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At Manhattan International, an English learner teaches English learners

Students at East view footage from the protest at their school
Students at East view footage from the protest at their school

This is one part of an occasional series focusing on the individuals who make up the city’s 80,000-member public school teaching force produced in conjunction with the Covering Education course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

The aim for the day was written in large, cursive letters on the blackboard: “What is poetry and how does it convey truth?”

Cinzia Bontempo, the 12th grade English teacher at Manhattan International High School, sat on the edge of her desk, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows. “What about music?” Bontempo asked her students. “Poetry is found in music all the time. Does anyone know any songs in English?”

“Imagine all the people,” one student belted out in a thick Dominican accent. Some of his classmates joined in, creating—just for a moment—a very international Beatles cover band.

“The things that I miss the most are the songs from my past,” Bontempo said before she smiled at her students, some nodding their heads in agreement.

Manhattan International serves more than 300 students who had lived in the United States for fewer than four years when they applied to the school. Students come from more than 50 countries and speaks more than 40 languages.

Bontempo knows what it’s like for them to be far from home. She moved to New York in 1998, leaving behind a successful 20-year career as a furrier in the Italian fashion industry. “I was the best I knew,” she said.

Born in Trieste, a seaport in northeast Italy, Bontempo lived the first 10 years of her life in a refugee camp built by Americans after World War II. The Yugoslavian People’s Army ran the camp after receiving authority over parts of Trieste from the Allied forces, until the border with Yugoslavia was settled in 1975.

“Growing up in a border city was painful,” she said. It was in the refugee camp that Bontempo says she developed her interest in understanding racism and discrimination, which she often discusses in her English classes.

Back in New York City, Bontempo’s students can appreciate the power of borders. When she tells students her stories from childhood, they listen, rapt. “In previous years, I had students from Serbia, Albania, Bosnia, so they were very interested in that,” she said.

She began working with fur because she loved to sew and eventually started her own company. When animal rights activism made a career as a furrier untenable, she decided on a drastic change: to move to New York, learn English, and work in the travel industry.

It wasn’t until she took her first English classes at LaGuardia Community College that Bontempo realized that her heart was in learning and teaching languages.

“I loved to help my fellow students,” she said. “When I took my first travel business class, I thought, ‘This is not me.’ I’m not a businessperson.”

Instead, she worked toward a bachelor’s degree in English and education, and then went to Hunter College, where she got a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language.

Bing, a 17-year-old student of Bontempo’s from China, said having a teacher who understands his struggle to learn English is helpful. “Because she’s good at English and because English is her second language, it tells us that we can do it too,” he said.

Now, Bontempo sees connections between her past life and her work in the classroom. The adrenaline required to work as a furrier in the months preceding Christmas is comparable to the feeling of having to correct 65 essays in less than a week, she said.

“As a furrier, you work like a dog for four months,” she said. “It is a skill that I have inside of me: that sense of urgency. I spend months teaching literature, and that takes time. But then I have to read all of this stuff, and then I have a deadline too.”

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