From Trabbia to Pittsburgh, Somalia to Saint Paul

My oldest living relative Eleanora links me to her grandmother, also named Eleanora, who came from Sicily to New York, then Scranton, then Pittsburgh to marry the husband left with a small boy when her older sister died. Of course I never knew this first Eleanora, though I treasure and often visit her namesake and granddaughter, the 93-year-old marvel who still enjoys chocolate, teasing family gossip, television, and medical breakthroughs, all dispensed from her Lazy-Boy chair, in Dover, Delaware.

This family immigrant story, circa 1880, must have been common. That’s one of the reasons it resonates with me today, when I have taught Hmong and Somali immigrants in Saint Paul. Italy invaded Ethiopia and Somalia in the 19th century, and many adults still speak Italian; some older Somali were even educated by Italian priests in Somalia, then went to Padova or other Italian universities for advanced degrees. One remarkable Somali gentleman with the equivalent of a Ph.D. in microbiology was a classroom aide when I met him in Saint Paul. Everyone referred to him as “Doctor.” We exchanged greetings and a few sentences in Italian, then it became clear that his fluency exceeded mine and we switched to English.

Reading and writing in another language require many skill-sets (in clunky current educationese) not required of speaking. It’s true that those blessed with a good ear, the right “mouth,” and the best teacher of all–need–can pick up the rudiments of another spoken language fairly quickly. That doesn’t mean they’ll sound like a native, though sometimes even that is possible. Being born with the right “mouth” and ear will aid the acquisition of a spoken language tremendously. All through my childhood, I heard my father carry on in Italian–not paragraphs, of course, since he was the only one in our nuclear and isolated family of four who spoke it. “Eh, paisan!” he’d tease, tweaking my cheek between index and pointer fingers in a “pizzichille.” Or starting the rhyming chant brought, I suspect, from Sicily, he’d raise his finger like a warning statue and intone: “Uno, due, tre cancello, suona, suona, suona bello, ecco si, ecco no,” and after that the language spilled over itself to end with a mock beating. This “one, two, three” introduced something about cancelling and a bell ringing, and may have mimicked the “one, two, three, you’re dead” of an actual Sicilian vendetta.

His mouth and ear now belong to me, and I’m proud to report that in Italy, natives sometimes mistake me for one of them. Of course, I look Italian, which helps. I’m pretty sure I’d have a much harder time acquiring spoken German or Swedish, my mother’s countries of origin. Not only did I never hear her speak either language (I don’t think she could, nor was she given to verbal play), but I also find the sound of German, at least, rather harsh and off-putting. Likewise the German practice of putting a verb at the end of a sentence sends me over the edge–English teacher, that I am. Contemporary American English is largely a language of incredible efficiency and directness: subject – verb- object, the trajectory of force moving straight from start to finish.

The first Eleanora had known her sister’s husband in Trabbia; in fact, he who became the Reverend Leonardo D’Anna, started a renegade Protestant church–in that time and place quite a radical act. He’d been converted to Protestantism as a soldier in the Valdese mountains between France and Italy. Returning to Trabbia, he married an eldest daughter Giuseppina, they had a son, and when neighbors burned the little church, they swiftly removed to New York. There Leonardo he entered a Protestant seminary, and Giuseppina practiced the art of baking learned from her family in Sicily. The story goes that she followed the family custom of giving day-old bread to the poor, and waking the January streets of New York, she caught a terrible cold and died of pneumonia, thus leaving her husband and small son alone.

When Reverend D’Anna wrote to Sicily asking if his sister-in-law Eleanora would consent to come to America and marry him, he thus was requesting the hand of a young woman he already knew him and adored the little boy. Eleanora could not be allowed to sail all the way to America alone, however; so her father accompanied her. She never returned. The first voyage was so unnerving that she refused ever to set foot on a ship again. Thus her ties to her family in Sicily were severed completely. Well, not completely, because she and her minister husband, stepson and their three daughters–all lived within an immigrant Italian community, first in New York, then in Scranton, and finally in Pittsburgh. She did acquire spoken English, though many immigrant wives did not. Why would they need English if all their activities outside the home were among immigrants like themselves? It was their husbands and of course their children who made the leap into becoming American.

In the era when Eleanora’s three daughters went to school in Scranton, there were no mandated state and national competency tests. Chances are that all three girls spoke both Italian and English, but maybe not. Certainly by the next generation, that is, my father (born in 1909) and his three cousins (born from 1919-25), all the children were bi-lingual because they were raised that way. My father’s father, also a Protestant Italian minister, made it his business to establish schools to help immigrants acquire English and other skills necessary to become citizens. I don’t remember anyone among my older Italian relatives ever weighing in on the problems of learning to speak, read, and write English.

Now I’m helping masters students in education struggle through the initial drafting of their thesis questions. Many are employed in charter schools established to educate various immigrant and migrant groups, for whom English is not their first language. These young teachers are often stymied by what’s called the “achievement gap.” Without going into the complicated differences among groups, I can say, simply and directly, that state and national mandates for achievement seem true impediments to the education taking place, especially among immigrants.

The few things I’ve picked up, during years of being a writer-in-the-schools teaching native-born and immigrant students include an awareness that learning two major skills at once is far more difficult than acquiring one, then building on that to acquire another. Expecting children who have a poor spoken knowledge of English to learn to read in that language, especially when they don’t already know how to read in their own language–well it’s like burdening a poor donkey with so many parcels that he can’t possibly make it up a steep and rocky slope. At least not as fast as a donkey with no burdens at all.

As I listen to these dedicated young teachers describe the methods they employ to close the “achievement gap,” I wonder about our thinking about equity and achievement. It seems to have gone awry in regards to immigrant students. It’s a truism that it takes a student without spoken English twice or three times as long to master skills necessary to graduate high school as it does a native English speaker. Such a gap seems the obvious and simple difference in the many more things an immigrant must master. That we can’t tailor programs to guide immigrant students steadily and surely, and at a reasonable pace through their learning challenges without gnashing our teeth and twisting the learning process into unnatural distortions, tells me that crazy ideology has taken hold. Our standards are no longer reasonable measures; they have become whips.

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