I took Italian in high school by happenstance. They only offered three languages in my tiny Catholic all-girls school: Spanish, French and Italian. Since I already spoke Spanish, that felt like a bit of a cheat. French didn’t really appeal to me. So I backed into Italian.
My teacher, Ms. Fabiano, had a lilting, musical voice, and an abundance of patience for snarky, mouthy girls like me. School came easily to me, and I didn’t put in too much effort for classes that didn’t captivate me. I’d coast to straight As even in my beloved English classes sometimes, selectively reading only the books that really called to me (luckily, thanks to Ms. Bordiga, that was a lot of them). I worshipped my exacting Biology (and, later, Anatomy and Physiology) teacher, Mrs. Graves, so I dared not skip out on the work for her class.
But Ms. Fabiano was mild-mannered. My fourteen-year-old self decided I had no earthly idea why I needed to know Italian, and it did not get any better when I was fifteen or sixteen, either. I challenged her. I slacked. I made jokes and played the clown. When I failed to study for tests, I just wrote in the Spanish. That pulled me through surprisingly often. I got busted one time when, on a vocabulary quiz, she asked that I translate the word “window” into Italian, and I put in the Spanish, “ventana,” instead of the Italian, “finestra.” “I see what you did there,” she said with good humor. To this day I have no idea where she found so much patience for me.
By the time the end of junior year rolled around, my trick of coasting was getting progressively harder, and issues at home were making my grades and my attitude slip. We had to choose classes for senior year. Although I’d taken three years of Italian, I didn’t sign up for Italian in senior year. When I handed in my class choices, Ms. Fabiano came to talk to me.
“You didn’t sign up for Italian IV,” she said.
“I’m tired,” I told her.
She insisted. I demurred. She told me I could take it pass/fail. As was her way, she won with mild insistence, an appeal to the higher angels of my nature and by not taking no for an answer. We’d be reading Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original Italian, and she just didn’t understand why anyone would want to miss such a cultural treat. It was tantamount to a non-English speaker taking on Shakespeare, but she thought I should tough it out. When I couldn’t afford the book of Dore’s illustrations of Dante’s work that we referred to in class, she gifted it to me.
She dragged me kicking and screaming through hell for an entire school year. I told her that since I was taking it pass/fail, I didn’t have to take the tests. She laughed and told me she’d see me bright and early at test time. We made it to purgatory, and the school year came to an end just as we were getting to Dante’s thoughts on heaven. “Hell was the fun part,” she told me with a wink. I don’t know that I’d have called it that, and I wouldn’t have said that I appreciated it, exactly. Certainly not at the time. Still, as years passed I learned to be grateful that so many people in my small school refused to give up on me during the years that I often thought of giving up on myself.
Ms. Fabiano passed away years ago, unfortunately. I never got to tell her that although I didn’t show it enough, her faith in me worked slow-moving miracles. I never got to mention I still have the Dore’s book of illustrations she introduced me to and that certain images come to me at the oddest times. That I am grateful she insisted I push myself harder when I didn’t know if I had anything left.
She’s been on my mind a lot recently because, finally, more than thirty years after she began to recommend that I do it, I’m finally getting to the Italy she so loved. In preparation for my trip, I’ve been using an app to practice common Italian phrases. I know most everyone will speak English, but I wanted to see how much of Ms. Fabiano’s teaching stuck. Turns out: a lot. As the app tried to teach me tenses in context, I found myself choosing the right response almost by intuition, like they were locked somewhere deep inside. I don’t mean to overstate my fluency (let there be English speakers!) but there was a soft joy in finding old phrases buried somewhere in my subconscious. It reminded me of light streaming through the windows in the old house we called a school, listening to Ms. Fabiano’s melodic voice, and finding that she was lighting up my imagination with images of a land full of art and grace, even despite myself.
When I get there, I’ll be sure to let a whisper go into the breeze to let them know you sent me, Dolores. Thank you.
An older Holy Rosary story from a 1968 alum (and where I found the above picture of the convent and the school, taken well before I was there. By the time I got there, alas, the sheep were gone). Click here.