Updated: Jan 5, 2021
Week two of social isolation, the week I learned to make pasta e rapini over the phone, was the week I started preparing for emergency remote teaching.
In May 2019, I was sitting at my desk at my old job in Ottawa when I got called for an interview for my dream job. The day before, I had just sobbed into the phone about giving up. I had applied for at least 30 jobs in Montreal that month - and many more before - and hadn’t gotten a single positive response. But then I got that call. Within two weeks, I had an interview, got the job, and started teaching. I spent the next month between Montreal and Ottawa, between the two jobs as I tied up loose ends before moving my last boxes back to the city I call home. I spent the next two months furiously trying to keep up, catch up, and not feel like a complete impostor. Having just finished my master’s, I knew how lucky I was to be teaching in a college classroom. Despite the initial precarity, it’s a position many are dying to be in. By the time I found out I would get the chance to teach again this term after not getting any courses in the Fall, I was still thinking: “who in their right mind decided I could be here and that I could do this?”
Nonna Ida was a teacher. She lived the first nine years of her life in the small town of Cantalupo nel Sannio, in the Molise region of Italy. Before her father came to Canada, he was often abroad in Europe, as a mercenary and, later, working in mines so that the family could afford at least one pig a year. Traditional dishes like piedi di porco and trippa - a rare treat today (for those of us who like them) - come from the necessity of having to eat and preserve every part of that pig, making it last as long as possible. She went to school in a small building near her home, where her teacher taught all grades in the same room. She had one notebook for class, which she used year after year. Even though she was just a kid, I imagine her penmanship as neat and as elegant as it is today. She’s told me stories of how, after finishing her own work, she would listen in on the lessons her teacher was giving to the older students. At nine years old, when her father had saved up enough money mining in Lethbridge, Alberta to sponsor the trip for her, her mother, and two siblings, they made their way to Montreal. Before she left, her teacher gifted her a pen and nib, a farewell gift that crossed the ocean with my Nonna. She treasures it to this day.
My Nonna was held back a year when she first started at St. Brendan’s Elementary School, not knowing any English or French. She remembers her teacher helping her at lunch so that she could catch up. And she did. She would go on to complete high school and teacher’s college. By the time she reached her last year, there was such a shortage of teachers in the city that schools started hiring from her class, even though they hadn’t graduated yet. She taught for thirty-three years before retiring. And then the dining room became her classroom. I have hazy memories of all the activities Nonna Ida would plan: papier mâché eggs, painting suncatchers, reading to us from Aesop’s Fables, and, as we got older, allowing us to pick one of the novels from the bookshelf downstairs. The worn pages of my dad and uncle’s old books made up the library we never tired of visiting. Bits of beautiful decorative tissue paper were stored in a little box, to be pulled out for next year’s eggs. My Nonna doesn’t waste, or give up on things, or throw them away.
We passed the time making friendship bracelets, eating thick cookies fresh out of the waffle-iron, watching the PowerPuff Girls, playing outside, and working on our latest arts and crafts. And at some point during the day, Nonna Ida would put those aside and have us practice our cursive, or do additions and subtractions, or write a story at the heavy wood table beside the kitchen. It was a privilege to learn at that table, with Nonna’s patient but firm guiding hands, where we were taught to both colour inside the lines and think outside the box.
I’ve been lucky to grow up like this, in places and with people who have encouraged creativity, learning, and doing things with and for love. On the other hand, it might have also contributed to my sometimes naive tendency to always see the glass half full. I often joke with my boyfriend that between his more pessimistic and my more optimistic natures, we can meet somewhere in reality.
When we finished a story at Nonna Ida and Nonno Sam’s, we would hole-punch it and tie it together with ribbons. She taught us how to curl them with scissors. We found out later that these stories, too, were put into boxes and stored away.