Chapter V - The Depression Hits, Discrimination, Teaching Teachers
Then, suddenly, catastrophe struck us. It was 1929. That summer we had a very beautiful garden with plenty of potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce and eggplant. Nicola had planted rows of grapes. Everything was very promising and then the economy collapsed! At first we did not understand the seriousness of this disaster. Hadn't our new president promised us two chickens in every pot and a car in every garage? Our president had proven to be a very strong man with experience as a Republican and Republicans had money. This calamity would surely be a very temporary thing and everything would straighten out. We had a strong government that would take care of things. Did we not have a beautiful house and plenty of food in the garden and the chickens would soon be laying eggs. Nicola and I had a lot of confidence in our government. The president was a very good administrator who had done an excellent job during the war. This disaster was only a cloud in the sky, which would pass away.
It did not. Workers were losing their jobs. Gloom was descending on this beautiful land of ours. One night Nicola came home worried because his job was cut to four days, but surely there was no room for despair. Soon everything would be all right we were told. The main problem was that people were not laughing enough we were told. That winter was not too bad for us because we had stored enough food and my husband worked four days a week. However, we had to economize. The chickens began to lay eggs, thus producing an abundance of eggs, but we could not sell them. We could not get the price that would cover the cost of feed. The price of eggs had dropped very low and the feed was still high.
The same thing was true of the chickens. We could not get our price for them and could not cover what it had cost us to raise them. The money for this venture had been borrowed and now we could not pay it back. This was the beginning of our downfall. No matter how hard I economized I could not make ends meet and I was getting discouraged.
However, there were rays of sunshine on those dark days. My children were receiving honors for their schoolwork. Lucy (Lucia) performed her recital on trees and Irma was honored for an essay on safety.
When we first arrived in Florham Park we were considered foreigners. There was a lot of discrimination against foreigners, especially those of Italian origin. Helen (Elena), my fifth child was not quite five when she entered school. She was put in the first grade since there was no kindergarten. On her first report card there was a note from the teacher saying Helen had not passed the intelligence test. I looked at Helen and said I didn't think she was a moron. She was a very shy child at that age.
She was accused of stealing a penny from one of her classmates. I made an appointment to talk to the teacher. The teacher really did not believe that Helen had taken it and after a second interrogation of the class it was discovered that my little daughter had not taken it after all. Somebody had played a prank.
On the third month of the school year Helen was on the super honor roll, and she remained on it until the seventh grade.
Irma was the darling of the teachers. Her behavior and schoolwork were excellent. She made many friends and had parts in many plays. All my children were singled out for plays. In most cases almost the whole town of Florham Park turned out for them.
Those were the days of the Great Depression and school entertainment was the only diversion we could afford. The depression deepened. I could not even afford a decent pair of shoes.
I received a note from Tony's teacher. (He will be called Tony henceforth to comply with his wishes). The teacher was concerned about his behavior in school. She wanted me to meet her at school, but, having two small children at home, it was impossible for me to go. We decided to have the conference in my home.
I made sure no children were around during our private meeting. Miss Lauton taught English to Tony's class. She came accompanied by Miss Wood. Miss Wood was a kind, understanding teacher who liked my children. One afternoon she had asked me what my daughter Carmela was going to do after she graduated from elementary school. I told her she would go to high school and take some business courses. Then she would get a job after graduation. Miss Wood retorted that Carmela was too intelligent for that kind of future, and she advised me to send her to college. I said, "I have nine children with only my husband working. We cannot afford college."
She said, "I came from a poor family too and we could not afford college but here I am, a teacher. You will find a way."
That year Carmela was going to graduate from elementary school. When the subject of what courses to take in high school came up Miss Lauton was of the opinion that Carmela should not plan her courses toward attending college. She based her opinion on our religion and nationality. We are Catholics.
Therefore when I had the meeting with Miss Lauton I was glad to see that Miss Wood was with her. I felt I had a friend. Miss Lauton told me that Tony did not respond to discipline. He disturbed the class, answered questions out of turn, and one time had attacked one of the students. I said, "I have wanted to talk to you for a long time but was unable to since I have small children at home. Once you punished my son by putting him in a dark cloakroom. Then you complained because Tony had stepped on all the coats. What did you expect from a boy shut in a room without windows? How frustrated and scared he was! The reason he attacked one of his classmates was to protect me. During a lesson in geography about Italy the text stated that the women of Italy wear no shoes and carry loads on their heads. The boy in front of Tony turned and sneered at my son and said, 'Yeah, like Tony's mother.' Tony slammed him in the face and I was glad he did."
"Then there was the time you called him 'a little runt' in front of the whole class. I want you to know I resent that very much because Tony will have to stand among men but to his classmates he will always be 'a little runt' because Miss Lauton said so."
I could see that Miss Wood agreed with me and this feeling of support encouraged me to go on. Finally, before she left, Miss Lauton was apologizing to me.
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