lunedì 13 dicembre 2010

tis the season... put up commercially- sponsored Christmas lights in a Catholic country. So I thought I'd take a break from all the occupations and politics and what not and post some pretty pictures.

The Pretty and Well-Funded Lights in the Fashion Quandrangle (Via Montenapaleone, Via della Spiga)

The Sometimes Pretty/Sometimes Totally Weird Alien Pod Lights Near the Duomo:

Even the trams get festive!

giovedì 25 novembre 2010

l'arte di arrangiarsi

The occupation has ended, with a whimper. Classes began again today as everyone had expected, the desks had been put back in their rightful places, the signs removed from the windows. I came into my fifth year class and asked, "Soooo, what have you guys been up to?" The answers included: staying at home to play video games, playing poker, and attending the assemblies organized by the students.

The assemblies included a meeting with some of the immigrants who had been occupying an old factory smokestack near my home to protest the new curfew in their neighborhood, a rapper who found solace in music during his time in prison, and a scholar of the Piazza Fontana bombing. An assortment of political causes, insomma. Then this morning, instead of having classes for the fourth and fifth hour as usual, the students held an assembly for the whole school outside on the basketball court and requested that the teachers join them.

I went with Giovanna, my teacher, and watched as an intrepid group of students with a microphone implored their peers to come up and share their thoughts about the occupation, about the reform, or about politics in general, with no success. The teachers who had braved the cold stood on the edges, a few smoking, while the others watched from inside or waited it out in the teachers' lounge. The kids sat in a big ring around the basketball court, talking to each other in lowered voices, staring back at their friends with the mic, but no one wanted to come and share their views. Those who actually had articulated thoughts maybe were too shy. They are teenagers, after all. Giovanna and I had a giggle, thinking that now these kids were experiencing a little bit of what we deal with every day: the difficulty of making adolescents talk.

As they repeatedly lectured the others about standing up for their rights and how they should be ashamed that they wouldn't speak, Giovanna and I began to talk about Italy in general. She said that the students were protesting (in part at least) the debt owed to the school, but the truth is, there just isn't any money. People do work all the time, she said, that simply isn't paid. There's no money. Berlusconi pushes private schools to funnel money towards the church and private enterprise. Only immigrants are willing to pay taxes. There's corruption everywhere. And people just won't speak up. She said Italy has always possessed l'arte di arrangiarsi, the ability to worm out of even the most dire problems, but maybe it is getting too bad. Maybe Italy is losing its art.

She said that she thought the families would always be what holds Italy together, what gives it the ability to adjust. She looked around at the teenagers before us and said that the situation is bad, people don't have work, so they depend on their parents. And their parents, with their pensions and what little extra money they might have, support them, shelter them.

We spoke about immigrants, the school system, and politics, both in the United States and Italy. Giovanna said that she, ormai, has become a bit of a pessimist about the way the world is going.

We ended up going inside because Giovanna was beginning to feel the cold. I came back down to hear the last bit of the assembly, but it didn't seem like they had made much progress in cajoling their fellows to speak. A pair of my students came up to me to ask me what I thought as a foreigner. I told them that they had great power, being able to shut down a school even for three days is impressive, but they needed to organize and get productive, don't waste those precious days.

But what do I know? My only act of rebellion in high school was dying my hair blue.

martedì 23 novembre 2010

volantino dell'occupazione

This is a volantino that I found in the school yesterday that explains some of the reasons for the occupation. It says:

As everyone knows the school reform is causing enormous difficulties for Italian schools...
Specifically in our school:
Halving of the funds for projects like theater, photography, dance, and school newspaper that now have to pay for themselves to prevent their extinction
170,000 euros owed by the government to the school Cremona-Zappa
Financial problems that lead to the cancellation of school trips (over 2 days long) and remedial courses
No funds to repair laboratory equipment
No money to buy and maintain photocopiers, to which every student has the right.

These are just some of the problems that our school has and they will continue to grow if we don't make our voices heard...NOW!!

skuola okkupata!

The students have taken over my school!

I received a message from my tutor, Giovanna, yesterday saying oggi i ragazzi sono in autogestione quindi non venire per il first, today the kids are self-teaching so don't come for class. Autogestione, like last year? I thought. Don't you guys plan these things ahead of time?

I came to school anyway because I needed to pick up and photocopy a few things. I left my bike at Cremona, noting the large number of bicycles out front and thinking, Weird, people saw a glimpse of blue sky and decided to ride to school? I went first to Zappa, the school next door, and so didn't notice anything else strange.

