Fesso chi fa I figli meglio di lui.
(Stupid and contemptible is he who makes his children better than himself.)
When the Gifted and Talented Program instructor asks my daughter Josefine to wait in the hall, I sense that our meeting will end badly. It was I, after all, not Mrs. Somers, who recommended that “Josie” test for the GT Program. I follow Mrs. Somers into a classroom lined with bookshelves, crowded with tables, the walls a collage of colorful posters: Refuel with fruits and vegetables! Get Caught Reading! I sit, knees shaking, in a tiny chair at a small round table. Across from me, Josie’s second-grade teacher Mrs. Cunningham sits with her arms crossed. Mrs. Somers takes the seat beside me and greets me in that patronizing tone often used by elementary school teachers. Josie, who is seven, calls this The Barbie Voice.
“Good morning, Mrs. Hollenbeck,” says Mrs. Somers, reaching for my hand. “So nice to meet you.” She is a thick-waisted blonde who wears black eyeliner and several coats of mascara. She straightens the stack of papers lying before her on the table.
My stomach stirs. I am nervous for Josie, nervous for me.
Mrs. Somers looks at Mrs. Cunningham, then me. “Let me begin by saying,” she nods and raises her eyebrows, “that Josie is really smart. . . She scored very high in every category.” Mrs. Somers showcases the top sheet of the stack, a page marked with boxes, pyramids and percent signs.
And though I know the test standards are set by the state of Idaho, not Mrs. Somers, I feel I am at her mercy. “Let me add,” she says, brow furrowed, “that Josie had a very difficult time during the testing.”
“When the tests became more challenging she became visibly upset and anxious.” Her hands are fists. “You could just see her getting more and more tense.”
I imagine Josie in blonde pigtails and a striped shirt, jaw clenched, body shaking. When she gets nervous, her eyes water and her cheeks turn bright pink.
Mrs. Cunningham, who wears a cowl neck sweater, stares silently. She has dingy brown hair pulled on top of her head in a bun and one of her front teeth is gray.
Mrs. Somers continues: “You’ve got a smart girl there.” She places the page with the check list for entrance into the GT program in front of her, a paper lined with categories: Academic Achievement, Intellectual IQ, Creativity, Motivation. Mrs. Somers points to the percentile boxes: 99, 110, 115, and so on. “Josie needed to score in the 110th percentile,” she says, “in three out of the four categories in order to qualify.” She smiles faintly. “We’ve decided that she will be challenged enough in the regular classroom.”
My stomach rumbles. I start to babble. “But she scored above average on every one of the Idaho state standardized tests . . . In language, math and reading.” My voice cracks. “I think it’s important that girls in our society be smart. When I was a girl I always felt stupid. I want Josie to know she’s smart.”
The teachers stare at me dumbfounded.
My neck and ears burn. “I want my girls to know they need brains to get through life.”
Mrs. Somers speaks softly. “Josie’s going to succeed no matter what. . . Look. She scored really high on general information. That’s the part of the test where I ask what the student knows about the world.” She tilts her head. “Obviously, she has parents who talk to her and teach her things.” She leans back in the chair and rests her arms on her belly.
Common sense. What I’ve relied on most of my life. But I want Josie to have book smarts.
“I’m new to the GT program,” Mrs. Somers says. “I’ve been teaching here for years, but this is my first year in GT. So, of course, I tested my own daughter.” She brushes her bangs out of her eyes. “Wouldn’t you know it? She only scored in the 97th percentile. I was like, aauugh.” She nudges my knee. “Every parent thinks her kid is brilliant, huh?”
Mrs. Cunningham looks at me with a half-smile. “I’ve asked Josie to read books during Choice Time.” She closes her eyes while she speaks. “We have a program called Accelerated Reader. The children read books from the shelves and then take tests. Josie has done none this month. . . I’ve also asked if she wants to work on science projects during indoor recess. She says no.” She stops smiling. “I cannot force her to do extra work. She has to want to.”
Is she telling me that my daughter is lazy?
Mrs. Somers stands, prompting me to do the same. “Well,” she says, “again. It was nice to meet you.” She shakes my hand. “I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.”
