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

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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.

A Modest Parenting ‘Always’ List

A little while ago I took issue with the ‘Never’ list that features so prominently in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and as much as I hate to admit it, I was inspired. Not to suddently force my son to stand out in the winer cold (I suppose summer heat would have much the same impact with the added benefit of not having to wait until December to discipline my child) until his will is crushed, but rather to define my own views on parenting. Unlike Chua, I do not blame my parenting on my ethnicity, although other Italian Americans may find something familiar in my list.

          Create, even if it makes a mess
          Think for yourself
          Ask questions, respectfully
          Play
          Practice
          Eat whatever is placed in front of you
          Finish what you start
          Listen to your grandparents’ (and great-grandparents’) stories
          Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’
          Work hard
          Hope
          Dream
          Have faith

What makes your ‘Always’ List?