Returning back to Cremona via the basketball courts, I saw a lot of students in giro, heading towards the gym where I could hear whistles and yelling. Weird for them to have a game during school, I thought. I came in the back door and up the steps to find backpacks strewn all over the floor, the stairwell barricaded with desks, and a group of my students from last year milling around. "Grande Rachel! Sei venuta!" said a boy who had wanted me to friend him on Facebook. "Scuola occupata!"

The school is occupied! So no, not autogestione. More like coup d'etat. I went to the teachers' lounge and found all of my colleagues huddled in the overheated room, snarking about the fact that they were there and if the students wanted to have lessons they could. I found Giovanna, surprised that I had come, and she explained the situation a little bit more...

La Signora Chiara (the head custodian) had found many windows open afterschool on Saturday, but she and the other custodians closed them all. Still, apparently the kids arrived super early on Monday morning and, without open windows, convinced the doorman to give them the keys (still not clear on how this worked). They blockaded the school until 8 am, when all the professors showed up, but the vice-principal convinced them to let the professors in. So they entered, lessons were technically held, but no one came. So the profs all crowded into the teachers' lounge to look over their ledgers and grumble.

They are protesting la riforma and its subsequent budget cuts to school programs. Signs up around the school say that politics have become personal vendettas and power plays, and someone had scattered fliers making the students' case.

Giovanna said that the students and the vice principal had decided the occupation would last until Wednesday, but by that time, she said, most of the kids will probably be sleeping in rather than linking arms in front of the doors. She said she hoped they did something productive with their time off, occupations had become fashionable, they just weren't like they used to be. I kept hearing that from the teachers: it wasn't the same as it used to be back in 1968, that's when occupations meant something.

They asked me if these sorts of things happened in the U.S. Maybe in the 1960s, I replied, but nowadays I don't think we realize it's possible.

This morning I overslept my alarm by almost an hour, leapt out of bed, jumped into my clothes, and raced to the school. I was worried that with letting the professors in on Monday and negotiating an end to the occupation for Wednesday I would still be responsible for my 8 am lesson. I was relieved when I saw the huge group of students outside the school. A couple of my 2nd year students from last year were blocking the gate, but I said, "Good morning sunshines!" and passed through them. "Ciao Rachel," they replied, smiling, even as one girl said, "Ma non dobbiamo fare entrare nessuno!" We're not supposed to let anyone in!

Looking up to see the front doors completely blocked by desks and inside no one but students, I realized that maybe things had escalated. Another prof was trying to get past the first guards, so I returned to hear what they were saying. Basically, the girl explained, no teachers were allowed inside, but if we wanted to go around back we probably could get in if we really insisted. The other prof decided no, I decided yes, I was curious. So I locked up my bike and went around back, where I was greeted with more of my second years, including the ringleader, a girl with a partially shaved head named M.

They smiled at me and said "Ciao Rachel!" but M said, "Non puoi entrare." You can't go in. I wasn't going to insist but I asked them how occupations worked, this being my first. M explained in Italian that they had let professors in yesterday and they had held some assemblies but today no, today began the real occupation. They had slept there overnight, I heard one boy say that he had stood guard outside from 11 pm to 5 am. M continued that the principal and the vice principal were going to call the police but what could they do? "Siamo 500 cristiani qui dentro." There are 500 Christians inside. One boy said, "Io non sono cristiano." I'm not Christian! and she replied, "Vabbè, per dire." It's a figure of speech.

So I bid them good luck and turned on my heels, saying hi to the kids that were arriving. I unlocked my bike and went home.

My thoughts later on...I think this entry is long enough.

venerdì 19 novembre 2010

super 8 film festival

Last weekend under the infinite rain cloud of fall, we discovered Milan's International Super8 Film Festival, which relieved our need to be outside of the house but protected from the downpour. It was held in a little musty theater next to a church, filled with a few damp enthusiasts and a few professionals, some of them sort of famous. Outside under the shelter was a little mercatino where you could buy your very own Super8 camera and projector. Being a little fascinated by old machines that make good noises, I was tempted, but my almost total lack of knowledge held me back.