Mrs. Cunningham does not move from her chair. The small amount of tolerance I had for dissolves.
Mrs. Somers walks me through the classroom and out to the hallway where Josie sits with her hands folded, the book Mrs. Somers had offered closed on the chair beside her. Josie’s eyes are wide, her cheeks red.
Mrs. Somers says, “Well, look how good you’re sitting there.”
I want my daughter to be more than good. I want her to be accepted. Better than ordinary. And I want her to be smart—a future college girl.
Josie ekes out a smile. Mrs. Somers disappears into her safe little room with Mrs. Cunningham.
“Did I get in?” Josie asks. Her hair is kinked from sleeping in braids the night before, and one section has been twirled into a spiral, a habit she started as a baby.
I sit in the chair beside her. “The good news is,” I answer, “your teachers say that you’ll be challenged enough in the regular classroom. That was my main concern.”
“But did I get in?” She grimaces.
I shake my head no.
She covers her eyes with her hands.
I start to cry. “We said we weren’t going to do this.” I pull her hands away from her face and wrap my arms around her. No seven-year-old should have to deal with this. How could I have been so stupid? To trust a group of strangers to judge my daughter’s intelligence?
“Are you upset with me for putting you through this?”
She shrugs one shoulder. “I don’t know.”
I don’t know means yes. I ask, “What does this mean to you?”
“I’m smart,” she says, wiping her face. “Just not smart enough.”
“No.” I grab her shoulders. A father walks by with his child and looks at us. I pretend not to notice. “You are smart enough . . .” But then I’m at a loss of what more to say. To feel. Just what is it that I am protesting?
I walk Josie out to the playground where other small girls in pigtails and tights play hopscotch. Josie twirls a lock of hair around her finger. I kiss and hug her goodbye, turn to shuffle back up the hill to my office in the English department at the university where I am a graduate student and English Composition instructor. When I arrive at my small space—two windows adorned with tie-dyed linens, a shelf stuffed with textbooks and student papers, poster of John Belushi wearing a sweatshirt that reads College—I sit at my desk to think.
Every parent wants to do what’s best for his or her child. But ultimately, is everything we do for us? Are we merely attempting to make up for the mistakes our parents made? Trying to heal wounds that have long since scarred over?
Barely an hour after what I call “the GT fiasco,” I think this need for Josie to be accepted had little to do with her. Was I trying to make up for my own feelings of isolation? Inferiority? Trying to reconstruct my past? I have felt stupid my entire life—the Italian school girl from New York known on the playground for reciting dirty jokes and showing her panties. The preteen relegated to “retard math” in seventh grade. The senior in high school stuck in geometry with freshmen and sophomores. The twenty-year-old navy woman forced into mandatory study sessions during Apprenticeship school. The community college student who took algebra three times. The creative writer who still confuses Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath.
Everyone feels stupid sometimes, but for me it’s as natural as breath. While I attended a lecture in graduate school in Bellingham, Washington, one of my professors joked, “I know you’re all sitting there thinking, ‘How did I get into this program? When are they going to discover that I am a fraud?’” Everyone in the room laughed, but I just knew she was talking about me. And I was so afraid of being “outed” as a dummy that I toted defensiveness around like a textbook. One sneering glance from a classmate and I spun a rhetorical argument praising common sense over book smarts. I defended popular culture and television, assumed that everyone was more well-read than I. But if I really was so stupid, why had I been accepted into graduate school in the first place?
I know now that my attitude has much to do with growing up in an Italian-American family who defines itself through a steadfast blue collar work ethic. A family who looks with disdain on the educated, the “elite.” Just who do those high-falutin’ college graduates think they are? A family who sees college as leisure, not work. A family who prefers gossip to discussing politics or current events. A family I both resist and embrace.
For the first nine years of my life, the Stilloe side of my family, originally from Naples, called me Chooch—a derivative of the Italian word ciucio. The story goes like this: when I was a toddler, chubby-cheeked with straight brown hair and brown eyes, I did something careless, perhaps spilled a glass of milk during dinner, or tripped over my shoelaces. My grandmother called me a ciucio and everyone laughed. The name stuck. From then on, I no longer went by Cindy—I was Chooch.
