By Renato Rizzuti
Giovanni was a nice eight year old Italian boy. He loved playing ball hockey and video games. Giovanni felt that he was like all the other boys who were his friends yet he felt somehow different like he did not entirely fit in.
It had started that year in grade school. Giovanni’s parents had moved and now Giovanni had to attend a public elementary school because he lived out of the boundary for the nearest Catholic school. It was the first day of classes on that warm September day. The teacher was a young man who had just arrived to Canada from England. His name was Mr. Pangbourne and he spoke with what seemed a funny accent to Giovanni. Giovanni missed his favourite teacher from St. Theresa’s School. Her name was Miss Gianmarco and she knew how to speak Italian very well. She would sometimes joke with the class and say to the mostly Italian students, “Sette gattive, ma ti amo lo stesso!” This translates as “You are bad but I love you anyways!”
Mr. Pangbourne stood at the front of the class reading out names from the class list to check attendance. When he came to Giovanni’s name he hesitated. Mr. Pangbourne tried sounding out Giovanni’s name and it came out sounding like, “Guy-o-van-ni-nini.” All the other children roared with laughter. Giovanni sat stunned. He did not know that he had a strange and funny sounding name! Miss Gianmarco always pronounced his name properly. Finally, Mr. Pangbourne said, “That’s an Eye-Talian name. I believe the proper English translation is John?” Mr. Pangbourne then looked at the class to see who would answer. Giovanni tried to protest but the words would not come out of his mouth. As if defeated, Giovanni nodded in agreement. Mr. Pangbourne then said, “Right, then John it is.”
Right away Giovanni had lost an important part of his Italian heritage. All the students in his class called him John. Although Giovanni cringed when he was called John, he learned to respond to his new name.
Giovanni used to go home for lunch but now he lived further away from the school so he had to bring a lunch and eat in the school cafeteria. Giovanni sat down with Henry, a friend he had made that morning at recess time. Giovanni opened up his lunch box and in it his mother had put a container of rapini and a pannino with Gorgonzola cheese. Henry had brought a baloney sandwich and a peanut butter and jam sandwich. When Giovanni opened the container of rapini Henry said, “Hey, you got spinach. I love spinach, can I try some?” Giovanni start to say, “But it is not spinach.” However, before he got a chance to say it, Henry had put some in his mouth. Henry started eating the rapini and all of a sudden his face was contorted into a sour look. Henry said, “There is something wrong with your spinach, it tastes bitter!” Giovanni tried to explain that it was rapini but before he could get the words out of his mouth Henry started to unwrap his Gorgonzola pannino. As soon as it was unwrapped Henry got a whiff of the Gorgonzola, made another face, and then started to inspect Giovanni’s sandwich. Henry then said, “John, the cheese has gone bad, it is all mouldy and smells like dirty feet!” Giovanni wanted to explain but he thought what would be the use, Henry would not understand!
After lunch it was time for a History lesson. Mr. Pangbourne told the class how Christopher Columbus discovered America. They read about Columbus in their History textbook. Giovanni raised his hand to ask a question. When Mr. Pangbourne called on him, Giovanni asked, “Wasn’t Christopher Columbus actually an Italian explorer whose real name was Cristoforo Colombo?” The whole class had a confused look on their faces then there were a few chuckles. Mr. Pangbourne looked amused and then replied, “If that were true it would have been in the History textbook. Where did you get such an idea?” Giovanni wanted to explain that his father had told him that but he thought what would be the use, Mr. Pangbourne would not understand!
After school Goivanni walked home with Henry. Henry was talking about getting a cell phone. Henry said, “Yeah, sure would be cool thanks to that dude Alexander Graham Bell.” Giovanni responded by saying, “Actually, wireless communication was also developed by an Italian paesano named Guglielmo Marconi.” Henry then said, “What did he invent macaroni? What the heck is a ‘peesanno’ dude?
When they reached Giovanni’s place they were ready to say good bye because Henry lived another block over. Giovanni decided to take out his iPod. Giovanni was about to put the headphones on when Henry said, “Let’s hear what John is listening to.” Giovanni
Wanted to explain that he had Italian songs on his ipod, but Henry was already listening to it by then. Henry then said, “What is this guy singing about a marina? Does he have a boat down at the marina?” Giovanni wanted to explain that it was the song “Marina” which is a woman’s name, but he thought, what’s the use? Henry would not understand.
When Henry got home, he was in the mood for a snack. Some Neapolitan ice cream would help relieve some of the “cultural stress” that he had to endure. At that point, his mother came home from shopping. Giovanni was helping to put away the groceries when they started chatting. His mother Rosa asked Giovanni how his first day at the new school was. Giovanni had an unhappy look on his face as he started to answer. Giovanni explained how Mr. Pangbourne was not as nice as Miss Gianmarco had how Mr. Pangbourne called him John. Rosa replied that Mr. Pangbourne did not understand Italian like Miss Gianmarco did and that Giovanni should explain how to pronounce his name to Mr. Pangbourne.
Then Giovanni explained what had happened at lunch. Rosa replied by saying how Henry needed to be taught about Italian food. That rapini was a bitter Italian vegetable. Gorgonzola cheese was supposed to be mouldy and is worth trying for the taste of it. Rosa laughed at Henry’s comment that it smelled like dirty feet and she asked if Henry was in the habit of going around smelling dirty feet! Rosa summed up the lunch discussion by saying many cultures have foods that look and smell funny but it does not mean that they are not delicious to the people of that culture.
Later that evening, while they were eating a great dinner of lasagna and veal cutlets, Giovanni told his father about “Christopher Columbus” and his discussion with Mr. Pangbourne. Giovanni told his father that Mr. Pangbourne did not know about Cristoforo Colombo’s Italian heritage. His father Pasquale explained to Giovanni that it was not common knowledge and that the history textbook was written not by an Italian person. Pasquale told Giovanni he was right in pointing out that fact to Mr. Pangbourne. Pasquale promised to call the school and talk to Mr. Pangbourne about it. Pasquale told Giovanni he should be patient with his teacher because Mr. Pangbourne simply did not know any better.
The next day Giovanni’s mother made an extra sandwich of cappicolo for Giovanni’s lunch. Rosa told Giovanni to explain what cappicolo is to Henry and to let him try some. Rosa also said that Giovanni should be proud to be Italian and needed to be more assertive when it came to promoting his culture.
On his way to school, Giovanni thought about being Italian. He had a lot to be proud of. Italy has a rich history he thought. Giovanni was determined to tell the others at school about his Italian culture. There was no more time to be shy; he planned to speak up at the first chance he got.
That morning, they had their History lesson from Mr. Pangbourne. Mr. Pangbourne explained how Canada developed into a multicultural nation. Mr. Pangbourne decided to ask the students about their cultural backgrounds to illustrate his point. Mr. Pangbourne asked, “Who can tell me about their ethnic background?” Nobody in the class wanted to answer expect for Giovanni. When Mr. Pangbourne called on “John” to answer he was not prepared for the long impassioned speech he got from Giovanni! Giovanni started off by saying in a loud, clear voice filled with pride, “My name is Giovanni and I am Italian!” The rest, as they say, is Italian history!