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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Chapter Fourteen: Lay Teachers

I graduated  in  June of 1963, expecting to  return to Italy and join the family that had moved and was now residing in Milano. After four plus years, I looked forward to taking my place where I belonged, among people who loved and respected me.

June came and went and I found out that Uncle couldn't afford purchasing the ticket. I had never given any thought to money and to expenses.  They paid my tuition, books, bus fare. There was talk about how much my education was costing them, but I had been a bit too selfish and blind to see how difficult it was for my uncle to support me.  They had lots of expenses i was not aware of.

 I was living in my own bubble.

Uncle convinced me that I needed some practical experience as well as a teaching certificate under my belt before I ventured back to Italy. Curiously, it was easier for them to dish out tuition that came in small chunks than come up with a big sum for the airline ticket. He tried to explain that with taxes and other unexpected expenses, this was a bad time. I guessed that the new baby in the house, born around my graduation was another good reason to keep me around.

My aunt in Fresno had her own difficulties, and explained that owning property was a big liability at times. Instead of making money for them, property cost them money, in repairs, in advertising, in taxes.  I had no idea.

I enrolled in a graduate teaching program at Immaculate Heart, and mentioned to the teachers and registrar that I needed to earn some money..   A few months later, when  I heard they needed a substitute at Bishop Conaty High School, I applied and was hired. The place was easier to reach by bus than Immaculate Heart College. Now, I was able to earn real money and cover both my tuition and save for a ticket to take me back home.

The school director  helped me apply and obtain  a working visa.

The  faculty consisted of a few lay teachers like myself, and sisters from different religious orders, some wearing habits, some business suits with prominent crosses. At times it was hard to distinguish the religious from the secular faculty. Four of us lay teachers were still in school,  finishing a master or a teaching credential.   All of us looked forward to being wives and mothers. In my case, I first had to make enough money, and have enough experience to satisfy the requirements for my return home before dreaming of becoming a wife or a mother.

In the teachers’ lounge the lay teachers ended up eating separately. The exception was Sister Mary Joseph, a widow who assumed religious life after she had had a full life as a wife. She gravitated to the group of young teachers, sharing opinions about everything. Eva, Muriel, Tonia all taught different subjects  but saw the same students and shared strategies  as disciplinarians.

I could have passed for a fourteen year old,  barely 100 lbs, purposely wearing dark color suits devoid of frills to display a rigid attitude and strict adherence to rules. I could have passed for a nun myself, except for my hair, styled carefully to look like Jackie Kennedy.

No nun would spend that much time and energy on her hair, I thought.

We all had extra-curricular activities, some coached or assisted in a sport, some in fundraising, some in sponsoring student council or yearbook. Our students had a reputation for strength, stamina and a winning attitude in sports. Returning after a late basketball game, we fount out all kinds of stuff about the girls and their families, their neighborhoods and their ambitions. Since many girls transferred from one bus to another late into the night, ending up in their neighborhoods at unsafe times, we teachers took turns driving them home. Since I was still commuting by bus myself, I too needed and was happy to get a ride home after long days.

In August of 1965, a traffic disturbance on Florence Avenue erupted into a police and citizen brawl that spread like wildfire and affected  students who came from the section of town called south central . Our September opening day was tense; fear and frustration were visible on everybody’s face, gravity draped over every body's  uniform. The Watts Riots, as they came to be called, paralyzed the city. At recess, emotions flared, and verbal exchanges among students from different neighborhood became standard conduct.  The staff no longer had free lunches. We took turns supervising the cafeteria and the yards.

I hated recess duty! The girls were all taller and bigger than I was.

Los Angeles was a diverse city, but neighborhoods were homogeneous. People congregated around their economic, racial and social peers. A great many people that had emigrated from Mexico lived in neighborhoods that had specialized groceries and restaurants. The caucasian population of Los Angeles was moving North, to the East San Gabriel Valley and to the Northwest San Fernando Valley where new homes where being built and sold at a fever rate.

My uncle had enrolled his eldest daughter in kindergarten in Burbank, a suburb that he favored, across town on the freeway, miles from the place where we lived. He and his wife were putting the store up for sale and moving as soon as the deal was executed. The Watts riots delayed the sale and was sowing panic all over the place.

Everyone was looking to move and to feel safer.

We were reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in my freshman class. We took a little longer with it and decided to turn it into a stage play, concocting critical scenes to share with the rest of the student body. We spent hours in the auditorium, writing and rewriting, working on how to present the piece, worrying about sound effects, costuming, and practicing to sound like authentic southern characters.

On a rehearsal day,  a visitor from the office of the Archdiocese stopped by. I encouraged the girls to project their voices, and stay in character. The Director and the visitor seemed to enjoy the play, the girls noted. I had been too busy to catch their entrance or their exit.

At the end of the day, as I was checking out, the Director called me into his office and told me that the play had to be postponed for now.
“I don’t understand! Father, what is the problem?”
“Let’s not get into this; Just postpone the play, for now. We don’t want to alarm the children.”

So, I made up an excuse, something about the auditorium not being available for the next few days. But this was not an easy thing to accept. Obedience has its place, I thought; obedience should only be demanded of children.

I couldn't wait to purchase my ticket back to Italy.


  1. Lay teachers are people who teach with nuns and priests who are deemed the "religious" set. Lay means secular.

  2. I remember the Watts riots very well. I think L.A. started to decline on that set of days and it never really recovered as those with any money, moved out of the neighbor hood.

  3. Watts caused a commotion even here in Canada. However I am glad that you, apparently, never bought that ticket back to Italy.

  4. Those were hard times...I put my head in the sand over in Dubuque, Iowa. My husband, while attending a Lutheran seminary in Dubuque, taught English at a Catholic girls' school.

  5. I think it is so cool that you are doing this blog. In '63 , I was a year old, my mother was 17 and pregant again...

  6. What a portrait of the times. You and the children must have been so disappointed.