I Teach ESL

It doesn’t seem like such a radical statement, at least not to me. On the most basic of levels it is a question of supply and demand: I teach English and my students want to learn English. On a deeper and more personal level people want to be active participants in our communities and I want them to be able to share their gifts with the society I love and value. My immigrant family raised me to use my talents to benefit others.  I never imagined over twenty years ago when I began a Masters in a relatively unknown program in the US called TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) how controversial and necessary my chosen profession would become.

I learned about the importance English played in the life of an immigrant before I even started kindergarten. I knew my grandparents didn’t speak the same way I did, we understood each other well enough although we couldn’t use the same words. As long as they remained in the neighborhood, they didn’t need English, everyone spoke their dialect or at least proper Italian, but they wanted to learn it and wanted the same for their children. While neither of my grandparents ever achieved fluency, they were both able to communicate with the world outside of their community in Astoria, NY. All five of their children learned to speak impeccable English even with the primitive second language pedagogy in vogue in the middle years of the last century.

These days ESL is on the front line of the political debate about immigration. As an ESL educator, I really don’t care, my politics never impacted my career, but my philosophy always has. That philosophy values people so whatever help I can offer them is energy well spent. When students arrive in my class with a burning desire to learn English I don’t see titles, I don’t see green cards or passports, or the lack thereof, I see people, precious and valuable people who want to learn something to make their lives and the lives of their families better. When my father and his family pulled into New York harbor for the first time in 1957 people with my training were few and far between and my family suffered for it in many little ways. But just because it was difficult for them doesn’t mean that I have to stand by and allow it to be difficult for others.

I make a difference


Off-Off Broadway and on the Spectrum

Nicholas, Elizabeth and their director, Kelly

Nicholas, Elizabeth and their director, Kelly Wisneski

It isn’t unusual for students in the Performing Arts Program at Holy Spirit School in Pequannock, NJ to rehearse in the science lab. With all the desks and lab stools pushed against the walls there is just enough room for a small group of cast members to run through a scene, a song or a dance number. On this particular afternoon Elizabeth and Nicholas, cast as Belle and Beast in this year’s production of Beauty and the Beast Jr, are working on perfecting a waltz under the guidance of their gifted choreographer, Rosemary Rado. Nothing at all unusual.  What is unique is the casting; both these eighth graders are “on the Spectrum” having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s  is a high functioning form of autism characterized by high intelligence, difficulties in social interactions and highly specialized areas of expertise. Often considered quirky by family and friends, Aspies, as Nicholas refers to himself and his co-star, often use formal language and fail to read non-verbal communication. Some may experience repetitive behaviors such as rocking or the flapping of hands. Also notable is a focus on one area of specialization: Elizabeth is an expert on faeries while Nicholas specializes in Disney animation and the history of Nintendo.

Elizabeth and Nicholas’ disability has enhanced their creativity, a characteristic that they share with many other Aspies. In addition to acting and singing, Elizabeth has written a book and many short stories and plays three instruments. While Nicholas is a visual artist who has designed posters for the school plays over the past two years in addition to creating his own series of cartoons. There is no scientific explanation for the connection between creativity and Asperger’s though there is some speculation that since they don’t pick up on the common social cues in their early school years that make children feel that they aren’t artistic, Aspies haven’t learned not to be creative. Others suggest a link between acting on stage and the way Aspies often act to get through daily life. For example, they will often laugh at jokes they don’t perceive as funny because they understand they should in that social situation.

Even with their creativity, acting does pose some difficulties for both Nicholas and Elizabeth, as well as those who work with them. The show’s director, Kelly Wisneski,  has observed that problems are often found where they are least expected: “Simple things that would not bother most kids can become big problems for them, such as the need to wear eyeliner or endure the sound of certain costume fabrics rubbing against one another.” Cathy Prior, co-director, puts their disabilities in perspective by considering them in light of their neurotypical peers “It’s hard to get children to really become a character in a performance. [But] these two children really put themselves into the part and thus their success as the two stars of the show.”

While the world may be struck by two leads in the same show on the Autistic Spectrum, this is nothing unusual to Nicholas and Elizabeth who Wisneski notes “do not know there is any other way to portray a role other than to completely become the character.” They are more than their disabilities, they are actors.

