DESCRIPTION OF A "SOUP SCHOOL" FOR ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS (c. 1900) From
Leonard Covello, /The Heart Is the Teacher/ (New York, 1958), pp. 22-27
In all of her years in America, my mother never saw the inside of a school. My father went only once, and that was when he took me and my two younger brothers to La Soupa Scuola (the "Soup School"), as it was called among the immigrants of my generation. We headed along Second Avenue in the direction of 115th Street, my father walking in front, holding the hands of my two brothers, while I followed along with a boy of my own age, Vito Salvatore, whose family had arrived from Avigliano
seven years before.
My long European trousers had been replaced by the short knickers of the time, and I wore black ribbed stockings and new American shoes. To all outward appearances I was an American, except that I did not speak a word of English.
Vito kept chanting what sounded like gibberish to me, all the while casting sidelong glances in my direction as though nursing some delightful secret.
"Mrs. Cutter cut the butter ten times in the gutter!"
"What the devil are you singing an American song?" I asked in the dialect of our people.
"You'll meet the devil all right." And again, in English, "Mrs. Cutter cut the butter ten times in the gutter! Only this devil wears skirts and carries a stick this long. Wham, and she lets you have it across the back! This, my dear Narduccio, is your new head teacher."
Was it possible? A woman teacher! "In Aviglianio we were taught by men," I bragged to my friend. "There was Maestro Mecca. Strong? When he cracked your hand with his ruler it went numb for a week. And you are trying to scare me with your woman teacher. . . . " I spoke with pride. Already "yesterday" was taking on a new meaning. I was lonely. I missed the mountains. I missed my friends at the shoemaker shop and my uncles and the life I had always known.
In the face of a strange and uncertain future, Avigliano now loomed in a new and nostalgic light. Even unpleasant remembrances had a fascination of their own. Who had felt the blows of Don Salvatore Mecca could stand anything.
The Soup School was a three-story wooden building hemmed in by two five-story tenements at 116th Street and Second Avenue. When Vito pointed it out I experienced a shock. It appeared huge and impressive, I was ashamed to let him know that in Avigliano our school consisted of only one room, poorly lighted and poorly heated, with benches that hadn't been changed in fifty years. However, at this moment something really wonderful happened to take my thoughts from the poverty of our life in Avigliano.
Before entering the school, my father led us into a little store close at hand.
There was a counter covered by glass and in it all manner and kinds of sweets such as we had never seen before. "Candi!" my father told us,grinning. "This is what is called candi in America.
"C-a-n-d-y!" know-it-all Vito repeated in my car.
We were even allowed to select the kind we wanted. I remember how I selected some little round cream filled chocolates which tasted like nothing I had ever eaten before. It was unheard-of to eat sweets on a school day, even though this was a special occasion. Anyway, the only candy I knew was confetti, the sugar coated almond confection which we had only on feast days or from the pocket of my uncle the priest on some very special occasion, and for which we kissed his hand in return. But
today my father was especially happy. He ate a piece of candy too. The picture of its there on the street outside the Soup School eating candy and having a good time will never fade. The Soup School got its name from the fact that at noontime a bowl of soup was served to us with some white, soft bread that made better spitballs than eating in comparison with the substantial and solid homemade bread to which I was accustomed.
The school itself was organized and maintained by the Female Guardian Society of America. Later on I found out that this Society was sponsored by wealthy people concerned about the immigrants and their children. How much this organization accomplished among immigrants in New York City would be difficult to estimate. But this I do know, that among the
immigrants of my generation and even later /La Soupa Scuola/ is still vivid in our boyhood memories.
Why we went to the Soup School instead of the regular elementary public school I have not the faintest idea, except that possibly the first Aviglianese to arrive in New York sent his child there and everyone else followed suit and also possibly because in those days a bowl of soup was a bowl of soup.
Once at the Soup School I remember the teacher gave each child a bag of oatmeal to take home. This food was supposed to make you big and strong. You ate it for breakfast. My father examined the stuff, tested it with his fingers. To him it was the kind of bran that was fed to pigs in Avigliano.
"What kind of a school is this?" he shouted. "They give us the food of animals to eat and send it home to us with our children! What are we coming to next?"
By the standards I had come to know and understand in Avigliano, the Soup School was not an unpleasant experience. I had been reared in a strict code of behavior, and this same strictness was the outstanding characteristic of the first of my American schools. Nor can I say, as I had indicated to Vito, that a blow from Mrs. Cutter ever had the lustiness of my old teacher, Don Salvatore Mecca. But what punishment lacked in power, it gained by the exacting personality of our principal.
Middle-aged, stockily built, gray hair parted in the middle, Mrs. Cutter lived up to everything my cousin Vito had said about her and much more.
Attached to an immaculate white waist by a black ribbon, her pince-nez fell from her nose and dangled in moments of anger. She moved about the corridors and classrooms of the Soup School ever alert and ready to strike at any infringement of school regulations.
I was sitting in class trying to memorize and pronounce words written on the blackboard-words which had absolutely no meaning to me. It seldom seemed to occur to our teachers that explanations were necessary.
"B-U-T-T-E-R-butter-butter," I sing-songed with the rest of the class,
learning as always by rote, learning things which often I didn't
understand but which had a way of sticking in my mind.
Softly the door opened and Mrs. Cutter entered the classroom. For a large and heavy-set woman she moved quickly, without making any noise.
We were not supposed to notice or even pretend we had seen her as she slowly made her way between the desks and straight-backed benches.
"B-U-T-T-E-R," I intoned. She was behind me now. I could feel her presence hovering over me. I did not dare take my eyes front the blackboard. I had done nothing and could conceive of no possible reason for an attack, but with Mrs. Cutter this held no significance. She carried a short bamboo switch. On her finger she wore a heavy gold wedding ring. For an instant I thought she was going to pass me by and then suddenly her clenched fist with the ring came down on my head.
