Monday, March 19, 2012

My Dad, the English Language Learner

Day 19

Here we are in Florida spending time with my parents.  Today my dad shared a story that I have heard many times but I still sat and listened to each word trying to predict what would come next and trying to commit it all to memory. Then I thought why not try to capture it for SOL.

In 1947 my father left his mother in Italy and he and his older sister were heading to America on a ship. His sister’s husband was working in the states and they would soon join together in New York. They were heading to upper state New York, where their aunt lived. She would take them in and get them started in their new life in America. Much to his surprise, his aunt did not waste any time to do two things. The first was to put him to work. The two jobs that he always talks about were mowing the large lawn and also sweeping the floors in his aunt’s ladies lingerie factory. That alone always gets to me – the image of my dad at the age of 13 going into a factory where ladies sat at sewing machines constructing slips, bras and other ladies lingerie. These ladies loved him and each day when he came in they would take turns hugging him up!  I am not sure if this entire scenario was a teen’s dream or if it was completely embarrassing. It did not matter either way, as he had to go there each day and contribute to the family. The second thing that she did promptly was to put him in school. From the tone of the story I am not sure which was the most challenging the factory work or going to school.

The school initially placed him in a sixth grade classroom but since he did not know one word of English. It was a real struggle so they moved him to a 4th grade classroom where there was a boy, Bruno, who could interpret everything English into Italian for dad. Each time dad talked to Bruno in Italian, two little boys in their class snickered. Well dad had enough; he knew why they were laughing at him. He asked Bruno to tell the two boys to meet him after school. They all met at the hill near the schoolyard. My dad managed to communicate through Bruno that he was tired of these boys laughing at him and that he would not stand for it anymore. After Bruno repeated this message in English dad grabbed the boys one at a time and shoved each of those two snickering boys down the hill. Needless to say they did not laugh at Bruno or my dad ever again. I guess this is one danger of putting a 13year old in a 4th grade classroom! And believe me we all laugh at this part of the story, even though we know this isn’t how things should be settled.

Dad’s story returns to the classroom. He raises his hands to the sky and says “God bless that teacher, she had such patience with me."  She stayed every night after school determined to teach him English.  Her name has escaped him, but the little boy in him says she had a nice name.  This teacher worked with him every night at school. She pointed to pictures and repeated the names of items to help him learn. He will never forget her.

I think it is more than coincidence that my teaching career has taken me to a school that is beautifully filled with English Language Learners. And there isn’t any question as to why I have a soft spot for the many ELL kids at our school.  Their bravery and tenacity speaks to my heart.


  1. Wow! It is wonderful that your father was shown kindness and dedication by this teacher. I can understand why you have a soft spot for ELL kids.

  2. What a wonderful teacher this woman was. In a time when not everyone always showed kindness to immigrants, she went out of her way to help your dad learn. What a gift, and it makes perfect sense that you are paying it forward with your gifts to ELL students today.

  3. This is a beautiful slice. I love the part where your dad praises his teacher, the teacher who talk him English. I'm glad you captured a story of your family history. Grab more of those.
    MH at

  4. Chills, chills, chills! What a rich tapestry your family history weaves. The details made this story come alive. I can only imagine your teenage dad sweeping in the factory!

  5. Great story. How lucky you were slicing and could capture it here! How often we are "too busy" to write and although we listen well, much gets lost in the caverns of our memory.

    1. Mary Lee, There is NO WAY I would have been able to do this without you. So thankful for you teaching ways and friendship!