love stories were born. Many friendships have lasted until today, while others have gotten lost due to the inevitable changes imposed on us by life. A few love stories that were born at the beginning of class ended up in a marriage, while others lasted for only a short time. Others who had been disappointed by some un-returned love began to write again to the girls they had left behind in their hometowns.
Delia Socci Skidmore