For years, I thought the nickname was a term of endearment, like the French phrase mon petit chou chou (my little cabbage) that I had learned in a Basic Conversational French book I bought at a yard sale. “Chooch!” my father would call. “Get me a beer, would ya?” Or, “Chooch. Turn down the TV. Chop-chop.” As one of thirteen grandchildren, having my own nickname made me feel special, and, I thought, elevated me above my brother and cousins.
Everyone I knew called me Chooch. It was the 1970s in Binghamton, New York, and my father owned a shoe-repair and head shop called The Leather Shoe Shop. During the day, while my brother was at kindergarten, I sat in the back of the shop where my father crafted and dyed all types of leather goods—saddles, purses, hats, belts. I used small brass tools to stamp my name onto scraps to make key chains: C-h-o-o-c-h.
Salespeople or friends often stopped by and chatted with me while my father waited on customers or replaced shoe soles using barge cement and a hammer. Long-haired men with beards wearing T-shirts and bell bottoms, older men in business suits, hair oiled and combed away from clean-shaven faces.
“Hey, Chooch,” Steve Arvin asked. He was the ex-boyfriend of my aunt Josephine, for whom my daughter is named. “What’s going on today?”
I’d shrug and go back to my leather scraps.
I can still hear the gravelly voice of Andy Tierno, the son of an Italian millionaire who had earned his money fixing shoes: “Chooch. Tell your dad I’ll be back tomorrow, okay, honey?”
Then I’d go back to stamping the leather. I loved my nickname. To me, Chooch sounded Italian. And I was raised to be proud of my roots, raised to believe that being Italian was the best ethnicity one could be. My father used to say, “There are two kinds of people in the world: Italians, and those who want to be Italian.” He’d even asked his girlfriend at the time to paint an Italian flag in the three-foot space above the door jamb at the front of the shop. My name was Chooch; and all was right in the world.
Several years later, while I waited to skip rope on the playground at St. Thomas Aquinas, my elementary school, someone called out, “Cindy! Get in there!”
I lifted the hem of my plaid jumper and hopped into the swing of the braided rope. “Call me Chooch,” I said, not missing a beat of Changing Houses. “That’s my nickname.” Several kids looked at each other and laughed.
“Chooch?” Amy Coutant said. Her pale brown hair was tied back into a ponytail showcasing her freckled face. She was one of the “smart kids,” and her father was a local judge. “What does that even mean?”
I kept jumping but my face flushed. “I don’t know exactly,” I answered. “Little cutie or small one. Something like that.”
That evening, after dinner, I marched into my father’s den, a spacious room with pumpkin-orange walls, a Playboy Calendar, and a shag carpet in shades of cream and brown. My father’s hair was black and wavy and he wore glasses. A Marlboro Red smoldered in the ashtray on his desk. In front of him lay an open check register.
When my father saw me, he set down his pen. I crawled into his lap and kissed him on the cheek. “Daddy,” I said, “one of my friends at school asked me what Chooch means. Do you know?”
He looked at the ceiling for several moments, as if trying to remember, the overhead light reflecting off his lenses. “Ah,” he said, scratching his chin. “It’s Italian for. . . jackass.”
I slid off his lap and stood in front of him, my hands balled into fists. “Jackass?” I gritted my teeth. Jackass? I turned on my heel and stomped into the kitchen. “No one can ever call me that again.” My mind shifted to the scene in Pinocchio where the wooden boy, after drinking beer and smoking a cigar, sprouts ears and a tail, and bellows, “Hee-haw!” That was what my family thought of me?
I stormed past the sink, the breakfast bar, the telephone on the wall. Then I walked through the doorway to the hall and yelled, “Ever!” I stomped up the stairs to my bedroom and shut the door. A jackass! I flopped down on my bed and fumed. All around me hung 8 X 10 posters of hunks from Teen Beat: Scott Baio, the Italian-American who played “Chachi” on Happy Days. Chachi sounded like Chooch. I wondered what his name meant.