Abercrombie’s “Situation”

Abercrombie & Fitch offered “a substantial amount” to Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino and the rest of the cast of Jersey Shore to not wear their clothes. I couldn’t care less.

That’s not to say that I haven’t chuckled at the Ohio-based retailer making such an offer with money earned in part from the sale of t-shirts emblazoned with that ubiquitous acronym GTL. And for any not familiar with the phrase it is not an attempt at social consciousness in support of the Gay/Transgender/Lesbian community but rather the mantra of the Seaside Heights transplants from across the Hudson: Gym, Laundry, Tan. If I took this seriously I could possibly see this as an issue of freedom of expression; though I doubt that “The Situation” could spell the word constitution much less identify the Bill of Rights if threatened with the elimination of his bronzer and hair-styling products. In the end there is no real conflict. This is hardly the case of the Italian-American David facing the corporate Goliath. “The Situation” is a simpleton who fell into it because MTV will never go broke by pandering to the least common denominator of American culture. He is on track to earn over $5 million this year for work on the show, personal appearances and a book deal. Yes, my dear readers, I said book deal. His “self-help” book is available for anyone interested in “creeping on chicks” (don’t even get me started on that one) and “avoiding grenades.” At least he did his bit to help the economy by providing work to an underappreciated ghost writer. WANTED: Accomplished writer for quickie book of no literary merit. Must have experience in ghost writing for people who lack the ability to express themselves coherently. Ability to translate from Guido to English a must.

Then there is Abercrombie, most noted for its overpriced clothing and underdressed catalog models making a big fuss over nothing. I find it difficult to believe that people who are persuaded in by Abercrombie’s advertising campaigns would be offended to purchase a pair of sweats sported by a famous meathead with hair that defies gravity, a foul mouth and no control of his fists. I’d be surprised if this is anything more than the old advertising adage that any publicity is good publicity. According to the company’s press release: “We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino’s association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image,” the firm said in a statement, adding that a connection to the booze-fueled reality show featuring fights and casual sex, hurt the ‘aspirational nature of our brand.’” I don’t buy it.

As some of my friends have suggested, I would be willing to contribute to a fund that would encourage Mr. “The Situation” to disassociate himself with both the Italian American community and the state of New Jersey. They both have enough problems of their own.

Spaghetti Night and Other Stereotypes

“Anthony. Anthony!”

If it weren’t for the fact that I was calling from the office of my suburban New Jersey home not the front window of a North End walk  up and it was Monday morning, not Wednesday evening, this exchange could be mistaken for a 1971 television ad.

I got up from my desk and walked to the bottom of the  stairs. “Anthony! Do you hear me?”

“It’s Prince spaghetti night,” my husband calls up from  behind me. I threw him a dirty look over my shoulder.

“Anthony! Now!”

“What is it, Ma?”

“Do you have to yell?” my husband asks.

My son pokes his head over the upstairs railing. “Mom’s not  yelling. She’s just talking loudly. And Dad, we don’t eat Prince. We eat DeCecco, the good stuff.”

And there it is. I’ll admit it, I’m loud. Not the kind of  loud that cannot find its ‘inside voice’. I am very well socialized, thank you. But in my comfort zone I have a tendency to be the loudest person in the  room (especially when I’m laughing). But Italians are naturally loud, the stereotype claims. I  don’t buy it.

Our family matriarch, my grandmother, has always been soft-spoken; although, she is quite capable of making herself heard over her four surviving children, eight grandchildren and eighteen great-grandchildren when she needs to. Most of my cousins are not loud. The guys tend to have  low-pitched, resonant voices that carry, but that’s not the same thing. In  fact, of all my cousins, only one can claim to be as loud as I, even louder. So in a family that comprises several hundred people if you  include my fathers’ cousins, aunts, uncles and their children, two are loud.  That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the whole Italians are loud stereotype.

Maybe the stereotype comes from the fact that traditional Italian families (at least from earlier generations) were large. You have to be loud in order to be heard at the dinner table over a family with two parents, four or more children and a couple of grandparents. Maybe this was its origins.

