What is it like teaching Italian to foreign children who have just arrived in Italy? And how can knowing Arabic, the language they have spoken since birth, make it easier? Fausta Trentadue, the teacher who has taken up the challenge of the second generations in the suburbs, tells us about her experiences.  A teacher of Italian for foreigners who works both in the Giambellino-Lorenteggio area  and in Cinisello Balsamo in primary and secondary schools but also in some Cpia (Provincial Center for Adult Education). For over eleven years, Fausta Trentadue has accompanied these children on their journey as they grow up and has seen first-hand the reality of their families. With many of them, she has built a special relationship, even with the most aggressive or rebellious towards authority. What does it mean to work with very young people, who are predominantly of Maghrebi descent, in difficult contexts, where discomfort, problems and deviances are emerging now more than ever? And how does it feel above all to be able to help them (and succeed) in reversing their destiny, helping them to become citizens?

I can see him. He is there, small, at his desk, a faded shirt and jeans, big eyes and curly hair. Egyptian, coming from a poor and deprived background, zero schooling, life in the countryside, among animals, in large spaces. They told me: “He knows nothing, he remembers little and lives in his own world, you have to give him the basics and then we will see”.

I did not believe it, as happened to me so many times later; those considered the worst, unable to sit still in the classroom, little or not at all schooled, those who seem to never care about anything … Well, those were the students I wanted. Every time it was a challenge, trying to make them visible, those guys that no one saw, neither in the country of origin, nor in Italy

«Hi, what’s your name? »

«Abanob. »

« How old are you? »

« Twelve. »

« Do you remember when you were born? »

Very quitely, he says that this year his mum didn’t make him a cake, it can’t have been long since his birthday. And so, we begin our lessons, made of many small pieces of paper where I wrote the syllables to then create the words, true and invented; lessons made of laughter, dictations, and attempts to understand what day of the week we were on. He did not know the days of the week, the hours of the day, the name of schoolmates and teachers.

Fausta Trentadue’s challenge starts from memory

One day I said to him: “Can you tell me about a cartoon you saw in Egypt?” And from there it all began, a strange narrative made of Italian words, gestures and Arabic words came out, the first word I learned was waesh: ‘bad – monster’. The memory was there, all we had to do was focus the lesson on personal interests and memories of experiences in the country of origin and from there it kicked off. I have since used this system many times with all the others who came after, now in their hundreds. Abanob soon made it known to the other foreign students that there was a special, different, funny teacher; with her everyone was good, absolutely everyone.

He called me Magica. After a few days all the others arrived: Mahmoud, the best friend, Musta, Maiorika, Amin, Rimon, Patricia, Silver, Rashmi. Each with their own story and a great desire to tell it; around the table our numbers grew, higher and higher.  We talked about the Italian language, but also and above all about the big and small problems of adolescence, of difficult relationships with parents, of teasing in class, where we never spoke, mouth closed and eyes wide open

Eleven years with second-generation boys

Some were more aggressive: Antonio, fifteen years old, small and thin, hood on his head, rebellion and desire to escape from the class, shouting his anger at the prof and to the world; in Salvador life is hard and when you come here it is even harder, you have to be accepted and defend your sensitivity, your heart hurt and proud. With the boys we have done many things together in these eleven years: skating, trips to Gardaland, the outings to McDonald’s and I have been at their side in the many moments of crisis, the most terrible, in which they did not have the courage to talk to their parents, after having got into some mischief.

The phone rang in the middle of the night: Prof, I’m in the police station, I feel very bad, can you come with me to the emergency room. Prof, I’m Ahmed, Mohamed ended up with his bicycle under a car and I know that tomorrow he has the eighth grade exam… Can you call the professor in class, can you tell him that tomorrow he won’t be there? It’s a chain and they know it, I help you to help him because you’re helping her and all together we help each other

Everyone has my Instagram, Messenger or WhatsApp contact; no one ever bothered me for a useless reason or made me a phone call without respect. Everyone knows that there is always an answer or at least you try.

The work of the prof with mothers

And then in parallel there is the work with families and especially with mothers; they have to learn the language, to be able to communicate with the institutions, the teacher, the family doctor, the neuropsychiatrist, the social worker. Mothers know it, together between women we help each other, I have helped them so much, but they have helped me so much too.

They have shown me the warmth of their families, who receive guests for lunch or dinner at any time of the day: eating on the ground, with crossed legs; a barbecue in the countryside and then drinking tea around the fire. With these families you are immediately at home, I lived in Naples all my adolescence, where family is very important but they really made me feel like family among them

Learning language of the heart of second-generation children

Many people ask me “How do you communicate?”; “These families can only speak their own language, how can you get on with them?” It was the boys who taught me; one day I asked Amin and Maiorika, the strong ones in grammar: “Guys, until today I have been your teacher, the eighth grade is over, do you want to become my Arabic teachers?” And here we are today, communicating a little with everyone, the parents, children and adolescents who have arrived, in my sloppy but somehow understandable Arabic. I wanted to learn it because your native language is the language of the heart and when you have to talk about something intimate or wipe away a tear in a moment of crisis it is much better if you do it in the language their mother, friend or brother speaks.

Samuel was the first student I taught Italian, helping me with Arabic. Fifteen years old, illiterate, schooling absolutely zero, but a desire to fit in and make it; he could not remember even one letter of the alphabet and slowly, connecting each letter with the initial of an Arabic word we approached the written word; that slender and shy boy is now a cook, talented and self-confident

I had some guys who have made their way: Maiorika and Amin are enrolled in the Faculty of Mediation, Rimon smart as a fox, big heart and deep soul, works for a company that consults banks, within two years he became a trainer. I could tell many and many other stories, these are the ones that are dearest to me.

Story of those who have to make it because there is no going back

These are the second generations. They are just some of the journeys that I was lucky enough to guide; they always tell me: “Prof, if I am like this it is thanks to you, if I have become strong and tenacious it is thanks to your example” and my answer is always the same: “It is I who must say thank you to all of you, thank you for having been there in these years, for having taught me the patience of the Arab and African world,  the speed in adapting to different cultures and languages, typical of the peoples of the East, the joy of the South Americans, the elegance of the Brazilian girls, the resilience of all those who come from afar and know that they have to make it, because there is no going back».

It is thanks to all this that I decided to transform a volunteer activity into a profession, specializing and documenting myself more and more to learn about cultures and assert the richness of diversity at school and in the outside world.

Translated by Adam Clark