I had been trained to show no emotion in the face of punishment, but this was too much. However, before I had time to react to the indignity, of this assault, an amazing thing happened. Realizing that she had hurt me unjustly, Mrs. Cutter's whole manner changed. A look of concern cattle into her eyes. She took hold of my arm, uttering conciliatory words which I did not understand. Later Vito explained to me that she was saying, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Sit down now and be a good boy!"
Every day before receiving our bowl of soup we recited the Lord's Prayer. I had no inkling of what the words meant. I knew only that I was expected to bow my head. I looked around to see what was going on. Swift and simple, the teacher's blackboard pointer brought the idea home to me. I never batted an eyelash after that.
I learned arithmetic and penmanship and spelling-every misspelled word written ten times or more, traced painfully and carefully in my blankbook. I do not know how many times I wrote "I must not talk." In this same way I learned how to read in English, learned geography and grammar, the states of the Union and all the capital cities-and memory gems-choice bits of poetry and sayings. Most learning was done in unison. You recited to the teacher standing at attention. Chorus work.
Repetition. Repetition Until the things you learned beat in your brain even at night when you were falling asleep.
I think of the modern child with his complexes and his need for
"self-expression"! He will never know the forceful and vitalizing
influence of a Soup School or a Mrs. Cutter.
I vividly remember the assembly periods. A long narrow room with large windows at either end, long rows of hard benches without backs, and tile high platform at one end with a piano, a large table, several chairs, and the American flag. There were no pictures of any kind oil the walls.
Silence! Silence! Silence! This was the characteristic feature of our existence at the Soup School. You never made all unnecessary noise or said an unnecessary word. Outside in the hall we lined up by size, girls in one line and boys in another, without uttering a sound. Eyes front and at attention. Lord help you if you broke the rule of silence. I can still see a distant relative of mine, a girl named Miluzza, who could never stop talking, standing in a corner behind Mrs. Cutter throughout an entire assembly with a spring-type clothes-pin fastened to her lower lip as punishment. Uncowed, defiant-Miluzza with that clothespin dangling from her lip....
The piano struck up a march and from the hall we paraded into
assembly-eyes straight ahead in military style. Mrs. Cutter was there on the platform, dominating the scene, her eyes penetrating every corner of the assembly hall. It was always the same. We stood at attention as the Bible was read and at attention as the flag was waved back and forth, and we sang the same song. I didn't know what the words, meant but I
sang it loudly, with all the rest, in my own way, "Tree Cheers for De Red Whatzen Blu!"
But best of all was another song that we used to sing at these
assemblies. It was a particular favorite of Mrs. Cutter's and we sang it with great gusto, "Honest boys who never tread the streets." This was in the days when we not only trod the streets but practically lived in them.
Causes of the Italian mass emigration
BY LINDA MAGNUSSON
By the year 1871, 400,000 Italians had emigrated, but this number was to be increased. In the 1870, 20,000 Italians emigrated per year. But, people attracted by the promises of successful lives in America came to form a mass emigration with 205,000 emigrants a year by 1888. In 1891, as much as
1,5 million Italians lived abroad in the hope of successful futures.
And many more continued to arrive to the land of many promises.
Initially, most emigrants hailed from Northern Italy. However, as time passed, the south became the place of origin for most emigrants. With this shift also came an increase in those leaving the nation. Between 1898 and 1914, approximately 750,000 Italians emigrated each year. From 1906 to
1915, as much as 2 million Italians emigrated. The reasons for the mass emigration of the Italians were many, and there were differences in reasons that made people emigrate from the south and north of Italy.
However, it is known that the standard of living became worse in the whole of Italy between 1870 and 1900, especially on the countryside. Diseases and starvation were the main causes of migration. Food had become the biggest cost for an Italian family. Many peasant families spent about 75 % of their money on food. Despite the high cost, this food often times failed
to even contain enough nutrition to sustain a person. In the North, the population suffered from pellagra, a disease which often resulted in insanity and death, whereas in the south, fatal malaria plagued the nation's residents. At first, malaria only struck in the coastal areas, but this changed as deforestation, erosion and flooding enabled the malaria to spread. The conditions which people endured in these areas were unbelievable as 2 million Italians died each year. To make matters worse,
the agricultural system of Italy was not modernised, and there was little hope of improving the situation. Even so, some regions enjoyed extended railroads, which allowed peasants living in the areas around the railroads to concentrate on a single crop and allowed them to export it, as well.
However, the railroads were not powerful enough to noticeably reduce the number of people that emigrated to the U.S. Another important factor in the emigration of the Italians, was the agricultural crisis that Italy suffered in the 1880s. During this time, Italian agriculture was hurt by the increasing amount of products from America that invaded Italian markets. The price of wheat and other products fell, and unemployment
increased as landowners and peasants no longer could profitably trade. Many northern Italians, who probably suffered most from the crisis, didn’t see any other alternative than to emigrate. In the 1890s many southern Italians also started to emigrate due to economic troubles. Also leading to the great numbers of Italian emigrants was a lack of democracy (few Italians had the right to vote) and a low literacy rate. Italian emigration was assisted greatly through improved transportation by steamships and cheap railroads. As the journey became easier, few people hesitated to leave the country where they had been born.
Adrian Lyttelton "Chapter 9 - Politics and Society 1870-1915" The Oxford Illustrated History of Italy George Holmes. New York - U.S., by Oxford University Press Inc. 1997. p.238,240
Harry Hearder "Chapter 8 - The Fascist Disaster, 1922-45" Italy: A Short History . Cambridge - U.K., Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge 1990. p.233