Then there were the neighborhood moms. I remember in my grandparent’s neighborhood in Astoria, Queens that around four thirty in the afternoon mothers from the block would come out on the front porch and call for their children. “Johnny.” “Vinnie.” “Frannie.” It was quite musical, now that I think about it. And effective – within ten minutes I could hear the sound of slamming doors when kids rushed to wash their hands and be at the table for when their fathers got home. This always impressed me since the kids could be anywhere in between 21st Street and the river. I’ve been told that this was common practice in a variety of neighborhoods in New York and Boson. I even experienced it in the suburbs when I was a kid. Well,  not in our house because our mother relied upon a coach’s whistle she had gotten from my uncle, Weehawken’s favorite, Coach D, to gather the chicks back to the nest. So it’s not as much of an Italian thing as it was a pre-mobile phone thing. Yet I continue to hear from Italians and non-Italians alike that loud Italians are the norm.

It makes me wonder how many other stereotypes we honestly believe about ourselves?

In Search of ‘Italian American’

I am surprised by the push back I often receive from other Americans of Italian descent when I use the term Italian American. The strongest reactions seem to come from people like me, first generation American-born or those who emigrated before they were old enough to remember life in Italy. We were raised to be “Good Americans,” to speak English well, to vote, to serve our country: to fit in, but not too much, you should never forget where you came from.

I have had argued with friends who insist that Italian American doesn’t exist. Others who take umbrage to the term prefer to say that we are Americans of Italian descent, as though anything else is treasonous. This is particularly laughable because that is precisely the standard definition of Italian American. That was the assumption beyond Martin Scorsese’s 1974 documentary, Italian American, which opened a window on his family’s life and history as, well, Italian Americans.

I first encountered the term in the early eighties in its Italian form, Italo-Americano. I was ten and had just been relocated to Italy, my father’s homeland, for his job. Since the plan was to return to the States in a few years and could only speak a few words of Italian, with the obvious exception of my father, we were enrolled in the American School of Milan. Many of my classmates at ASM were like me, American citizens of Italian descent. Others were Italian citizens whose parents were either diplomats or wealthy business executives who wanted their children to have a command of English and the prestige of a private American education. Then there were the Italo-Americani. These kids bridged the American and the Italian. Through one circumstance or another, they held dual citizenship: either one of their parents was an American citizen and the other an Italian citizen or their Italian-born, American naturalized parent had returned to Italy and lived there long enough that the Italian granted them the rights of citizenship and because they did not request it, they were allowed to maintain their American citizenship as well.

These were the cool kids in my school. They were intelligent, well-rounded and generally classy at least to my eyes, peeking out from above a nose that had just started growing faster than the rest of the features on my pimpled face and still wearing clothes from Sears. Unlike the rest of us who either spoke English like Edward R. Morrow and Italian like James Caan or Italian like Marcello Mastroianni and English like Father Guido Sarducci, they spoke both in measured tones and without a hint of an accent in either. When we all got back from school holidays while my friends and I chatted about whether our grandparents had sent us Jiff or Skippy in our Christmas care packages the Italo-Americani casually mentioned sunning in Tahiti with Mick Jagger’s family or skiing in Austria with Princess Stèphanie of Monaco.

But since I was neither stylish nor polished and we would be back in the US long before the Italian government would get around to offering my father his citizenship (although even at eleven I know that dual citizenship would not clear up acne or make my ears an appropriate size for my face) I stuck with the designated American crowd, at least they knew who the Yankees were.

When I returned to my homeland a few years later the question of whether I was Italian or American took a backseat to my efforts to eliminate that heavy Queens accent I had had all my speaking life. My accent had never been a cause for concern in the multi-national environment I had in Italy but gave the powers that be in my new school yet another reason to shove me into the lockers of my New Jersey high school. Granted this was the same cadre who didn’t know the lyrics to the national anthem, couldn’t find Trenton on a map of New Jersey and had no clue that there were actually homeless people living less than 35 miles away in the cities of Newark and New York, but reminding them of this would only get me wedged into an even smaller locker.

