Jane Kelly Amerson López was raised in Europe, Latin America and Washington, DC as the eldest daughter of an American Foreign Service officer. This story is from her memoir-in-progress, When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories: Growing Up in the Foreign Service. Her blog www.raisedintheforeignservice.blog explores her Third Culture Kid outlook. She lives in Florida.
In 1960, my father, a young Foreign Service officer, was assigned by the US State Department to Bologna, Italy, for the Masters program at the Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies. My mother hoped there’d be an American school in Bologna for my little sister and me. Seven months in Milan, where my father had been posted in 1959, had given us only some basic Italian. However, the only option was the Italian Montessori School in a villa on the outskirts of town. My sister would have none of it. She stayed home, and I put on my grambuli smock uniform and took the school’s station wagon to first grade, the only American student.
Whatever Montessori model of “child-based learning” may have eventually been imported to the United States, Maria Montessori’s first school was anything but child-centric. Monday through Saturday, from eight to five, we were under the stern eyes of unsmiling women with high expectations; and homework was a given.
I got home one day with an important assignment. “I need to do my Bella Copia,” I told my mother.
I retrieved the quaderno from my book-bag. Mom had covered it with pretty Bambi wrapping paper, and Dad had used his best calligraphy to write on the front cover – Bella Copia; Beautiful Copy; Perfect Copy.
“Signora Condoti gave us another dettato, today. I need to copy it over.”
I didn’t say that I had again gotten a disapproving look from my teacher, with my original dictation copy covered in little red slashes along with Signora Condoti’s usual comments: ‘Fai più attenzione’ – pay more attention – ‘meno errori’ – fewer mistakes.
At least I was really good at copying over the correct words in my Bella Copia. It made it all right.
I switched out of my grambuli into a pair of my cousin’s hand-me-down corduroys and went to my small desk in the corner of the study. The bottle of India ink was on the front-right corner of the table, as always. The pen nib lay on a clump of black-stained tissue, where I’d left it after cleaning it two days ago.
I opened my Bella Copia to the next clean page, inserted the nib into the long, wooden holder and uncorked the ink. I dipped the pen into the ink and held it over the clean page.
Slowly, I began re-copying the corrected dictation, converting the messy mistakes into flowing cursive letters on the white, cotton paper. The ink spread as the pen scratched along the surface. I blew gently, watching the heavy lines seep into the paper and dry in perfect loops.
Line by line I went, dipping, scratching, blowing. The clean pen strokes settled solidly onto the middle blue line, the handles on the ‘h’s touching the blue line on top and the stems on the ‘p’s reaching down to the next line. Finally, the whole page was filled, the dictation fitting perfectly. I closed my eyes and stretched my tired arms.
My right hand tapped into something. My eyes flew open. With a gasp, I saw the bottle of ink tipped onto its side. I grabbed it and set it upright, but it was too late. A sea of black was seeping across the Bella Copia page, drowning my neat writing. What would Signora Condoti say? I knew how she would look, that much was for sure.
My mother tried to calm me as I cried, but I was miserable all through dinner. Regret mingled with fear. My stomach hurt.
“May I be excused?” I said, tears welling up in my eyes again.
“Maybe a little sleep is just the right thing,” Mom said, “You go get ready and I’ll be in to tuck you in.”
Usually, my Mom’s soothing hand on my forehead at bedtime was the best way to close the day. Tonight, though, I had something else in mind. I got into my pajamas quickly.
“Okay!” I called.
My mother came in and sat on the corner of the bed near my feet. “Now, I lay me down to sleep,” she began.
I chimed in, “I pray the Lord my soul to keep. When I wake up in the morning light, I’ll do my best with all my might.” My mother liked this version better than the one about dying before I wake. Only tonight it was not enough.
“You sleep tight.”
She kissed my forehead and went down the hall to help my sister get to bed. I waited for the tapping of her heels on the linoleum to fade, then started the school routine that was a better antidote to my misery. The Rosary.
I crossed myself and began, “Ave, O Maria, piena di grazia…”
“Are you saying something, Jane?” Mom called from down the hall.
“No, nothing,” I called back.
I waited another moment and started back in, more quietly. The words fell easily from my tongue, weaving the charm. Santa Maria would keep me safe from Signora Condoti’s anger tomorrow.
© Jane Kelly Amerson López, 2019