10. The Italian home: Me, Miss Sexy Dollar, and the Filipinos

Giving private English lessons was a revelation in how wealthy Roman families lived. Packed onto buses, shoulders weighed down with books, dice, cards, worksheets, puppets in some cases, we nodded hello to doormen, ran up marble stairs, looked at ourselves in elevator mirrors surrounded by velvet and met a lot of Filippina nannies and a lot of strange and wonderful children.

One of my first jobs in Rome was with a small company that sent teachers all over the city to teach private lessons. Families paid a fortune and were guaranteed that a licensed native English speaking teacher would show up at their door once a week to coach their kids towards an English exam, better grades or general English improvement. Since I worked in the underground dungeon school in the mornings, I needed something in the afternoon and this job gave me the unique opportunity to experience the Italian family up close.

The families paid the school in advance and the teacher was paid €24 for an hour and a half lesson. The problem was it could take up to an hour or longer to get to that lesson on public transportation and that was not covered. Prep time? Not covered. Job training? Why, you just speak English, right? Materials? You could come to the school to pick them up, which on public transport took even more time. We usually didn’t get the books for the first two, three, even four lessons despite setting an appointment with the school. When you’re on public transport about 20 hours a week, an extra trip for nothing feels supremely unfair. Even if you have a book, try sitting with a 6 year old on a minuscule plastic chair in their bedroom after they’ve just come home from school and saying: now we’re going to do grammar exercises for 90 minutes. Not happening. You have to come armed with more. So let’s say half an hour MINIMUM of prep per lesson, two hours of commute there and back and an hour and a half lesson. €24 spread over 4 hours comes to €6 an hour. And these were mostly kids lessons so they can only be done in the afternoons post school and pre-dinner. You’re lucky to get three lessons in an afternoon. So you just made €72 in a day which would be €360 a week and a whopping  €1,440 a month. But you never had three in a day. Many days would just be two. Sometimes, just one. Then this week Matteo is sick, Carla is on vacation, Pietro is with his Dad and Marta has a special rehearsal for her play. Now it’s Christmas and ALL the students are on vacation and you are screwed. Now it’s white week and they are skiing. Then it’s easter. The family calls the school in advance and postpones the lesson. The school has its money. You, the teacher, don’t. Even when I quit the school near Termini station to work exclusively for this school (promised that they had “a lot more lessons coming in”) I almost never made more than €1,000 a month and once it dipped as low as €400. I tried telling them I had no savings and no help, just this job and they told me to be patient… more lessons were coming in. One did. Another €24 per week. They weren’t bad people, their school system just sucked for their teachers. It worked for everyone else.

But you knew you had little choice. With no work visa in sight, this was a school that was willing to give me work and pay me cash and they always did pay. I know many teachers who worked months with the promise that their paycheck was just a little delayed. After a few months, part of it would be paid. Then a few months later a little more. Then more months would pass and now you’re just in it, if you quit you’ll never get it, but how long do you wait and then suddenly, oh surprise, you learn the school is shut down. Sorry. You’re illegal. What are you going to do about it?

Dealing with schools aside, the true adventure of this particular job were the many children I met. Mysterious, adorable, terrible, bizarre, magical. I always said: I’m not a kid person. When asked growing up, “how many kids do you want to have?” (which, let’s face it, is one of the stranger things to ask little girl children but which seemed to come up constantly, mostly among peers) my response was always “zero,” which seemed to upset everybody. Now here I was, not only working with children but children that didn’t even speak English. I was strange to them and they were strange to me.

There was the 11 year old daughter of an internationally renowned jewelry company who had her own little Salon where we had our lessons. Packed with stuffed animals, shelves of books and toys and a little divano to lounge upon I tried week after week to break through to her but she remained a completely reserved and perfect doll. She sat quietly, doing one exercise after another without any trouble at all, basically bored out of her mind. I learned she did two sports and had three private tutors. She answered questions as briefly as possible, always correct. With students like this you become a complete maniac. A comedian in front of an audience that won’t laugh throwing out every joke in the book in a last desperate attempt to make a connection with the audience. Nothing.

(Little did I know how well this would be prepare me to be a tour guide…)

At the end of every lesson I would say, Ok, we are finished and she would calmly put down her pencil, stand up, go to the divano and quietly, expertly invert into a handstand. At first I thought yes, she’s showing me something she cares about! I started praising her, asking questions. She just stared at me, upside down, silent. She did them every time and we would look at each other, the upside down girl and a stranger in a strange land.

There were the twin boys, already thugs at age 13 who proudly showed me how many Ralph Lauren shirts they had (40 in different colors… each) that they bought “cheap” in Florida. They told me the price of their TV and the price of the Rolex their mother had bought as a Christmas present for their father whom she had divorced but apparently still gave rolexes to (ok). One day we had cake and I asked who made it.