Memories crept into my consciousness. Had I lived up to my nickname? Was I a ciucio? I thought of Easter Sunday, when I was seven, during the annual egg hunt at my grandparents’ house, I found the coveted prize, a large goose egg covered with stickers and stars, buried under leaves below the trellis where my grandfather raised grapes for homemade wine. I grabbed the egg and rested it in my basket, ran to the back yard to show my brother and cousins. Later, after opening the bag full of prizes—butterscotch candy, a doll with shiny blonde hair, and chocolate bunnies—I cracked open the egg shell and took a bite. It tasted bitter.
“You don’t eat the goose egg, Chooch,” my cousin Colleen said. “That’s gross.”
All my other cousins and my brother let out a collective moan. I blushed. I had never been known for my brains—I was more known for being able to shove an entire hard-boiled egg into my mouth. For being able to eat an entire jar of Spanish olives. For always being last to leave the dinner table. And for spilling my milk.
In my grandparents’ house there is a swinging door that separates the dining room from the kitchen. During holiday meals, we kids sat at a small table with metal chairs in the kitchen, while the adults gathered in the dining room at a large wood table. Once the meal began, the swinging door stayed closed, not to be opened again until after everyone’s plates of clams and spaghetti, deep-fried scallops and stuffed squid were clean. While I sat with my brother and cousins, gritty clams scraping my molars, the laughter and muffled gossip on the other side of the door left me curious and seething with jealousy. I wanted to be with the adults. To hear their conversations, understand their jokes, be a part of the world behind the swinging door.
But then I would spill my milk. One flick of the wrist; and over it went. The knock of glass against Formica sent my grandmother into the kitchen. “Jesus Christ,” she would say, dabbing the table in front of me with a wet rag. A voice would sound from the dining room, “What happened?” to which my grandmother would answer, “Chooch spilled her milk again.” Then I would start to cry.
But after that evening in fifth grade, no one called me Chooch anymore. I imagined my father telling his siblings that weekend over full plates of homemade ravioli, Italian bread, cucumbers and tomatoes soaked in vinegar and oil. Like many families, mine has a tendency to laugh away troubles, make light of any situation. When my father explained to his brothers and sisters what had occurred between us in the den, I imagine eye rolls and chuckles. And after all these years, I can still hear them laughing.
My family is a working family—wise from life experiences—who separates education into two categories—street smarts and book smarts. In the southern Italian-American family in particular, there has always existed a salient division between laborers and intellectuals, the corner boys and the college boys. The corner boys were a tight-knit ghetto group, the kind of people you might see hanging out in front of the local deli, people like my grandfather, and my father. Corner boys did not move out of their parents’ homes until they married. They privileged family loyalty over socioeconomic mobility. If they were to make money of any sort, it might come from gambling or charging kids a nickel to cross the street.
College boys were immigrants who wanted to assimilate into American culture. They rejected their families in order to rise above their stations. College boys all but cast off their Italian roots to make better lives for themselves. These were the Italians who attempted to challenge the stereotypes that defined them as members of a macho, uneducated, unruly lower class—people whose only role in life, it seemed, would be to work in shipyards, pizza joints, cobbler shops, or the mafia.
The old-school Italians believed that too much education damaged a person’s moral fiber. If a child was overly-involved in books and learning, he or she was not invested enough in family. Besides, during early immigration, children were merely seen as assets: workers who could bring money into the household. Educated children were seen as a threat—they might get too smart and leave the home, become something better than their parents.
By 1930, only eleven percent of Italians who lived in New York had graduated from high school. My Naples-born grandfather, who was twenty at the time, was part of that majority, had quit school in seventh grade to work at a shoe factory. Overall, it seemed as if the first-generation Italian immigrants would forever be relegated to the working class, the life of the corner boy. But their American-born children, like my father and his siblings, most of whom did, at least, graduate from high school, strived for more. The Italian-Americans born after WWII were mainstreamed into the middle-class by programs such as the Montgomery G.I. Bill—the very program that funded my entire undergraduate degree. If I had never joined the navy, higher education might have eluded me.
When I graduated from high school, my father asked, “Do you want to go to college?”
