Playing Giovannitti – fiction by Joe Emersberger

On the first day of my Grade 11 history class, Mr. Marini had written out a quote by someone named Arturo Giovannitti on the blackboard. Before I could sit down, Marini gave me a stack of blue paperback books to hand out to everyone.

“These books are yours to keep,” he announced. “In them, you’ll find all the material we’ll be covering this semester.”

The book was “A people’s History of the US” by Howard Zinn.

Peter Howard’s hand shot up in the air.

“Yes, Peter.”

“Sir, how is this ancient history?”

“It isn’t.”

“But you’re supposed to teach us ancient history.”

“I know, but I’m not going to, so you can drop the course, rat me out to your parents, or stay and try to learn something. It’s up to you.”

I assumed that Marini was pulling a stunt to illustrate some kind of point. One of my previous history teachers did things like that, but it was out way of character for Marini. I had been in his class before. He usually read newspapers while his students worked on (or pretended to) whatever assignment he had written on the board. He dealt ruthlessly with anyone who disrupted the tranquility of the classroom, and he was abrupt with students who asked him questions. He was no rebel, unless coasting into retirement about twenty years early counts as an act of rebellion.

Marini explained how we would be graded and I felt even more certain that this was all a joke:

“As of now everyone has a B. Leave now and miss every class, every assignment and you’ll get a C. Show me a good work ethic and you’ll get an A. Anyone unclear about the grading system?”

A few students got up and left the classroom chuckling delightedly. I thought they were idiots to believe that Marini was serious.

“We’ve all had it drilled into our heads,” began Marini, “that we owe a huge debt to kids about your age who died on the battlefields of Europe, but the truth is that we owe a far greater debt to people who did their fighting at home against their own governments. Does anyone know who I have in mind?”

“Someone named Arturo Giovannitti?” answered Rosa Basile gesturing towards the quote on the board.

“Well, yes Rosa. Thanks for noticing the quote. He is one of the people I had in mind, but we owe a great many people – everyone from the French who overthrew the monarchy in 1789 to the civil rights movement of the 1960s – but today we’ll talk about Arturo Giovannitti and the movement that he was part of.

“He immigrated to the USA from Italy in 1904 when he was twenty years old. He was poet and a union leader. The words I wrote out on the board are taken from a speech he made to a jury in 1912. He was on trial for murder and facing the death penalty.”

“You really don’t need to bother with notes guys,” Marini added as he noticed some of writing. “This is covered in Zinn’s book – chapter 13.”

Marini continued.

“Giovannitti had been helping to organize a strike by textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Most of the workers were immigrant women, thousands of them were from Italy, but many were from other parts of Europe. About half of the so called women were actually teenage girls. They worked under conditions so horrible, and were so poorly paid, that about a third of them died before they turned twenty eight years old. A strike broke out after their bosses decided to make their lives even worse by cutting their wages. The strike spread from factory to factory until the city was basically shut down.

“The mayor called out the police and a local militia to attack and intimidate the picketers. The authorities also banned all public meetings and gatherings. Can anyone explain why they would do that?”

No one volunteered an answer, so he asked a girl named Jana to take a guess.

Jana turned red and shrugged so he asked Rosa.

“To get the workers off the streets?” Rosa said.

“Exactly! They made picketing illegal which effectively made the strike illegal. Arturo Giovannetti was with a group called the Industrial Workers of the World – the IWW. They were also known as Wobblies. These guys were experienced, radical unionists. They traveled all over the US helping workers fight back against their bosses. Giovannitti and his IWW buddies gathered donations from all over the country. They helped set up soup kitchens and volunteer medical services to help the workers survive the strike. But despite all the help the strikers received they were still having a very hard time holding out. Their most serious problem was feeding and looking after their children.”

Peter put up his hand.

“Yes, Peter.”

“If they had it so bad then why’d they have kids?”

“Does anyone have an answer for Peter?” Marini asked.

I thought Peter’s question was really dumb, and annoying, but I couldn’t clearly express why. Some of us scoffed, but no one volunteered an answer.

“I guess you have us all stumped Peter, but I’ll continue with the story and maybe someone will think of an answer for you.

“The IWW appealed all over the US for people to look after the children. They received hundreds of applications from people in New York City, so most of the children ended up being sent there by train. In Grand Central Station the children were greeted by thousands of cheering supporters. The most serious problem faced by the strikers was being solved. What do you think the authorities did in response?”

“Arrested more people?” suggested Rosa.

“That’s right. They cited a law on child neglect to make it illegal for the strikers to send their children out of Lawrence. The police eventually stormed the train station and arrested the parents. In fact, they beat up the parents, and even many of the children, right in front of the press. It led to a big scandal and to Congressional hearings.

“The strike ended after three months and the workers won a fifteen percent wage increase. However, a worker by the name of Anna Lopizzo had been shot dead by police during the strike. Giovannitti and two other guys were blamed for the murder. The case against them was a joke, but, as I think you can guess, they were not exactly guaranteed a fair trail. There were strikes in Lawrence in support of Giovannitti and his co-defendants. There were major protests held in their support in New York and Boston. The pressure worked. They were acquitted.”

“Does any one care to draw any conclusions from all this?” Marini asked.

“Get a good education so you don’t have to do crappy work,” blurted out Peter.

Rosa immediately countered with her take:

“If it weren’t for people like Giovannitti and those women then most of us wouldn’t be sitting here in class. We’d be working ourselves to death in a factory for some idiot who tells us not to have kids.”

