Pluck a kid out of Chicago, plunk him down into an Italian public school, third grade, then what?
First, my name. Joe. The way my father had it, I’d be Beppino. No way. I was Joe, so I became, in Italian, Gio.
Next, my hair. “We’ll just bobby-pin your bangs,” he said. I was close to tantrum.
Then, the pants. Short pants, wool. With long socks. Bare knees. Suspenders. So long, jeans with rolled-up cuffs.
Now what? The grembuleh: a black, knee-length smock, snaps in back, starched white collar, red-ribbon bow. No more American me.
To get to school, you took a shortcut past a couple of haystacks, crossed between stubbled wheat fields (a tenant-farmer family lived next to our rented house, oxen to plow and all), and then slipped under bent-up barbed-wire, down a clay bank, and right out onto the street.
The traffic was like go-carts: cars called Topolinos, Italian for Mickey Mouses. Horns didn’t honk; they bleated. “You hear the high pitch better,” said my father.
The kids all carried their books in a cartella, made of soft leather or cloth, a kid-size briefcase. This was what you fought with: broad sword and shield both.
And come winter, came challenge.
Italian kids wore long coats over their shorts, covering the grembuleh. My flight jacket didn’t: waist-length leather with a fur collar; both fake, but American. Problem was my smock bottom showed. They called it a skirt, me a bambina, a girl. Fighting words, of course. Cartellas swung and grunting parried: nobody hurt, pride salved.
My father said when he was in school, you had real fights.
My school was called Scuola Elementare Niccolo Acciaiuoli. Talk about a rowful of vowels.
In class—all boys—we sat on benches, either side of an aisle, three to a desk. The floor slanted towards the teacher, who sat at his table on a low platform, crucifix above the blackboard behind him. You stood up when he walked in.
Each desk had three ink wells. The gray-smocked janitor refilled them with what looked like an oil can, a long slim snout. You dipped, wrote, and blotted. Press too hard and you splayed the two-pronged pen-point and had to pull it out, stick in a new one, and wipe your inked-up fingers. I guess that’s why the smock was black.
Girls had white ones, though. And their own building.
The first day was rough. I didn’t know how to ask to “please be excused,” and you can only hold it so long. Soon enough it’s trickling down the aisle, and it puddles in front of the teacher’s platform. He keeps a severe face straight, the class trying to stifle glee, and calls for janitor and mop. One of the kids takes me to the toilet closet. A lot of good that does me, thighs chafed by soaked underpants, long-sock instep squishy. The toilet bowl stinks.
You do learn Italian that way—fast. That was what my father had in mind, plopping me in public school. But language isn’t all there is to it, like when I stood up proud from my bench and answered, in Italian:
“My father is six meters tall.”
It stymied the teacher, and the class cheered. Feet don’t work over there.
You learn quick, for sure. But fit in?
Not long after, I was standing outside the rickety double doors where we parked our used Topolino, staring across the dirt road at the top of a wall, pieces of broken glass sticking through the rough plaster. I pictured the Green Lot back in Chicago, a cover-less hardball, its inner strings spraying out, chucked up and bouncing off the tin “No Ball-Playing” sign, heard the metal throb…
And, back at the double doors, my father had snuck up behind me, right forearm quick-collared my throat. His left was pushing stiff at neck-nape, choking me. I was silent, limp.
He said, “Now what?”
Joe de Grazia lives in Arden, DE with a black and white cat he calls Bean.