Michele Curley’s love of languages and cultures started at age 14. That’s when her grandmother, Filomena Conversano Pesano, who at 17 had left Basilicata and journeyed alone to the United States, decided to take Michele, her five siblings and her parents back to Basilicata.
“It was a really transformative experience,” Curley, an Italian teacher at East Leyden High School, says of the month-long visit. They met relatives, took road trips around southern Italy, returned to Basilicata and then went north to Rome, Florence, Pisa and Venice.
When they returned to the Chicago area, Curley wanted to take Italian when she enrolled at Carmel High School in Mundelein. A nun put her in French, but she was dismayed to later find out she could have taken Italian on the boys’ side of Carmel, which at that time had separate schools for boys and girls.
After four years of high school French, she took both French and Italian in college and graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a degree in the teaching of French.
“It was kind of funny, because my professor said, ‘rAe you going to look for a job teaching French?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m going to Italy,’” Curley recalls.
She lived in France for a year and Italy for seven years, spending most of her 20s there teaching English and working as a travel agent.
Returning to the United States in the 1990s, she earned a master’s degree in French, and in 1998, began searching for a job teaching either French or Italian. Leyden Township High School District 212 didn’t need a French teacher, but they did hire her as the Italian teacher for East Leyden High School.
“I’m very grateful and happy to be the Italian teacher at East Leyden for all these years,” Curley says.
She teaches Italian 1, 2, 3, 4, advanced placement and 5 (independent study).
None of the elementary school districts that send students to East Leyden offer Italian in middle school, so only students who already speak Italian at home can progress into level 5.
However, many students in East Leyden’s area — which includes Schiller Park, Rosemont, River Grove and Franklin Park — know some Italian from their families, she says.
The district also contains West Leyden High School in Northlake, and it offers French, Italian and Spanish in its Modern Languages department. Language teachers work together to promote them, and plan culture nights to enable students to show off the art and food from their languages.
“Learning languages helps students in other subjects too,” Curley explains. “It helps you become more intelligent overall.”
She returns to Italy occasionally, has led students on five trips to Italy, and keeps up with Italian friends. East Leyden has an exchange program with a school in Italy that sent students here last summer. A group of Leyden students will travel to Italy next summer.
And she continues to encourage students to enroll in Italian.
“It’s great to know a language from a culture that has given so many artistic contributions to the world,” she says. “Everyone should know at least two languages, and why not Italian? It’s so beautiful.”