In 1998, I was hired to teach English at the military barracks in the province of Mantova. The course was funded by the European community so that all the draft soldiers would be able to understand each other. The post was extraordinarily well paid if you have no aversion to 18-year-olds, who-remarkably-don’t recall ever having seen a woman before.
Probably the most challenging experience of my language teaching career, that course had all the makings of a top-notch mentor movie. There was the shepherd’s son from Sardegna who didn’t know how to read and the brilliant but angiy boy who was destined to lose a big fight or win a huge prize one day. And then, there was the poor but clean kid who was really going to make something of himself. That was Raffaele, my favorite. And yes, the fact that I had a pet proves that I wasn’t cut out to star in a super teacher flick. It was a pity. With a more suitable tutor, those boys would have been a blockbuster cast. As it was, all they got was a seven-hour-a-day, month-long English course with a woman who wanted them to march to the rhytlun of irregular verbs.
For the first week, at least, I was Mrs. Rottenmeier incarnate. No swearing, no smoking and no paper airplanes unless they were flying 500-word essays in English. Surprisingly enough, it was the first real taste of discipline they’d had since being drafted into the Italian army. I clung to the ‘firm but fair’ principle with sweaty palms and planted my feet like a toy-soldier half buried in sand. No one was going to knock me down, not even men in uniform.
The boys understood me faster than they understood English. By day three, they dropped their innuendos and decided I fit into the feisty ‘watch-your-mouth’ catego1y usually occupied by mothers and sisters. And that’s when they decided to adopt me.
The adoption option is a common alternative for Italian men who have abandoned all hope of seducing you. If all else fails, turn paternal: women who won’t be ruined need to be protected.
We climbed the rungs of mutual affection quickly, as often happens when you’ re forced to spend innumerable hours of su ffer ing in someone’s constant company. I taught them the royal order of adjectives; they taught me both briscola and scopa, two games you play with a deck of cards from Treviso. Their inability to master word order frustrated me. My ability to make a mess of every hand dealt to me fascinated them.
I brought them h·eats twice a week and they took turns accompanying me to the gate-a trade I definitely considered worth th e baking. If I was escorted across the facility, the staring stopped. Their body language expressed an unspoken code: ‘No gawking at the English teacher , bud. This girl’s a lady.’
My young adoptive ‘fathers’ were very concerned about a whole series of issues that usually only bother body-guards. Did I go out alone and walk by myself at night? Did I leave the shutters closed ifI left for the weekend? Did I know that the Big Bad Wolf sometimes dresses as grandma?
‘Mi raccomando, Prof, be careful’, they’d say. ‘Be sure you take a taxi home, mi raccomando.’ ‘Turn your key three times, mi raccomando.’
A strange combination of ‘take care’ and ‘be careful’, what
sounds a lot like ‘recommend’ is actua11y closer to ‘urge’ or ‘beg.’
Mi raccomando is what mothers sayto make sureyou’ll actually keep your promises. It eases the doubt that you weren’t really listening and anchors off-handed commitments: ‘You will do it, won’t you?’ The use of ‘m i’ is what clinches the deal: it implies that the request should be considered a personal favor. ‘Take care of this, please, as a favor to me.’ That tiny reflexive pronoun carries the weight of the warning. Mi is the seed of guilt-you’]] hurt someone’s feelings if you don’t comply. Still, there is comfort in the insistence with which Italians use the phrase. I loved hearing the boys’ admonitions. Mi raccomando somehow made us responsible to each other.
On Monday of week four, I showed up for class and found that
all the desks were empty. Milosevic had gone crazy and the boys had been called on a peace-keeping mission in Kosovo in support of UN tr oops. The cadets were gone, the course had been cancelled and no one had thought to tell the teacher. Europe had decided it was time for my pupils to use English on the battlefield.
Two armed guards accompanied me to the gate, and on the grounds there were only new soldiers who had yet to be trained not to stare. I walked, wishing I’d taught my students something useful.
The royal order of adjectives is worth nothing in a world where things get turned upside-down so quickly.
As we approached the exit, I saw Raffaele striding towards me. There was a difference in his step as if some unfamiliar soldier had suddenly borrowed his boots.
‘You didn’t go with the rest of them? ‘, I asked. ‘Not yet. I’m leaving Friday.’
I know I should have thought of something profoundly inspiring to say at that point, but like I said, I wasn’t made for mentor movies.
‘Good God, Raffaele, don’t go and get yourself killed’, I told him. He gave me a sad smile.
‘I’ll do my best, Miss Linda. And you remember to practice your game. Whatever you do-bold onto the threes-and settebello, those win in scopa, mi raccomando.’
He grinned, bis sadness gone, and saluted me instead of saying good-bye. And then he turned and walked away.
‘Be safe’, I whispered, watching him go. ‘Mi raccomando. Mi raccomando. Mi raccomando.’