But there was no denying that my time in Italy has changed the delicate balance between my American and Italian sides. I could now speak what my Abruzzese grandparents referred to as ‘good Italian’ fluently. And while this made my nonni proud, it didn’t do much to endear me to my “American” cousins who, in spite of being younger than me, were all allowed to wear makeup and date.

For the next ten years I waffled between two minds: “I’m Italian” vs. “I’m American.”  But what I wanted is to find a way to be both.

It didn’t help that I fell in love with and eventually married an American so far removed from his Irish German roots as to make the designation irrelevant. While the thought of losing a piece of his history tragic by beloved found my background a little overwhelming. Like all newlyweds we build our own traditions out of our respective backgrounds. I gave up Sunday afternoon dinner and he accepted lasagna on Christmas and ravioli with a rosemary roasted turkey at our early Thanksgiving dinner (the late dinner, a few hours later, includes a “traditional” turkey and all the frozen vegetables you can eat). To the Dotzmans I am “the Italian.”

Their assuredness didn’t help me; in fact it only compounded my struggle to find my place. I saw myself as too Italian to be American and too American to be Italian. Through writing I started to find clarity. Not my own writing, at first, but by other women like Helen Barolini and Rita Ciresi whose characters fought to find their places. With these women and many others as inspiration I started to feel comfortable writing stories true to my own experience.

By the time I finished the first draft of Of Asphalt and Earth I realized what Italian American means. Being American means that I am a citizen of the United States, carry a US passport, pay my taxes, vote and celebrate Independence Day on July 4th. And none of these things conflict with the spectrum of Italian American culture that colors the words I use, the foods I eat, the way I relate to my family and the way I look at the world. It is a spectrum because it includes me, Frances Xavier Cabrini, Geraldine Ferraro, Dean Martin and as much as I hate to admit it Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. There’s even a place on the spectrum for those who refuse to believe that there is a spectrum.

Just like at Sunday dinner, there’s always room for one more.

Tomatoes: Life, Children & Story

It’s tough raising Italian American kids. Do they really get what it means to be Italian? Especially when the pervasive role models we are offered are women with names that sound like a race created by Dr. Seuss and the signature hairstyle to match and misogynists with all the intelligence of The Brian’s sidekick, Pinky,  whose greatest contribution to society is to keep Dippity Doo in business. When I was a kid the media depictions were so unappealing that there was little danger of us emulating them: Mama Celeste, really?

But Italian Americans are hot now, and not in a good way. So it is up to me to encourage the genuine Italian American culture that I was raised in and took for granted as a child.  The culture that values diligence, education and respect. The culture rich in traditions that can be traced back centuries, which brings me to tomatoes.

Every August for as far back as anyone can remember our family has gathered to “do the sauce”.  Stocked up with mason jars and lids, the machine, huge hunches of fresh basil and hundreds of pounds of plum tomatoes from New Jersey our family gets down to making sauce for the year.

When I was growing up this meant a day with my cousins at my grandparents’ house in Astoria, Queens; but these days it’s my parents, my children and my Irish-German husband on my driveway and in my garage. In those days I waited years to be promoted from washing the tomatoes in the backyard to the more adult jobs of cooking and mashing them in the basement.  And now I watch my children jockey for the best jobs. My oldest is usually needed to move the fifty five pound bushels of tomatoes from where they have been stored in the house for a few days before and pour them into the water-filled plastic tubs that have replaced my grandparents’ half barrels. Then my youngest works with her grandparents to wash them and weed out the bruised and broken ones. My twins prefer the cooking and mashing.

Even I have to admit that this process is hardly necessary, Pomí is almost as good as the sauce we make at home. But there is something about being connected to the traditions of generations that makes you feel like you belong to something bigger than yourself. Also, it is one of the few times of the year when we take the time to share our storie. In Italian storia means more than just story, it acknowledges the greater importance of story: history. While they are working my parents tell my children about their youth in places they may never see but come to understand as part of their own storia. A history that’s reinforced every time we sit down to spaghetti and meatballs or penne K2 with peas.

The other night, after the sauce was jarred, the kitchen and garage cleaned and every pot put away I collapsed onto my family room sofa. My youngest climbed up into my lap and told me: “I’m glad we did the sauce. It’s so cool being Italian.” Yep, I think she got it.