The Filippina, they said.

You mean your nanny?

Yeah, the Filippina.

What’s her name? I asked.

The kids who knew the price of every expensive thing in their beautiful home didn’t know the name of the woman who had lived with them and partially raised them since they were born.

There was the kid who I slowly started to realize had some kind of learning disability as he could not remember a single thing. He would say one two three and two seconds later couldn’t remember how to say the numbers. Eventually I figured out that if we moved, he could remember things. If I associated a word with a movement then later doing the movement would elicit the word. With him, sentences became dances.

Some lessons were so boring it was hard to stay awake. There is magic in the bathroom break. I used to take them as a treat for myself. Also because they usually had lovely little soaps and sometimes rolled up towels like a hotel.

To mothers that brought me tea or a cookie: I will be grateful to you forever.

There were three red head kids that were always angry. I dreaded their lessons. They didn’t listen, they shouted, they hit each other. Their filippina and I didn’t know how to control them. One day the mother came home early and they ran to her and started to show her what they had done in our lesson. I was surprised to see their faces were hopeful and proud as they held up their pictures of a farm. Their mother didn’t look at them, just said si, si, si and distractedly went to the kitchen while my heart broke for them.

And this is something I always noticed about the type of attention given by parents to their children and the behavior of those children. Of course many parents weren’t there in the afternoons, they were at work but I usually got to meet them eventually and I saw how they interacted with their kids. The better behaved kids had parents that paid attention to them – not excessive attention, but who, in their interactions, were genuinely interested in their kids. The worse behaved kids had parents that dismissed and ignored them. I was shocked to see that in four years of teaching, these two categories coincided in almost every single case.

At one house I taught at, the Sri Lankan door man pulled me aside one day and asked if I would teach his 13 year old daughter, but not to let the owners of the house know since he didn’t think they’d like to know their daughter and the doorman’s daughter had the same teacher. I taught her for 3 or 4 years and watched her grow up into a teenager. Our lessons eventually became gossip sessions mixed with grammar – honestly the best way to learn a foreign language.

There was the kid who knew every single dimension of famous monuments around the world. How tall is the eiffel tower, how heavy is Big Ben. One day, he told me his parents hadn’t been born in Rome, they were from Milan. And what about you, I asked, where are you from? “I’m from hell,” he said. “Have you been there?” He then proceeded to tell me everything he had seen in hell which included Hitler and a lot of jazz music. I didn’t teach him for much longer.

There was the father who said he would never let his daughter play soccer because it would make her thighs too big and compromise her beauty later in life.

The sweetest family I ever met with two boys: one an incredibly shy, conscientious teenager and the other a very outgoing 9 year old whose reward for exercises was to sing and dance in the living room.

There was the genius kid who spoke perfect English and we watched movies and analyzed them. He was in engineering highschool and also spoke Chinese.

There was teenage girl who every time I entered the house and asked: How are you? She responded: I’m Alessandra. You think I don’t know your name by now, I’ve been coming every week for 6 months! One day she had to memorize a paragraph in English for school. I cringed. This was going to be impossible. She read it through twice, turned the paper over and recited it perfectly. She had no idea what it said but she could memorize anything. Italians are really good at this.

The girl who couldn’t come up with her own opinion and kept insisting we should search online for the “answer” to a homework question that was about her opinion. Also something I found to be common.

But one of my favorite students was a nine year old who was already acting like a little teen. First of all, she was obsessed with breasts and asked why I “didn’t have them” (!). She always told me who had kissed who at school. Since she seemed to like gossiping I thought we should write some stories so we could fictionalize some drama instead of just talking about it. The character she came up was a little version of herself all grown up. She had moved to New York to marry Brad Pitt. I of course asked, and what about her job? Oh she has a lot of jobs! She works as a dancer on Broadway, an actress and a hairdresser (the height of female awesomeness apparently). I told her the character needed a name and she promptly and immediately named her what might be the best name of all time: Miss Sexy Dollar. She got so into the character that she started signing her own papers with the name and occasionally referring to herself as Miss Sexy Dollar. I would dutifully then collect all those papers and take them home with me for fear of a parent wondering what the heck I was doing with their kid.

One day this student wanted to show me the dance she was learning in class and when I said ok, she climbed onto the large table we were using as a desk and began to provocatively prance around, alternatively stalking like Beyonce and writhing up and down like a pole dancer, always maintaining direct and incredibly awkward eye contact with me. I prayed to GOD that no parent walked into the room at that moment but I didn’t have to worry about that since neither of them, both lawyers, were ever home when I was there and even though I taught her for a year I would never met them. I only ever saw her loving, ever present with a snack and a smile, Filippina. 

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