Then we go to cities where streets are named for dates – Via Quattro Novembre, Via XXI Aprile. I ask, What happened on November fourth, April twenty-first? Again, the answer is Boh. A shrug of the shoulders. A toss of the head. No idea.
A book I’m reading about Terracina says that every Italian middle schooler learns that the Phoenicians invented Tyrian purple, made from the ink of rock snails called, in Terracinese, scuncije. Armed with this dazzling new knowledge, I immediately quizzed my friends: “Who invented Tyrian purple?” Boh.
How old is that castle? Boh. Who were the Longobardi? Boh, who remembers.
So what *do* you remember? I demand. More shrugs, mumbles about boring classes, bad teachers, too many years of history.
The learning conditions thing I can believe – I used to work in Italian public schools. But even when conditions are less than ideal, there’s a sort of societal solidarity that comes from that shared experience. In pre-schools and some elementary schools, Italian children wear uniforms; the dreaded “grembiule”. They largely resemble aprons or smocks, but there are different styles – nowadays they’re often plain or checkered, but in previous decades they often had frills or floppy bows at the collars. You always knew which kid was trouble by their bow, I once heard a friend muse. If it was crooked, if it was undone. Those were the bad seeds.
Italian schoolkids play Un, Due, Tre Stellina in the schoolyard; they sing the Mameli, not the Star-Spangled Banner; they suffer through I Promessi Sposi and L’Inferno, not To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace. School lets out at one p.m. The grade scale goes from 1 to 10; cheating on schoolwork and tests is not only the norm, it’s expected, and sometimes encouraged. When I was teaching, I had both parents and school administrators ask me to help students cheat on exams, and regularly saw students cheating on their tests in my class*. I never made any bones about calling them on it – you wanted “full English immersion”? Well, here it is.
Students are seated in twos – the relationship between deskmates is an intimate one. Secondary school is seen as a career preparation course, and there are different kinds – il liceo classico, artistico, linguistico or scientifico (for university-bound students who will study arts or sciences), or trade secondary schools like geometria (for quantity surveyors), raggioneria (accountants) or the alberghiero (hospitality professionals). The last year of secondary school they take an exam called the Maturità that dictates whether or not they graduate.
These are things I’ve picked up through osmosis, just living here and teaching products of this environment. But there’s plenty that I miss – both academic and cultural. Gleaning tidbits from friends is no substitute for living it, just as my North American school experiences can’t resonate with Italians on an emotional level. I wouldn’t trade my own school experiences for anything – I’m aware of and grateful for the privilege – but sometimes, I do wish I’d been in those Italian history classes alongside my friends, learning about the Roman empire and all of the kingdoms and wars and the stories behind all those dead dudes on all the street signs. I definitely wish I’d been in Italian class, reading Manzoni and Dante and being asked to write essays over and over again – I’d be a native Italian speaker today. I’m endlessly insecure about my Italian. I’m a heritage speaker to start off with and have lived here for eleven years, so my Italian’s quite good, but there’s just no substitute for twelve years of Italian class every day when you’re young and fresh.
This is what I want:
I want to do it all from the start, like Billy Madison. Go through everything, just like they did, every class, every cultural bind. What, you think I couldn’t do it? They’d barely notice me – I’m as tall as a schoolkid, and we’d all be in masks. Well, at least until the lesson started. Me! Me! I know! I know about the Seventh Circle of Hell! I know the dates of the Roman empire! I know who Bruno Buozzi was! Jeez, who’s that old bat who’s always raising her hand in class and asking for more homework, who won’t let us cheat off of her tests?? Leopards never change their spots, I guess, no matter what country or decade they’re in. Destined to be the official class pain in the ass, yep, that’s me.
Even knowing what I now know – or especially knowing what I now know – I would go to the Liceo linguistico and spent my days studying dead and living languages and literature, tra la tra la. I’d read the shit out of I Promessi Sposi. I want to learn everything and then forget it immediately afterwards, so that the facts remain stains on my self-conscious. Boh. Boh. Boh. Just like everyone else.
Yes. That’s what I want.