spc-preschool-round-table-chair-package 2Mom and I entered the room, a concrete bunker with boxes on the tables, supplies scattered around, and one cleared off round table with chairs that were perfect for people my size.  “Hello!  Thank you for coming.  Sorry about the mess,”  teacher said crossing the room to greet us.  She was a solid woman with golden hair that was gradually fading into a whitish grey around her temples and her face.  She held out her hand to my mother.  My eyes swept the room and saw chalkboards and cubbies, but no children.  It was prior to the beginning of school, and she was probably busy setting up her class.  I don’t recall any brightly colored bulletin boards or book bins that are a staple of early education.  I had attended preschool, but not in America.

We moved to Cincinnati from Rome in the fall of 1967.  I would turn five toward the end of November.  I don’t recall the details of most of the transition from Rome to the U.S., but I do have a few vivid memories.  This meeting is one.  It’s interesting that this memory reflects only a few of the physical details, but focuses more on the feeling or the tone of the moment. My mother had meet with the Principal of Concord Elementary School to set up an enrollment interview because, despite having moved into the attendance area, my birthday was close to the age cut off.  At that time, she was told that I would need to meet with the Kindergarten teacher to see if I was mature enough to attend that school year.  During the meeting, Mom told the principal that we had been living abroad, and if the interview involved any questions about American television or pop culture, I wouldn’t be able to answer them.  Those words still haunt her, as she feels that they influenced the school’s decision.

The day of the interview, we had walked through a hole in our backyard fence and across the baseball fields and playground to our meeting.  The fields were manicured and the sun shone brightly, but there was tension in my mother’s hand as it clutched mine.  I had no idea what was about to happen, but I was getting more and more nervous as we approached the school.  

Normally I would have relished a walk with my mom, as they were few and far between. Walks were done with my nanny, Lia.   Lia was hired by my mother when I was three months old.  Although she did many things for us, I believed that she was there just for me.  She was with us until we moved to the states.  She spoke only Italian, and she would proudly tell people that I spoke like a native.  I spoke English too, of course, but with Lia it was all Italian.  She was my world. But Lia was an ocean away.  This was just my mom and I traipsing across the field toward something important.  Something scary.

I don’t recall what I wore, although I assume I was in a dress, and I don’t recall the interview questions, but I do remember feeling unsure and anxious.  As a bilingual child, raised in a household that required fluency in English and Italian, I transitioned seamlessly from one to the other.  I would speak to my neighbors and friends in Italian, and to my family in English.  Sometimes one of them would speak to me in English, and I would answer in Italian. Sadly, that is what happened during our meeting.  The teacher went through her list of questions, which I answered thoughtfully and correctly, according to my mother, but in Italian.  I felt a tinge of pride for having answered the questions, but my pride was misplaced.  I could feel my mother’s frustration rising, as the questions continued in rapid succession.  With each question, I confidently responded.  With each question, my mother became more agitated. Finally, she clenched her teeth and demanded in Italian, “Rispondi alle domande in Inglese, non Italiano!” 

I don’t remember exactly how the teacher let us know that I had failed the interview, so the quote below is a compilation of conversations that I have had with Mom, but I recall my mother’s protest that my answers had been correct, and that I had just been nervous.  But her protestations were unsuccessful, and what the teacher recommended next would have lasting implications on my nearly five year old life.  “It is my professional opinion that in order for your child to participate in American school, she needs to speak English.   To accomplish that goal for the following year, I suggest that you no longer speak Italian at home.  Allowing her to speak Italian at home is confusing for her, and it will hold her back academically.  If she returns next year and speaks only English, she will be admitted to kindergarten,” she said, as she ushered us toward the door.

My mother gripped my hand tightly and we marched deliberately out the door and across the field toward my new home.  Shame filled me like water, starting from the tips of my toes and rising, like the tide, to the top of my head.  Mom was clearly mad, and it was my fault. I had let everyone down.  I had failed at school, prior to even starting.