By Ed Weisman
I got four molto bene’s and a bravissimo, an average night in Signora Amato’s Tuesday evening elementary Italian class. But, I was holding out for an alleluia. Alleluia’s were carefully guarded rewards, like a precious gold star in first grade. They were rare and strictly reserved for flawless displays of precise grammar and cheerful intonation.
I had racked up a very respectable tally of molto bene’s and bravissimo’s, but after 14 weeks in the basement of the Springfield Italian Cultural Center, the alleluia remained beyond my reach, usually because I was too self-conscious to answer as if I were in an Olive Garden commercial dishing up a cheesy helping of hospitaliano and endless breadsticks. Joe, my classroom rival, won the most alleluias in the class, but frankly, he was trying too hard. I kept score in the margins of my notebook.
By any measure, Signora Amato was the finest Italian teacher I had ever had.
I had started, originally, with Signor Carelli at the community college. I don’t think he even spoke Italian; he just put us in pairs all evening. I didn’t learn too much in his class, from my frequent partner Brandy, an assistant manager at a clothing store in the Holyoke Mall, pleasant as she was. But, this new teacher was different — this Signora Amato. She had cracked some kind of code.
Every Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. sharp, Signora Amato was in her place. The evening’s lesson was already on the board and she was eager to get started.
“OK, everybody, ding, ding, ding! We have a LOT of work to do,” she would announce in her distinct nasal voice and thick accent.
Signora Amato had spent too many years living among the americani. This resulted in a fusion of styles featuring thick, square-framed metal Euro-glasses, bright yellow hair, beaded moccasisns, and a sweatshirt with a really cute puppy on the front. Although she stood less than five feet tall and sheepishly apologized for the difficulty of Italian grammar, this was Luisa Amato’s classroom, and she had absolute control.
My frequent mistakes were lovingly but firmly corrected, making me feel as if I had just gotten the switch across the knuckles from an Italian Mrs. Claus. But, Signora Amato loved her language, and she didn’t want a bunch of amateurs wandering around Tuscany mispronouncing it beyond recognition and then blaming her for an abrupt end to an otherwise friendly chat with colorful locals.
When asked about exams — usually by my rival, Joe — she would sing, “The fear of a test would take away the LOVE of Italian. My class is to LOVE Italian. Va bene?”
“Va bene,” I thought to myself regretting the time I had spent chatting with Brandy from the mall about her next piercing.
Still, Signora Amato shared our pain. Though she had been married to an American for over 20 years, her English never lost its clunky edges. Malapropisms ran rampant and verb agreement was iffy.
“Ma dai!” she would gasp with impatience instead of the more familiar Come on! She would tell and retell her husband’s customary retort to his lifetime of ma dai’s.
“Who’s dying, Luisa?” she would squeal through her laughter with her face turned upwards and eyes squinted shut.
Then, she would return to the lesson with burning focus, reminding how hard it was for her to learn English. “
Is no easy. I know,” she barked, one eyebrow suddenly arched.
Filling Signora Amato’s classroom with students was the work of Mr. DiGiacomantonio, who sat in the corner of the room every Tuesday night balancing his checkbook. Mr. DiGiacomantonio was from that Greatest Generation. To me, the men in this age group earned that title by taking it upon themselves to call me Eddie instead of Ed. This happens rarely, but always with a fatherly intonation.
The last time this happened was when a Boston police detective called to tell me they had found the remains of my stolen, dismembered Volkswagon. “Eddie, there’s nothin’ left,” he said sympathetically.
Like the detective, Mr. DiGiacomantonio knew that I was never going to get that alleluia and that I wanted one more than anything. His calling me Eddie felt like a heavy, consoling arm draped on my shoulder after an early elimination from an Italian spelling bee.
In class, Mr. DiGiacomantonio was in fine company. To the right of his desk stood a five-foot tall plaster Madonna, raised even higher by her heavy pedestal and wheels. She seemed disinterested in Italian and Italy in general. But she, along with the rest of the basement, was a bit tired. Faded red streamers drooped from the ceiling, the forgotten decorations from the last Miss Columbus Day pageant. Alitalia Airlines posters with tattered edges suggested we visit Rome and Venice, but they didn’t really seem to care if we showed up or not. Water dripped from the radiator into an aluminum baking pan.
