By Pete Kennedy
“Italian is the modern Latin.”
So says Maria Teresa Morrison, who speaks with some authority on matters of language, having spent 32 years teaching Italian, French and Spanish at Valleyview High School in Archbald, Pa., near the Pocono Mountains. Since retiring to coastal Delaware, she has continued to teach at the university level and in other institutions.
“Latin has taken a back seat, because it hasn’t been spoken in over 1,500 years,” she said. “But Italian has the same roots as does Latin, offers all the basics as does Latin, and also [provides] stepping stones to so many more things, historically, culturally, agriculturally.”
Morrison, 70, has served for six years on Delaware’s Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture, and through this body, she is hoping to introduce immersive Italian education to elementary schools in Delaware.
In the immersion model, children are given the option to spend half their day being taught in a foreign language by a native speaker. This innovative approach to foreign-language instruction has already been put into practice in some Delaware schools, but only for Spanish and Chinese.
With nearly five decades of foreign-language teaching experience, Morrison thinks a lack of consistency can critically
hamper the learning process for young minds.
“I’m making this statement based on teaching foreign language for 48 years now: If a child learns a second language, no matter what it is, and learns it well, then the acquisition of a third or fourth language is that much easier,” Morrison said.
“We haven’t been hitting the ball, because we’ve been doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that. You need to take one language and learn it well. And that’s what these immersion programs are.”
Morrison’s own upbringing was an immersion in Italian culture.
“I grew up in a pizzeria,” she said.
Morrison and her husband of 48 years, Robert, both grew up in Carbondale, Pa. Her parents had emigrated from Italy, following relatives who told them there was work to be found in Pennsylvania. Her parents were able to avoid the typical mining and factory jobs because of their barbering skills. They went on to open a pizzeria, Sachele’s, in 1932.
Her father died at age 50, when she was just 3 years old, and her mother continued to run the business. When her mother retired, Robert managed the restaurant while Morrison taught in the local high school, serving as the chairwoman of the foreign language department. They sold the pizzeria in 2000 and retired to Rehoboth Beach.
Morrison started a chapter of UNICO, the Italian-American service organization, in her adopted Sussex County, and she now serves as the district governor of two chapters. She speaks fondly of the group’s work to keep Italian culture alive in her community. It offers monthly Italian classes, an Opera at the Beach event, a bocce tournament, a walk-a-thon each May to raise funds for Cooley’s Anemia Foundation, and an educational award named for the late NFL player Brian Piccolo.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is the Brian Piccolo Award,” she said. “We invite Italian-American student athletes based on the qualities projected by Brian Piccolo — courage, leadership, sportsmanship and also anti-bias, based on his being the first [NFL player] who would allow a roommate of color.”
Since moving to Delaware, Morrison has been a professor at Wesley College and Wilmington University. She is a lector at St. Edmond Church, which hosts UNICO’s Italian classes. For seven years, she provided translation services, mostly Spanish, at the emergency room of Beebe Hospital in Lewes, often assisting poor immigrants with filling out the forms to check in.
“It was very sad in many cases. ‘What is your birthday?’ ‘I don’t know,’” she recalled. “They had grown up so poor, they’d never had a birthday. They would know it was around Christmas or in the summer.”
Morrison doesn’t have as much time for her volunteer activities lately because she has three grandchildren, with whom she spends the summers exploring Cape Henlopen State Park.
Each morning, she and her friends walk up and down the boardwalk near her home.
“I’m lucky if I do two miles,” she said.