My mum was the first person to buy an airplane ticket out of her village in Sicily. She came to Brisbane to visit family and never went back – she said that she smelt freedom here. At the time, she was engaged to my father, and apparently she said to him, ‘If you want me, you come here, because I’m not coming back!’

My parents worked hard all their lives. My father found a job in a factory a week after he arrived in Australia and stayed there until he retired. My mother ran her own business working as a very expensive dressmaker making high end clothes. She did very well for herself.

As a result, my sister and I were looked after by extended family. We grew up in a grand 8 bedroom Queenslander with my grandparents and my aunty and uncle. The house was also divided into flats, so there were always tenants to hang around with, one of whom became our Scottish 'nanna'! We had an amazing childhood where we had lots of people around who loved us. And we grew up completely bilingually, which I feel very grateful for.

But as I grew older, there were some parts which weren’t easy. I had my father, my uncle and my grandfather all in the same house, so there were a lot of restrictions. For example, even though I went to a Catholic girls school, I still couldn’t go on a school camp. And I could never stay over at a friend’s house. They used to say, ‘She will never spend a night in a bed in someone else’s house unless she’s married.”

They also certainly didn’t understand what it meant to have a child who was academic. In my final year, one of the nuns said to me, ‘Aren’t you applying for university? You should be!” They were appalled that no-one had encouraged me. In the end, I filled in the application and didn’t tell my parents.

When I was accepted to do a BA at the University of Queensland, all hell broke loose. At that time, UQ was the centre of student politics, and all they could think of was sex, drugs and rock and roll. I remember Dad saying, “No daughter of mine is going to that place!”, then my grandfather chiming in, “No granddaughter of mine is going to that place” and it went on and on for hours as a massive screaming match. In the end, I just said to them, “I’m going to do whatever I want regardless of what you think!” And I did.

Later, my mother came up to me and said, ‘Good on you’. Her father had actually done the same to her. She had won a scholarship to become a teacher but he hadn’t allowed her to go to the training college, and she had always regretted it.

After uni, I was offered a permanent role teaching migrants English, and that’s been my career for 37 years. I am also the president of the QLD TESOL Association.

I didn’t set out to be an EAL teacher, but once I started I realised it was exactly what I wanted to do. I always had that empathy, growing up, knowing that people have to work that little bit harder to be successful when English isn’t their first language. Even with my mother who could communicate very well, I could see people in the shops being very difficult and rather stubborn and just not trying to understand her.

To me, language is power. If you’ve got language, you’ve got an 'in' into society, and if you don’t, you are totally disempowered.

Now, teaching is my passion.

Born in Australia
Parents born in Italy
Arrived 1959 & 1960

Photographer: Pia Jessen

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