“Is an Italian swimming pool,” giggled Signora Amato squinting upwards.
The bookshelves were filled with old Readers Digests. From the back of the room, near Mr. DiGiacomantonio and Madonna, was a long, tunnel-like hallway in which we congregated for our 8:00PM break.
Breaks were announced by 83-year old Sal Rizzini and his own rendition of a school bell. Mr. Rizzini began his announcement very faintly from the depths of the basement of the Springfield Italian Cultural Center. “Ding, ding, ding… ding, ding, ding..”
Signora Amato would glance at her watch, remind us that we had a LOT of work to do, and then join us for coffee and Ring Dings, which were cut up into bite-sized pieces. Sometimes we even had biscotti.
Mr. Rizzini was almost as tall as Signora Amato and looked confident in his maroon blazer and matching tie. Mr. DiGiacomantonio told me that, even at his age, Mr. Rizzini continues to lead tours to Italy for the Center, “God love him.”
Breaks were also a time to engage in conversation with my classmates. Most were enrolled in anticipation of an upcoming trip to Italy. My friendliest classmates were two women nearing Mr. Rizzini’s age. Dottie, a recent widow, and Ruthie, an Italian website afficianado, were reunited in our class after years of busy lives. Together with their husbands, they were part of a large group of drag racers in 1950’s Springfield. Every Tuesday night Dottie and Ruthie laughed and reminisced. They were youth incarnate. They were candid and bawdy, and they regaled me with stories about wife-swapping drag racers and the cars they drove. How they wished they had those cars today, not mentioning the husbands. Though Dottie and Ruthie had no immediate plans to travel to Italy, they wanted to be prepared with as many phrases as possible, should the opportunity present itself. They would board a plane at the drop of a hat. I wondered if I, myself, could say “wife-swapping drag racer” in Italian if I ever had to.
Not all my classmates were so thrilled by the joys of loving life and speaking Italian. William, a French teacher, and Barry, his shadow, waited for any English language sinkhole into which our teacher might stumble. Signora Amato spoke to us in Italian as if it were rich vanilla ice cream with chewy pieces of English in it. Even as beginners, we understood her perfectly. William and Barry chose to focus on her problems with English instead of their problems with Italian. During the break, I’d grab a coffee and a bite of Ring Ding and hang out with Dottie and Ruthie, hoping I was cool enough, and also in an effort to avoid Joe. During one of the breaks I had learned that he really wasn’t a bad guy at all, but I was ahead of him in bravissimo’s by two-to-one, and I had to maintain an aloof distance.
Of course, the break was also an opportunity to chat with Signora Amato. Over the course of the 14 weeks, she updated us on the progress of her son’s wedding plans.
“I never organize an American bachelor party before!” she said in panic, causing Mr. Rizzini to drop his Ring Ding on the floor. The very notion of Signora Amato supervising a bachlor party made me think of my own mother, clipboard in hand, interviewing girls to pop out of a cake. The candidates would be lined up by GPA and dressed in something sensible and sensibly priced.
After the break, I would take my place back in the classroom and wait for Signora Amato to choose the first two people to read from the homework. I would then triangulate her trajectory and calculate which question I would have to answer, silently practicing my sentence, trying hard to inject at least a bit of musical Italian flair. I imagined myself on my moto zooming past il Duomo. I could feel the wind kissing my face and blowing my Fabio-hair behind me.
Then, my turn came and I choked on the verb ending.
Another potential alleluia vanished.
I knew, however, at the end of class, right when I got to the end of the ramp that lead to the basement door, I’d hear Mr. DiGiacomantonio call out to me in his kind, gravely voice, “Buonnanotte, Eddie.”
Ed Weisman lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he works from home, has breakfast with his wife, and cheers on his kids. He loves western Massachusetts and its abundance of hiking trails and roadside treasures. On winter weekends, he is in the kitchen baking bread. He makes a very respectable ciabatta.