I nodded, but had not seen myself as one of them, the college girls—the princesses from my Catholic high school with their cherry red convertibles and preppie clothes from the Limited. Girls who, I imagined, had known since kindergarten that they would attend college and that their parents would pay.
My father handed me a loan application to the local bank. All the pages and questions and forms intimidated me. I decided it would be easier and less frightening to keep my shift-manager position at the local McDonald’s. I was following in the footsteps of every family member before me—the shoe-repairmen, the factory workers, the painters and roofers —foregoing the college experience to work as a laborer. I knew of nothing else and thought making $4.25 an hour was a decent living.
Less than a year later, after my twenty-one-year-old brother was killed in a motorcycle accident, and I realized that my life consisted of little more than work, partying and sleep, I came to new awareness. Life had made me no promises, but there had to be more. And if I wanted an education, I would have to work for it. I enlisted in the United States Navy, not content any longer to be a corner girl. Somehow, someway, I would get into college.
One year after my discharge from the navy, where I had worked as a computer operator at a weather center in Monterey, California, I moved with my husband to his hometown in eastern Washington. When the marriage ended, I enrolled full-time at community college. I was a twenty-six-year-old divorcee and single mother of a two-year-old, on welfare (just as my father had once predicted when I was eighteen and hanging with the party crowd) who collected $600 a month from the Montgomery GI Bill: not necessarily the college girl you might see in a brochure, but nonetheless, a college girl.
Every morning, I dropped my daughter off at daycare and sat in cozy classrooms crowded with students of all ages, desperate to better their lives. I felt invigorated. After classes, I finished my homework at the campus library, drove my daughter back to our two-bedroom trailer on the outskirts of town where I worked thirty hours a week as a grocery clerk. At the time, I had no idea I would eventually earn a BA, an MA, and an MFA. I only knew I was trying to make my life, and consequently the life of my daughter, better. Going to college allowed me to spend more time with her, and gave me a goal—I wanted to become a writer while working as a professor of English.
I am on a two-week visit to Binghamton with Eric, my husband of two years. It’s 2003. My father, bare-chested and sipping a Coors Light, sits in a folding chair before a 1000-piece puzzle in his den. It is eleven in the morning.
I stand beside the file cabinet in the left corner asking, “Which?”
“The middle one,” my father says, pointing.
I open the drawer to three plastic grocery bags, their tops tied into tight bows. Each is labeled in black marker with the names of my siblings and me: Tony, Jack, Cindy. I am pleased that my father is a pack-rat who never throws anything away. He still has a paint-by-number portrait of a mouse holding a daisy that I painted for him when I was four.
I lift my bag from the drawer and drag it into the living room where Eric watches the History Channel. “I can’t wait to see what’s in here,” I say.
The bag is lumpy and light. I dump out a pile of letters from high school, my tassel from graduation in 1986, a stack of senior pictures. There are notebooks and handouts from when I attended Apprenticeship school in the navy. And when I dig closer to the bottom, I unearth my New York State standardized tests from 3rd grade.
I kneel in my father’s living room, the test results wrinkled in my hand. I scan the categories, Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies, and see that I have scored above average in every subject. For a few moments, I allow myself to be seduced by the lure of the standardized test. Above average. The very thing my family has never expected of me. I have no recollection of ever having seen this test before, want to run into the den and ask my father, “What the hell?”
But then I think: if my father would have told me then that I was above average, would I have tried harder? Would I have stopped telling stories about my crazy stepmother on the playground and sat in a quiet corner to read? Would I have studied on weekends instead of watching The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island? Would I have read classic literature instead of Teen Beat and Mad? Would I have preferred Mozart to the Rolling Stones? To say yes seems idealistic. Frankly, I adored being the class clown, welcomed the undivided attention of my peers as I stood on the playground imitating the voices and mannerisms of my teachers, shared anecdotes about my boisterous Italian family, told the latest joke from Playboy.
But now I am a parent. I know my daughters deserve better. And I want more for them. I am not content to see them merely “get by.” I want to go against Italian tradition—I want them to be better than me.
