On February 1, 2001, I had to prove that I was Italian-American. I brought this upon myself a month earlier when I made the mistake of boasting to an acquaintance. I told her about my going to art school in New Jersey and how often I was invited by my niece’s elementary school to come in and draw for the kids. So, when the acquaintance asked me if I would like to do that here in Los Angeles? I said, “Of course!” She said, “Great!” and invited me to do the same for the kids in a Headstart program located in Watts, CA. Watts?! What did I just get myself into? I’ve seen the movie “Colors.” I began to panic, because I thought had nothing in common with these kids. I thought to myself, “What are they going to think about this blue-eyed devil coming into their school?” The fact that they were only pre-schoolers didn’t’ matter. They are going to hate me! But, I didn’t want to look bad, so I handed her my business card. She took one look at it and said, “You’re Italian? That’s great! You can tell them what it’s like to be Italian-American.”
You mean being white and living in the suburbs didn’t set me apart enough? Then I had a brutal awakening. I’m an Italian-American?! All of a sudden, I felt as if for the past thirty-nine years I had been masquerading as an Italian-American and now someone was calling my bluff. How am going to prove it? I’m not qualified. I am nothing people expect when they imagine an Italian-American. I can’t speak Italian, I don’t know how to play the mandolin or accordion, I’m not a tough guy or Mafioso type, I don’t watch soccer, never belonged to an Italian club, the only thing Italian about me is the fact that my grandparents were from Italy. Even more embarrassing is all those years I ate and enjoyed my grandmother’s authentic Italian cooking I never bothered to learn what any of it was called. I was beginning to think that all I knew about being Italian-American was what I learned from watching TV. Oh my God. I’m a fraud.
It gets worse; because word got out that an “authentic” Italian-American was doing a goodwill presentation for the unfortunate children of Watts, the Italian Consulate General jumped on board to host the event. What are they going to expect from me?! Well, on the bright side, I didn’t have to worry about going to Watts anymore.
Until, I got a call inviting me to visit their school. The head of the program wanted me to see how the topic of my upcoming presentation inspired the teachers, parents and students. When I arrived at the school I was greeted by the head of the program and she seemed genuinely happy to see me. She was an attractive African-American woman with a British accent who enthusiastically led me to the classroom. The teachers and the children were very excited to meet me. Their classroom was decorated with large pictures of Italy and construction paper maps of Italy the children had made. The maps had different uncooked pastas, seeds and other tiny items glued to them, representing the places these items and objects originated from. Sweet memories of my childhood began to surface. I remembered how much fun I had doing the same types of things in elementary school with my classmates. The program head went on to share how all the parents were making Italian foods at home and teaching the kids everything they knew about Italy. Wow, the people in Watts were nothing like I imagined. They were just like me. I expected to be judged and instead I got handshakes, smiles and hugs.
That’s when it hit me. It was our similarities that impressed me. Recognizing our similarities made me feel included and loved, in spite of the obvious differences. Funny, when I focus on our differences, I worry, but when I focus on our similarities, I feel good, like one of the crowd. From that point discovering different things about each other is fun.
That became my inspiration and I got to work preparing for the big day. I knew one thing every kid loves is cartoons and even more fascinating than that is watching someone draw them. So that’s what I’d do. I’d tell the simple story of my grandparents traveling from Italy to America on a boat, how they started a family and from there on the rest of my story is similar to most American kids; I grew up in a house, went to school and loved spaghetti.
I started to imagine how great it would be if I had a magic pad. A pad that magically brought to life whatever I drew on it. So that’s what I did. I constructed a magic pad out of a large roll of paper and a clothes rack. I hung the roll of paper on the horizontal bar of the clothes rack like a giant roll of toilet paper, so I would be able to pull the paper down like a window shade and draw the cartoons that illustrated my story on it.
The secret to the magic pad bringing the drawings to life was this; after each drawing I’d have the kids say a magic word and then I’d reach through the paper and pull out the real object that was just drawn.
On February 1, 2001, the kids were bused from Watts to the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood. They were all led into the theatre where my magic pad awaited on stage, sleeping. It was obvious the pad was sleeping because it had a sleeping face drawn on it. At the start of the show I apologized in advance to the audience explaining that the pad had a late night and that whenever I wake him up like this he can be uncooperative. That’s when I told the kids what the magic word was. Because we didn’t know what to expect from the pad, the magic word was,“Eye-YEH-Yeh!” “Eye-YEH-Yeh,” is significant for me because its what I say to myself whenever I’m overwhelmed, and, since I picked it up from my grandfather, I assume its Italian.
So to start the show I drew an outline of Italy, then we all said the magic word together, and instead of pulling out a real map of Italy, I got a shiny red go-go boot instead. Holding up the boot, I said, “ I guess that’s close, Italy does look like a boot, doesn’t it?” The kids all laughed and it went on from there, I drew a boat, and pulled out rubber ducks, on and on, one mishap after another had all the children laughing and learning.
For my final drawing I had the kids help me draw a picture of my grandmother by calling out all the different items our grandmothers’ wear. This grandma had on a; a dress, with a coat to keep warm, a hat, a pair of nice shoes, glasses, a nice purse, and her hair was done perfectly, of course.
When I was done drawing grandma, we heard a woman’s voice yell out, “Mangia! Mangia!” Earlier in the show we learned “mangia” was Italian for “Let’s eat!” but where was it coming from? The kids trying to help me, all pointed to the pad. Really? From the pad? Could it be grandma? I told the kids it how special it would be if they could help make my grandma appear today. But since the pad had been being funny all morning, they would have to try really hard so the pad knew this was a special request. They were more than willing, so, on the count of three, they yelled the magic word, “EY-YEH-YEH!” Then I reached through the paper grabbed the hand of my grandma, played by my wife, and pulled her through the pad and on to the stage. She exactly like the grandma we drew. The kids all screamed with surprise and delight.
After the show, while everyone was being escorted into the atrium to be treated to an Italian feast, compliments of the Italian Consulate, I felt a tug on my pant leg. I turned around to see three smiling little children who asked me, “Where’s Grandma?” I brought them to where my wife, still as grandma, was seated. She was surrounded by children, they all wanted to eat their spaghetti with Grandma. Well, I may not have been the star of the show but it sure felt great to be a part of it.
After everyone had left and I was packing up, the Consul General walked up to me, shook my hand enthusiastically said, “bravo,” and asked how long I have been doing my “Italian-American” presentation for kids? He said it was wonderful and asked if I’d be willing to do it again sometime? I said, “Of course.” Thanks to the kids from Watts, I was able to prove that I’m an Italian-American by realizing I have a lot in common with everyone else.