“Che colore è la penna?” Lisa Serafini asked her students in Italian, holding up a black marker.
“La penna è nera,” answered the multi-age class of nearly 60 people.
Serafini had asked the class what color the pen (or marker) was. Her class answered that it was black. It was only their third lesson.
The classes are a new initiative by the Gabriele D’Annunzio Sons of Italy Lodge 321 in Rotterdam, and two people had volunteered to teach the lessons. Serafini, an Italian teacher for the Troy City School District, is teaching the beginner class, while Dr. John Angerosa teaches the later class for intermediate Italian speakers.
Sons of Italy President Lou Fazzone said the original plan was to offer a class for children. That plan changed when older members of the group showed interest in taking classes as well. They were shocked when more than 60 people signed-up for both the intermediate and beginner classes.
“I think it may have to do with the price,” said Fazzone. “We’re only charging enough to recover some costs, like for books and equipment.”
The full 10 weeks’ worth of lessons cost $10 for Sons of Italy members and $20 for guests. Serafini and Angerosa are teaching for free.
“We’re doing this because it’s our passion,” said Angerosa, who studied at the University of Bologna while in college and lived in Italy for six years. He became fluent by living in sections of Italy where they didn’t speak English, constantly reading his textbooks, and attending the opera.
When he returned home, he continued to read Italian books and when he met with patients who spoke the language, he conversed with them in Italian instead of English.
Serafini has a similar story.
Her father was from Italy, and she went to study in Rome her senior year in college. At the same time, her grandmother and aunt lived in Italy, and Serafini ended up living there for eight years. A few years after returning home, she saw an ad for a permanent substitute Italian teacher at Guilderland High School. She eventually got her master’s degree in Italian from the University at Albany and now teaches two eighth-grade classes and two high school classes at Troy. She also advises the school district’s Italian Club.
Angerosa and Serafini said a lot of those taking the classes came in knowing words or phrases they had heard at home growing up, but often they are in a certain dialect or contain Americanized slang. The goal is to teach students a pure form of Italian so they can converse more easily.
“I started the class at zero, teaching them the alphabet and numbers” Serafini said. “I just want them to be able to have a basic conversation.”
Those taking the class are there for a number of different reasons. Some want to build a closer connection with their heritage, others are planning trips.
There are even a couple of opera singers taking lessons — such as Schenectady resident Corine Salon — who want to become more knowledgeable of their craft by better understanding the language.
“There used to be shame in being an immigrant,” said former lodge President Cesare Maniccia, who moved to New York state in the 1950s. “Now I think [having an Italian background] is seen as sophisticated again.”
Because of budget cuts, many public schools and even colleges no longer offer Italian as a second language option.
Maniccia said he feels it’s up to local community centers and lodges to step in and teach what is no longer being offered in America’s education system.
“From my point of view, what united first- and second-generation Italians was food and family. Now, younger people realize how beautiful our culture is,” he said. “Going to Italy is like walking through a museum.”
Sons of Italy member Joseph Restifo decided to take the class with his two grandchildren, 10-year-old Skyler Martin and 12-year-old Nik Restifo. He said it meant a lot to him to be able to learn the language of their ancestors together. Restifo’s parents were both Italian, but they didn’t want their children speaking the language so they could assimilate better.
“When I was young, we didn’t learn it,” said the Schenectady resident. “We were told, ‘You’re an American now, so speak English.’ ”
Skyler and Nik are motivated to continue with the lessons, because their grandfather said when they become more proficient he will take them on one of his trips to Italy. So far, they can say some basic words, like “hello,” “goodbye,” and their birthdays in Italian without help.
“There’s a girl in my class who’s Italian, and I want to try to talk with her,” said Skyler.
Rob Iacobussi, 68, signed up for the class because he’s taking his first trip to Italy next month. He’s only a few lessons in and will miss the end of the class because of his trip, so he’s trying to cram in as much as he can over the next several weeks.
“I just want to be able to function while I’m there,” he said. Iacobussi is working hard to memorize questions like “where” and “what.”
“I might not come back,” he joked.
Serafini and Angerosa plan to begin a new round of classes at the Sons of Italy in January. Because of the popularity, they may add a third class that teaches those who have already taken the beginner class, but may not feel ready to move on to the intermediate level.
“The lodge is growing. I think we have, like, five new members every month,” said Serafini. “So I’m glad we can offer something that generates interest for so many people locally.”