“If you can’t even feed yourself you shouldn’t have kids,” Peter replied with a shrug.

“You shouldn’t be allowed to pay people wages that kill them,” snapped Rosa.

“Okay, anyone other than Peter and Rosa have something to add?” Marini asked.

“What do you think, sir?” Peter asked. “You’re the teacher.”

“Alright Peter, but be honest, don’t you have a problem with people getting paid wages that, like Rosa said, literally kill them?”

“Why didn’t they just go somewhere else?”

“Most of these people were immigrants, Peter. They had gone somewhere else, traveled thousands of miles in fact, at tremendous cost and risk. Do you think these people would have passed up better work if it was available – these same people who had come all the way from Europe for a better life?”

“The question I asked,” Peter said (ignoring the point Marini had responded to), “and that no one has answered, is why these woman had children if they couldn’t feed them?”

“Remember that this was 1912,” Marini replied. “Child labor was common. There were children working in the factories of Lawrence alongside their mothers. Children were extra mouths to feed, but they were also extra hands to help with work. It’s far from obvious that it was economically unwise to have children.”

A boy named Luis, who never participated in class, raised his hand. Marini nodded at him to go ahead and speak.

“My grandparents in Colombia had eleven children. They were extremely poor when the children were little but today they are much better off because the family stuck together and everyone chipped in to help. The older children, like my Dad, worked since they were little, but the youngest ones were able to go to university.”

“Thank you Luis,” said Marini, “That‘s a common story in many countries, but there is something else I want you guys to think about. Suppose we could all trace our ancestors back to 1912 or earlier. Who do you think we are more likely find as our ancestors – workers or factory owners?”

“Workers,” many responded.

“Pretty obvious right?” said Marini “There were always many more workers than owners, so even those of us who are quite well off today – if we trace back far enough – will find ancestors living like those strikers in Lawrence, or worse. Very few, if any, of us will find ancestors among the rich and powerful or even among the relatively well off. So if we condemn our ancestors for having kids then we’re condemning them for giving us a chance to live.

“In fact, go back thousands of years and you’ll find that everyone’s ancestors  – even the Queen of England’s – lived lives that were very hard and very short. As humans, we have this desire to cheat death by leaving behind children, or at least something of ourselves, and to hope that the next generations will do better. Awareness of death intensifies this desire. Without it, our species might have called it quits tens of thousands of years ago and none of us would be here.”

I put up my hand thinking that I had finally seen the point of the stunt Marini was pulling.

“Yes, Angelo.”

“Is the point of this stunt to show that ancient history is relevant to our lives? Are you saying that we owe people from thousands of years ago a huge debt for surviving, just like we owe the strikers you talked about?”

“There’s no stunt going on here. Ancient history has its relevance, but I’ve decided to teach more recent history, and to emphasize a point of view that is generally ignored.”

“But you can’t just decide to teach something we haven’t signed up for. I’m sure that’s not allowed.”

“You’re correct. It’s not allowed, but I’m doing it anyway.”

Marini had been standing the whole time but now he slowly took a seat at his desk.

“You’ll get in trouble,” I objected.

“I probably will, but I don’t care. Does that bother you?”

“I’m not complaining. I just don’t get how you can get away with this.”

“That’s okay,” he said softly.

Then he looked at me with a weary smile that made me uncertain what to believe.

“Angelo, please read the quote on the board,” he asked

I began to read it but he stopped me right away.

“Come one, Angelo,” he pleaded. “You were wonderful in the school play last year. Get in character. You’re addressing a jury, and your life is on the line. Give a bit of an Italian accent if you want to – but don’t get comical with it.”

I didn’t attempt an accent, but I made an effort get in character. I paused frequently to avoid sounding rushed, and made sure my voice carried. This time, Marini did not interrupt me:

“I have a woman that loves me and that I love. I have a mother and father waiting for me. I have an ideal that is dearer to me than can be expressed or understood. And life has so many allurements and it is so nice and so bright and so wonderful that I feel the passion of living in my heart and I do want to live.

“I don’t want to pose to you as a hero. I don’t want to pose as a martyr. No, life is dearer to me than it probably is to a good many others. But I say this, that there is something dearer and nobler and holier and grander, something I could never come to terms with, and that is my conscience and that is my loyalty to my class.”

My cheeks burned as I heard my voice echoing Giovannitti’s words from nearly a century ago. In attempting to bring the words to life, I felt the words breath life into me. I felt something of the courage and the joy that the poet had thrown before his accusers.

Mr. Marini looked down on his desk while I read and was silent for a few seconds after I finished.

“Good job, Angelo,” he said quietly. “I have copies of the full speech for anyone who’s interested.”

I read Giovannitti’s speech aloud many times that night. Within a few weeks I had it memorized. I recorded myself reading it in order to better evaluate and refine my delivery. My parents got a real kick out of listening to me experiment – over and over again – with Italian accents. However, they weren’t amused a few years later when they realized I was serious about becoming an actor.

A group of us cobbled together and performed a play later that year in which I played Arturo Giovannitti.

Marini never saw the play, or even heard me recite Giovannitti’s speech with the Italian accent that I perfected at home. The play was dedicated to Marini, the last teacher I ever thought we’d do something like that for. In his own way, he too had played Giovannitti in the end, cheated death, though he passed away within weeks of that history class.

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