I am the first member of my family to attend college, the only member to have earned a graduate degree. Often, when I visit my family back in New York I wonder what they think of me. When we sit around the table in my grandmother’s kitchen lamenting about times past, talking about family gatherings, sharing gossip, I wonder how they see me. Do they think that I think I am better than they are? That I’m some kind of hotshot?
When I am with my family, just as I resist regaining my east-coast accent, I resist the people I love, loathe what they discuss: which relative pissed off whom and why, which local retailer “screwed” one of them out of fifty cents, which client cheated one of my construction-worker uncles on his latest job. Sometimes while they are talking I want to holler, “Thomas Hardy was an architect before he became a poet!” just to see the stunned looks on their faces.
When I am with the Stilloes, I avoid talking about the things I know—literature, creative writing, philosophy—because I would hate to appear snooty, as if I were somehow “above” them, when I don’t feel that way at all. And frankly, I doubt that any one of them would be impressed. In the presence of family, I feel as if I am little more than the messy-haired girl who used to wipe boogers on the arm of Grandma’s good chair. The gullible ninny whose older brother talked her into eating eggshells because he said they were more nutritious than the egg. The troubled teen who fell in love with every hapless loser in Binghamton because she hadn’t yet realized she deserved better. But what adult doesn’t feel like a kid in the presence of family?
Every day I ask myself, corner girl or college girl? I have the degrees, but cannot release the stranglehold my Italian family has on me. If I called myself an “intellectual” in front of any of them, they would laugh me right out of my grandmother’s mint-green kitchen. But am I being too hard on them? I mean, maybe they are proud of my accomplishments but just can’t bring themselves to say it. I feel as if I am both of them and against them.
The last time I visited my father, we sat in his kitchen while he helped his girlfriend fill out a job application. As I sipped coffee beside them, they repeatedly asked me how to spell certain words—punctual, diligent, astute. I smiled and said, “Don’t you have a dictionary?” But secretly, I was flattered. My father rarely, if ever, allows himself to be vulnerable enough to ask me for help. That gesture, small as it may seem, showed that he might think my education was worth something. That I am more than a ciucio. It also showed that I am still, after all these years, seeking his approval.
When I mentioned the Italian proverb, Fesso chi fa I figli meglio di lui, to my father, he said, “You just described my father. . . If I cooked something for him, he would take one taste and say, ‘I don’t like it.’ If I challenged his ideas, he would ask, ‘Who do you think you are? Some kind of big shot?’ If we kids asked where he was going, he would say, ‘What are you? A cop?’ That’s just my father.”
Well, that’s my father, too. Although I think he tries to be humble. When I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts he sent a card with a check for $100. Inside he had written: “I’m proud of you. You make me happy.”
In 1908, ten percent of the Italian-American kids who lived in New York City never bothered to attend school. More than a third of those who did were labeled “academically retarded,” mostly because they did not speak English. They also scored poorly on standardized tests and were labeled “disciplinary problems.” If I lived during that time, would I have been part of the ten percent? Or would I have been willing to sacrifice family to be a college girl? Strip off the blue collar shirt. Break the constraints of family in order to rise above her station.
More than a year has passed since Josie tested for the GT program. She seems to have forgotten about it. Rarely mentions the day, the disappointment, her friends who get to leave the classroom to embark on adventures in science and math. I watch her sit on the couch before school, reading Goosebumps or Judy Blume books, few cares weighing her down. Her most recent standardized tests show above average scores in Reading and Language Usage, below-to-average scores in Math. “I guess I’m just not good at math,” she says.
“That sounds like a cop out,” I say, smiling. “You have to work at being good.”
Josie twirls her hair.
I often tell Josie and her older sister that they are in charge of their own lives; that when they grow up they can be whatever and whoever they want. But who am I kidding? If my children do not become more successful than I, I will feel as if I have done them a disservice.
My children have always known me as a college student who worked part-time, part of two worlds. And now that I have graduated, work forty hours a week as a receptionist, and write part-time, I wonder if this is who I am or who my family created: a woman in a liminal state—one foot in the “thinking” world and one in the “working” world, one half on each side, traveling back and forth when the need calls, these two worlds separated by a swinging door.
This first appeared in Voices in Italian Americana.