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November 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 3

Voices: An American / Choices

      For a few days in September, I tried like everyone else to do what had to be done, to wait for news, and to remain calm. I had not been able to grasp any reason why someone could even conceive of doing such unspeakable things to other human beings. I could not imagine how anyone could reach the conclusion that such cruelty and devastation were reasonable and necessary, even good. I still can't, but I think I have a more complete answer for why the World Trade Center was chosen as a target. It is not only because the Twin Towers represented the world's financial powerhouse, but also because this symbol of New York represented why people come to this country voluntarily in the first place, and why they stay.
      Years ago, I met my great-uncle Joe when we were both visiting relatives in Brivio, Italy, a small town in the Lake District, north of Milano. Joe was my maternal grandfather's younger brother—the one who moved from New York to Florida and made good in his own business, the one with no trace of an Italian accent, the one so completely Americanized that he changed his first name from Giuseppe to Joseph, and the one who loved the Yankees as much as I love the Mets. We talked about a lot of things as we reminisced about our far-flung relatives. He was as talkative and articulate as Nonno—his big brother and my grandfather—was dour and silent. So I asked him to tell me more about why they came to the States after World War I. Nonno would never tell us.
      They had had nothing in the old country. My grandfather Antonio—or Nonno as we called him—had been in the Italian army for 8 years; he was discharged in 1920, after seeing action in some of the most notorious battles in Europe—a time of which he never spoke. Antonio then went to work for the marquesa in their ancestral village of San Colombano as the noblewoman's majordomo. He could learn languages quickly, and he had learned French somehow. In those days, the Italian nobility all wanted to be French anyway, so the marquesa hired him. Antonio seemed fated to spend the rest of his life picking up after a rich, spoiled française wannabe and seeing his relatives living in squalor in a tenement in San Colombano (the lucky ones lived in tenements in Milano). Joe had even less, being much younger and unable even to go to school for three years as Antonio had.
      But somehow they left, after much finagling, taking a boat that was slow and dirty and crowded, and arrived in New York in the 1920s. Because Antonio had spent many years living outdoors while in the army, his olive complexion was burnt dark brown. A few in the new country called him names because they thought he was Indian or North African; they would have called him different ones if they had known that he was Italian. The brothers went to work in the mines of Pennsylvania for a while, because the factory jobs that trained uneducated men for skilled occupations were going to Germans and Scandinavians. They saved their money and moved back to New York.
      Antonio, who by then spoke French and English fluently and knew some Spanish and German as well, got a job as a waiter in a swank restaurant in Manhattan. The family story was that at One Fifth Avenue he had served politicians, socialites and royalty, world-famous writers and artists, Broadway and movie stars, and even Albert Einstein. But the only thing he would ever say about the latter, my childhood hero, was "He stiffed me."
      Antonio brought my maternal grandmother over from Italy. They raised my mother in the East Village and saw her graduate from Hunter College and Queens College with honors and teach in New York public schools for more than 20 years. They saw their grandchildren grow up in a suburban house, go to college, and become an editor, an engineer, and a nurse. They saw their first great-grandchild, whose Chilean-born father worked at the World Trade Center, start school. Eventually, they lived in houses that they owned in the borough of Queens, on Long Island, and finally in a lake district in South Carolina. Joe married, moved to Florida, raised a daughter who became a journalist, and got rich building houses in Miami.
      As we sat on my cousin's veranda in Brivio, Joe said:In Italy, we had no choice. They said you would be what your father was, and what his father had been. They told you that you would live in a tenement because you would always be poor and you were worth nothing, so who cared how you lived? They said you couldn't go to school because you had no money and it was not worth educating you anyway. They told you what kind of work you would do and who you would marry and where you and your children would live. They conscripted you into the army by pointing a gun at your head. They told you what god to believe in and what church to go to and when. They told you what your life would be like. But in America, I could choose my life; I had a choice.
      All this week that conversation has haunted me. Both Antonio and Joe died years ago; their descendants and other relatives are all over the United States and overseas, with many still in the New York area. I was mulling this over when I couldn't sleep, and I had a book with me to read late at night when I couldn't watch the TV coverage any more. All the stories in the book were set at least in part in what native New Yorkers call "the city."
      It was a collection of work by John Cheever, who wrote about the city and its people in what some have called its golden age: the years after World War II. In one story, the narrator of "Boy in Rome" recalls a childhood voyage from Italy to New York: And then I remembered that old lady in Naples, so long ago, shouting across the water, "Blessed are you, blessed are you, you will see America, you will see the New World," and I knew that large cars and frozen food and hot water were not what she meant. "Blessed are you, blessed are you," she kept shouting across the water and I knew that she thought of a place where there are no police with swords and no greedy nobility and no dishonesty and no briberies and no delays and no fear of cold and hunger and war and if all that she imagined was not true, it was a noble idea and that was the main thing.
      We were attacked because we chose to build this country and our lives here on that noble idea. Even with our losses, we can choose how we react now; we can choose how we will live in the face of the unspeakable. We must consider how we will continue to teach our children to reason and make informed choices in a world where critical thinking is sometimes devalued, and how we can help them be strong and remain free in the face of fear, threats, and unreason. My great-uncle Joe was right about more than he could have known. I needed to remember that this week; I was in danger of forgetting it. We must be worthy of the choices we make now. I can only hope that, as individuals and as a nation, we will choose wisely.
      End Notes

      1 Cheever, J. (1980). Boy in Rome. In J. Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever (p. 551). New York: Ballantine.

      Stephanie Selice has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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