Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

Paul Pisani

Paul Pisani, MTC Maroubra

I was born in Australia in 1965. My father was Maltese, but was born in Port Said, Egypt and was a British subject. His family originally came from Malta, but moved to Egypt to work for the Suez Canal Company in 1914 as shipbuilders. They built coal barges and tugs out of both wood and steel.

My mother was Italian, and was born in Sicily. Her family came from the Seven Volcanic Islands near Sicily, which were ancient. They traded in salt with the Spanish Empire.

When l was five years old, I went to kindergarten at St. Andrew’s School, Malabar. In 1975, when l was ten years old, I started at Marist Brothers School, Daceyville, where l was placed in the ESL (English as a Second Language) system. It was thought wrongly that l would not be able to speak, read and write English, because I came from an ethnic Italian background that at that time were hostile to foreign people they assumed had fascist leanings.

The people who ran the schools were English and had a bad experience of fascism. The Italians had surrendered to the English in 1943 in North Africa. They were sent to internment camps for the duration of the war, as punishment. In Australia, the Italians were rounded up and taken to internment camps in South Australia where they stayed from 1940 until after the war ended in 1946. When they came out, the Australian people did not trust them with their looks, strange clothes and language. The solution was to set up an education system that separated the Italians from the Anglo-Saxon white children.

This system was called ESL, where other children and I were taught English. We were taught how to read, write and spell, and were told about the English way of life and the British Empire. We had to use spelling cards, and would have to write out the same letter in an exercise book. We were not allowed to speak our mother tongue or talk about other countries or where our parents came from. In later years, it became difficult for me to talk to my parents in Italian. This nonsense came to an end when the education department changed policy. l went back into a normal classroom, but l was always at the back and left behind. The teacher did not want to teach maths and was not interested in me. When the government stopped the ESL experiment, the school gave up on me and themselves. The school shut down and is now the Catholic Education Office.

Nobody wants to talk about ESL any more, and many retired teachers still defend this wrong system. They claim it was right and I am wrong, that they were trying to teach me English, and make me forget about my Italian background.


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