During the question and answer sessions with a couple directors, one of a much lauded music video for Baustelle and the other of a short film with the Italian actor Sergio Castellito, the problems plaguing Italy kept resurfacing. I think it's a favorite topic of intellectuals here, and why not? They brought up the difficulty of seeing a movie in its original language, everything is dubbed, there's very little funding for independent projects, a mafia of cinema that determines what is appropriate for the public...When asked what advice he had for an aspiring filmmaker, one director replied, "Di andarsene via da qui appena possibile." To get out of this place as soon as possibile.

My favorite short was a Colombian film called "La Fabula del Negro Bautista" but being beautiful no one put it on youtube. So enjoy some of the other super8 films from the festival and contemplate stagnation.

The famous music video for Baustelle's "Piangi Roma"

Music video by Blackie and the Oohoos, a Belgian band

Blackie & the Oohoos - Love Boy from robin vandenbergh on Vimeo.

"The Birthday Cat"by Freya Elliot from the UK, I think

giovedì 18 novembre 2010

speaking of machismo...

Berlusconi may really be in trouble this time. His scandals are piling up and (more surprisingly) seeming to stick, his supporters are slipping away from him, and a vote of confidence in December could cause his government to fall (chaos! exciting!). A New York Times article sums it up nicely for Anglophones.

In the meantime, videos on YouTube have popped up calling on Berlusconi to dimettersi or resign. Some have taken it to the movie trailer territory:

We'll have to wait until December to find out what happens. The slippery signore may scivolare his way out of this one too.

martedì 16 novembre 2010

machismo and the Italian high school student

Last week, in one of my fifth year classes at the technical institute, I presented an article about machismo in southern Europe (Spain, Italy, Greece, and to a lesser extent Portugal) and its ill-effects. The article basically argued that southern Europe's economic woes--such as lagging productivity, enormous debt, an aging population and low birthrate, and a shrinking workforce--could be helped by courting women into the labor market. (In Italy the employment gap between the genders is 22%).

I picked this article because I wanted to start some debate about women's rights and childcare. The article ended up being very difficult for them (gah why you so erudite NYTimes?) and so we didn't get to discuss the issue as much as I had hoped. So I assigned them some homework, a couple of comprehension questions and then an opinion question: What do you think about women working?

Most of the answers were almost identical, little robot responses that said women working is a good thing for the economy. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy the robots are leaning towards feminism. But my favorite response was this one, from a boy R:

"In the workplace I think that women should be treated like men and have the same rights because they work as hard as men.
I'd prefer that my wife, Valentina (his unmarried deskmate), stays at home to look after the children and I would work harder to sustain my family.
Perhaps it is machismo!"

lunedì 15 novembre 2010

a moment

Photo by Guelfo Ajello
Last night we cut through Parco Sempione on our bikes. It wasn't yet 8 but it seemed later, daylights' savings always takes some adjusting for me, the sun was long gone and the nebbia had begun to creep between the trees. The gates of the park are open until 9 but no one ever seems to go in after it gets dark, only a couple of people walking their dogs. We rode down the white muddy path under the dim lights and between the trees and heard music, a saxophone. A lone man was playing jazz beneath the loggia of the old arena, without a hat on the ground and no one to hear him but us. Sad jazz that echoed and ribombava under the Napoleonic arches. I felt I could have been anywhere. He didn't acknowledge us and we passed him by, I never know when to stop, but his music followed us all the way out the gate into the street.

martedì 2 novembre 2010

Rocco e i suoi fratelli

It's the last day of All Saints vacation weekend, it's raining, and the only food I have in the house is food that needs something else to be not gross (like rye crisps). So of course I'm delaying my inevitable drenched venture to Esselunga by staying in my warm room and writing in here.

Last week, F and I went to Gnomo, Milan's community art cinema, to see Rocco e i suoi fratelli, a 1960 film by the great Luchino Visconti. Actually we thought we were seeing Napoleotani a Milano and we didn't figure out we had mixed up the days until a Corriere della Sera movie critic came out and started talking about scenes of violence and prostitutes and false moralism. I was a little bummed that we had traded a fishes-out-of-water comedy for a three-hour melodramatic opera, but I soon got over it watching the film.

This movie has traumatized me a bit, I keep thinking about it. I enjoyed seeing old Milano, the train station, the Navigli before there were so many cars to foul things up, and watching a portrayal of the southern Italian immigrant experience. The brothers together with their mother were fascinating, and Rocco, the saintly brother, was beautiful and frustrating. Nadia was a unexpected force, and I can't help but think that her fate was unfair. The 1960s scenes of violence affected me greatly, me the jaded millenial, and I've been thinking about them a great deal.

