As September arrived I was getting increasingly worried. If Paul were in California he would be starting kindergarten. It was time to get serious about school.
The town of Cerrina, whose municipality encompassed Gabi, had one preschool (asilo). Most of the people in our area had sent their children there, so we drove over to see it with the boys. It consisted of two rooms with a playground outside, attached to a home for elderly Italians who had no children to take care of them. One old nun watched the many children in her care without help. Like most of the people in that area, she didn't speak any English, so I couldn't ask her about her philosophy of teaching little ones, nor find out if she was right for our boys. George tried, but he hadn’t read the same books as I had, and he didn’t know all the right questions to ask. Once more I felt frustrated at my lack of Italian, but I could still observe the facilities.
One room had a piano and books, the other a table with blocks and pegs, and outside was a small yard with some play equipment. Because it was the local asilo, and we wanted to do what the locals did, we signed them up. George and I told the boys that they were going to preschool and they seemed to understand and offered no objections. The next day, we walked in with them and said goodbye. Paul was fine, but James began to cry as we walked towards the door. The nun told us this was normal, and to Go! Go! James was howling as we pulled out of sight, and I felt awful. He rarely cried, but he could be very shy, so I knew this was hard on him. I wanted to go back to get him, but we decided I was being silly and that he was safe, for a day anyway. He was playing nicely when we returned at four, but Paul looked bored.
At home, they told us their day was blocks and pegs and singing at the piano, then lunch. They had no writing, no painting, not even crayoning, and after lunch they had to take a nap. Since Paul had given up naps at age three, he objected to that. But I could understand. The nun was alone, she probably needed the break, and it was easier if everyone napped at the same time. In the afternoon, they played outside until we arrived. James said he had cried for us loudly at lunch, and the sister yelled at him.
"What did she say?" I asked.
"I don't know, she was speaking Italian," James replied.
Hmmmm. He spoke Italian better than I did, but perhaps I expected too much, so I gave him advice: "When you don't understand, you must say 'Non capisco.'"
He looked up at me, frowned a bit, then replied, "No. When I don't understand, I say 'Non ho capito niente.'" (I haven’t understood anything.)
I realized that was probably better than what I had told him. It certainly sounded better. He was only three years and nine months but he was catching on to the language far quicker than me, and his accent sounded perfect. "Is that what you told the teacher?" I asked him.
"Then what did she say?"
"I don't know; she was speaking Italian."
How could he correct my Italian and then claim not to understand the teacher? I couldn’t be sure, but I thought maybe he was resisting. Or she was speaking dialect. He cried the next morning and said he didn’t want to go, but we made him anyway. His grandfather drove them, thinking maybe I was the problem. He said James cried a little bit but was fine when he picked him up. The old nun said James had refused to eat his lunch, but at four o’clock when he saw his grandfather’s car, he ran to his lunch box and gobbled his sandwich. When he got home, he announced that he wouldn’t go the next day. With minor variations, this went on for three more days, but more importantly, Paul was still bored and I worried that he wasn't learning anything. So we pulled them out.
This was not a wise move for people trying to fit in. That asilo was where the local people sent their children. Because we pulled them out we were making a statement that their preschool wasn’t good enough for us. Because this was mostly my decision based on my readings about early childhood education, I felt a little guilty. I felt it even more when my in-laws questioned what we were doing, then frowned. They wanted the best for the children too, but I think they considered me a bit too fussy. The community was tight and we were "the Americans." Uncles and cousins, and grandfathers—Marcas galore—made no difference to them. We were still "the Americans." We were indeed acting like Americans. When one service didn't suit us, we weren’t afraid to reject it. Our children meant more to us than community solidarity.
We had heard about another asilo, in a town much further away, where Cousin Luigi had sent his boys. We decided to check it out.