moved to Rome with a teaching certificate and a handful of Italian words. Clueless, I jumped at my first job offer, not realizing I’d have to take a tram, a bus and a second bus, to get to a hardly caratteristico Roman suburb. On my first day I landed where no tourist had ever gone before and wandered the streets lost for an hour.
Finally, I stood in the school entrance speaking to the janitor, thinking she was the principal. We had something that resembled a conversation until the real principal arrived and showed me to my classroom, where I met my 15-year-old boys.
They pranced in with motoring helmets under their arms, eyebrows pierced and Roma soccer t-shirts on. Due to the injustices of puberty, a few of them looked old enough to teach the class and tended to loiter — in the bathroom, in the hall, by my desk. Other boys, more cherubic in looks, proved to be nicely malleable.
With pseudo confidence I walked to the chalkboard and wrote my name. They immediately began laughing. Apparently, my name sounds a lot like a famous Italian porn star. Once the laughter abated, the Lucas, Marcos and Fabios enthusiastically asked for a cigarette break.
I said no, and attempted my stellar, dynamic teaching techniques. Basically, I looked like a mime on speed.
I showed fear on my face. “You afraid?” they guessed.
I hid under the table. “You hide,” they noticed. (Don’t worry; they eventually mastered the verb to be).
For the next lesson, I invented a story about a rock star named Johnny Rocket. The rocker sought fame above all else and dated a gaggle of girls. Life was great for Johnny, except his guitarist quit right before they were about to play Madison Square Garden! The boys had to choose a new guitarist for Johnny from a list of candidates. They read the descriptions and asked what happened to the old guitarist. I told them he left.
“But where is the old guitarist?” they insisted.
“He got another job,” I told them, urging them to get past the detail.
“But why?” they wanted to know.
“He’s dead, okay. He got run over by a car.”
They didn’t understand. I acted it out.
The class agreed that Johnny Rocket sucks and the group Queen doesn’t, but Johnny wasn’t the only thing that bored them. I noticed that they zoned out as I flapped around the room like a bird, demonstrating flight. “What’s the point?” I thought. So I decided to change my approach and teach something personal.
I gave them a brief history of my home state of Rhode Island and showed them a map. “It’s the biggest little state in the Union, and one of the most important!” I told them.
They learned about Roger Williams and his fight for religious freedom and the Quakers who scurried off to Rhode Island to avoid having their tongues nailed to walls.
“Are there sharks in Rhode Island?” they asked. “Um, sure. Sometimes,” I told them.
They began to think that New York and California were tangential states and that Rhode Island was the place to visit.
They drew my family tree, papers mottled with stick figures to represent my brothers and sister, their respective wives, husband and children.
They noticed that my sister-in-law had three girls ages one, two and three. They became investigative.
“Is she very fat?” they asked.
They showed emotion and sympathy. Your brother has no boys! Che peccato!”
They learned how to use the possessive via my nieces. “Sammy is Charlotte’s cousin,” they said in unison. “Alexis is Stella’s sister and Eddie’s daughter.” Through my family the formation, “the cousin of Charlotte,” was eradicated forever.
Why did this work, I wondered? Why was Johnny Rocket and his stardom (not to mention his dating habits and his free spending) banal, and my brother Eddie, who is saddled with three little girls, a grueling job and mortgage, fascinating?
I learned my first lesson in the Italian paradigm: family matters. Not a real surprise — it’s part of the Italian stereotype — but I didn’t know how it could facilitate teaching. At first, I was just some foreigner barking like a dog and jumping around looking like a human jack-in-the-box. Once I became a foreigner with a family, they paid attention.