They came down from Beacon Hill, from the Central District, and from the valley floor. Most came by foot with a friend or two. The children came to learn the language of their parents in a small building on Valentine Street behind the New Italian Café in the heart of Garlic Gulch.
The Scuola Italiana Dante Alighieri, its official name, was set up by the Italian community in the 1930s to provide the formal training in Italian that was difficult to provide at home. Many immigrant families continued to speak their regional dialect, if they spoke Italian at all at home. According to Italian-American businessman John Croce,
Mussolini sent a teacher over and this teacher was paid by the Italian government. We kids all spoke dialect Italian at home; at the school we learned how to speak correctly, read and write, pronounce, and all that. We learned how to sing Mussolini songs. We didn’t care. We didn’t care about Mussolini. We learned about the good Italian language, the verbs and all that stuff.
Lucy Colarossi Salle walked the few blocks from her home near Judkins Park with a girlfriend twice a week for the after school sessions. She remembers performing in a Christmas skit for parents:
In the play, the teacher had me conjugate the verb “to be.” And I was supposed to make a mistake in the play, and then say “Oh, no, no!” and then correct myself.
Lucy Salle recalls that some of the boys were “mischievous,” setting off firecrackers in class. John Croce testifies to a more serious incident.
Alvie, he got up and in Italian says “I hate you” and shot the teacher with a starter pistol and the guy collapsed on the floor. I was there! Then he ran out of the damn school room and he went and stayed in the woods. We had a shack up in the woods that we built out of scrap lumber. The teacher got the Italian consul, went to Alvie’s old man and Alvie’s old man was looking for him for a week to beat the hell out him. Finally Alvie come out of hiding and the old man whipped his butt. He couldn’t go back to the Italian School after that!
Sometime after this episode, the professore returned to Italy, now on the verge of war. For a time, a female teacher, “a gal from the neighborhood” according to Lucy Salle, taught the children. For reasons both political and geographic, the little school in the shadow of the coming freeway did not survive into the 1940s. After the war, classes continued for a time in a borrowed classroom at the Coleman School and at Deaconess Settlement House on Atlantic Street.
Caption: Christmas at the Italian School. Luce Salle is at center left, hand in coat pocket. Professore Bovio stands in the back on the left side. The cabinet is draped with the flag of the Kingdom of Italy. Photo courtesy of Lucy Salle.
Listen to audio of John Croce.