There was no special class back then. Michelina made her way among the American third graders as best she could. The English language was a like a large jigsaw puzzle. Each day she turned over new pieces of it and wondered where they belonged. She imagined the finished puzzle looking like the map of the United States that she had seen on a restaurant placemat in New York City when she first arrived.
When she read English, there were dozens of silent letters that needed to be slipped under the tongue, like a communion wafer. Even the word laugh could almost make her cry. Why did it rhyme with calf? In the classroom, she read aloud in a barely audible voice, fearing that her classmates would mock her mistakes. The teacher was patient. Her name was Miss Dingman. Miss Dingman sometimes called the girl students “honey” even though they might really be named Melissa or Jennifer. Honey came from bees. Michelina knew what it meant. But Miss Dingman called the boy students “Buster”. What did Buster mean? Michelina didn’t know.
She mostly listened.
““You’re as quiet as a mouse,” Miss Dingman would say to Michelina, “Does the cat have your tongue?”
Michelina wasn’t sure what the teacher meant.
Everyday there were surprises. Peanut butter was not butter. Cooties were bugs. The Mississippi River could be used to tell time. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. On the recess field, the other kids chattered and chased each other and said “Noc-noc, Who’s There?” Michelina followed after them, trying to smile. She hesitated to speak. The air always seemed to be filled with question marks, and grinding noises, like someone polishing stones.
It was only when Michelina came home that the music started again in her head.
Even before she opened the front door, she could hear her mother’s cantata of welcome. Her father would hug her as if he hadn’t just seen her that morning, calling her piccolina and dolcezza. Over dinner, she would rattle on to her parents about a game called tether ball, or a man named Paul Revere, or a tribe of Indians known as Lenne Lenape.
“They sound Italian, “ her mother would say, and they would all laugh.
Mostly she loved weekends, when company arrived in a burst of lipstick kisses, everyone trilling the old dialect like a flock of birds.
Visitors brought bakery boxes filled with zabaglione, biscotti, little cookies covered with pine nuts, purchased at the local Italian-American bakery. All the goodies smelled like the old country. Michelina would lick her fingers and breathe in, far away from the geography of Miss Dingman’s classroom.
Even as Sunday afternoon gave way to evening, people never stopped talking and joking. Michelina enjoyed the wit and teasing. Every once in a while, someone would use an English word, a word with no equivalent, like driveway or donut. They would drop the word self-consciously into the bubbling sea of Italian. It would stick out like a hair in a soup.
Michelina always waited for the moment when a visitor would coax her mother into singing an aria from Donizetti or telling a joke. Then it would be her turn.
“And now let’s hear from the Little One,” someone would say.
She’d recite the rhyme about fireflies, or they’d ask her to repeat the tongue twister, “Sopra la panca la capra campa, sotto la panca la capra crepa.” Sometimes she’d belt out La Bella Tartuga and everyone would clap to the rhythm and her parents’ eyes would shine.
“Tomorrow’s Monday,” her mother would eventually say. “The Little One has to get to sleep.”
Sometimes she begged to stay up a little later, reluctant to lose her voice.
“No, figlia mia, “ her father would say. “You need to rest so you can do the American school.”
Reluctantly, Michelina would mount the stairs to her bedroom, where she would lie awake for a little while, her eyelids thick and heavy, but her mind running like water. Now and then a punch-line or an idiom would rise above the muffled conversations in the rooms below. Rocked by the lullaby of her mother tongue, Michelina would eventually fall asleep.