Spending every summer of his childhood in Sicily convinced Antonino Bondi that he wanted a career somehow related to Italy. He never pictured himself as a teacher in those days, but he has realized his dream in a classroom.
Bondi, 31, the son of parents who immigrated from Sicily to Chicago in the 1970s, teaches Italian 2, 3 and 4 in northwest suburban Township High School District 214. He starts his day teaching at Rolling Meadows High School, and then travels to Prospect High School in Mount Prospect to teach in the afternoons.
For someone who spoke the Sicilian dialect as his first language until he went to kindergarten, Bondi has come full circle.
“The joke in my family is that, when I was a little kid, I came home from that first day of school and said, ‘everyone talks differently,’ Bondi recalls. “My parents laughed and said I was the one who talked differently, but that I would learn.”
While he learned English in school, he was also learning some finer points of Italian at Casa Italia’s Italian language classes, starting in about second grade. During the summers, his parents, who were from the town of Altavilla Milicia, near Palermo, would send Antonino and his sister to stay with their aunts in Sicily. That also strengthened their command of Italian.
As a child starting out with Sicilian, he says he picked up both English and Italian grammar as the years went along. After his fifth grade year, however, the family moved from the Belmont and Narragansett neighborhood in Chicago to the suburb of Prospect Heights. His high school was Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, and as a freshman, he was disappointed they didn’t offer Italian.
“I started a petition drive to see if students wanted to take Italian,” Bondi says. “It got a lot of signatures, so we started an Italian club my sophomore year.”
He had good timing. The middle schools in the area were offering Italian, and consequently High School District 214, which includes Hersey, started an Italian program. Bondi was able to take Italian 1 during his senior year of high school.
“I knew all the vocabulary, but because class was on a daily basis, it really strengthened my knowledge of the language,” he says.
Ever since childhood, Bondi had felt his identity was as Italian as it was American, and he nurtured a dream of having a lifelong connection to Italy. He originally planned to become a pharmacist and work at a hospital in Sicily where his aunt was an administrator. A job as an Osco pharmacy technician the summer between high school and college was his first real exposure to working in a pharmacy, and he found it wasn’t for him. Then a friend planted a seed in his mind by suggesting he could teach Italian.
He attended Loyola University of Chicago, spending a year at its John Felice Rome Center campus in Italy and graduating with a double degree in Italian and secondary education.
That led to a job teaching Italian at Morton East High School for two years, and then the job at District 214, where he has worked for seven years.
He participates in Prospect High School’s student exchange program, which pairs about 20 students with students at a Verona, Italy high school. The American students’ families host the Italians for a week, and then the Italians reciprocate by hosting the Americans in Verona.
He didn’t go to Italy on the last exchange, however, because his wife Rita was about to give birth to their firstborn, Domenico Matteo, who is now eight months old.
As a teacher, students often come to Bondi saying they want to take Italian but someone else — often a family member — wants them to study a different language.
“I tell them, ‘choose a language you want to take, not a language somebody else wants you to take. If you take a language you’re not interested in, there won’t be that learning, that retention, because you don’t have a passion for it.’”
Asked why he continues teaching, he responds, “Students come with different interests, and it’s my job to connect their interests with the language and the culture. I love to see their progression. In the beginning, it’s tough for them, but at the end of four years, they’re almost surprised at how well they do.”