Anyways, if one has 180 minutes to spare, I would recommend this one, if only to get you thinking about a movie for more than five minutes.

giovedì 28 ottobre 2010

la riforma

The teachers have been a little grumpier this year. Or, at least, the circles under their eyes have deepened. Perhaps the reason is la riforma Gelmini, the reform proposed by education minister Mariastella Gelmini and passed last year by Berlusconi's government. Gelmini began in 2008 to fire teachers, justifying her actions by saying that the school was for instructing, not for insuring jobs. This newest reform has further cut school budgets, reduced hours in certain subjects, cut hours from teacher's pay provided for substituting, and in some cases doubled the size of classes. One of my teachers has told me that this is all an effort to slowly transfer education responsibilities from the public sector to the private one.

For example, four of my third year classes at Cremona have been combined into two mega classes of thirty students. Thirty sixteen-year-olds, corralled together in one room! In my class with Prof. Scafi we divide into two groups as we've always done, but an intimate discussion is a bit daunting even with 15 students.

As a result, strikes have been occurring almost every week. But they're gentle (not in the style of the French, for sure), two times just for the first hour on Friday. Many teachers, confronted with this brevity, come to school anyway even if they agree with the idea of striking. My friend X, a middle school science teacher, told us over dinner that he thought the strikes weren't enough. Non crea abbastanza disagio, it's doesn't cause enough disruption to just skip the first hour. We need to block the schools for a week, keep the kids at home, before the power will feel anything.

Technically, the strikes are for the teachers, not the students, but of course when the kids listen to an announcement that their first hour of lessons can't be guaranteed, they hear, "NO SCHOOL ON FRIDAY!" and disappear for the whole day.

The concept of striking in general is new to me. That even the teenagers can skip school for ideological reasons seems a little tricky. It might be too easy to excuse shirking responsibilities with political motives. But still, people taking any action at all when they want to communicate their frustration with the government is già something I appreciate.

In my lesson about the Declaration of Independence in my other 30-student third year class, I began by asking the students if they had any complaints about how teenagers were treated at the school. They mumbled and a few said no. I asked them if that was the case, why did they go on strike on Friday? More mumbling, a few answered that they disagreed with the reforms. Don't forget to be informed, I told them, when you take action. Maybe they were, they just didn't want to risk explaining in English.

I'm the opposite. I think and inform myself and think and end up going about my day lo stesso. Though Fridays I don't have class, so maybe I was striking by default.

Bonus: This is the education minister on the cover of a right wing news magazine, Panaroma. Welcome to Berlusconi's administration.

mercoledì 27 ottobre 2010

Encyclopedia Britannica says of Italy...

"less a single nation than a collection of culturally related points in an uncommonly pleasing setting."

So true. So confused. So pleasing.

martedì 26 ottobre 2010

what goes on between classes...

Just another exemplary student at my high school sprecando some extra energy.

writer's block a good thing to get when you've just restarted a blog. Also when you have to write a personal statement for grad school applications. And when you really would like to get back on the fiction-writing horse (which for me is a bareback bucking mustang. Or catatonic). I told myself I needed to write something today, though, so here I am.

In school, I am finding that my responsibilities are multiplying in my second year, which makes perfect sense given that I now have 8 months additional experience. I assign homework in one class now, and in another I have begun to interrogare, or give oral tests in class. This all makes me feel very Real Teacher-like, which is nice, since I hadn't expected my role to change very much.

Given that I have 12 classes plus 2 at the classics high school down the road, I've been exposed to a great variety of students and volontà to learn. Today I started thinking about what makes a "bad class," whether that's ever a fair name. One of my fifth year classes at the technical institute where I teach gives me more trouble than any of the others. One the first day of lessons, the kids were rowdy, talked over one another, spoke only in Italian, didn't pay attention to anything I said. One boy, when I asked him what he did over the summer, told me, "I dreamed Rachel every night." Another told me that a girl in the class hates America, though the girl denied it. For the rest of the lesson he glared at me and the space in front of his desk. They threw pencils across the room, carved initials into their desks. I had to circle the class like a teaching-assistant bird of prey, descending on the distracted kids.

But the more time I spend with the class, the more I realize that independent students are not cattivi and are not hopeless. As a group they are casinisti, no doubt. But some of them try. And those that don't, when I corner them and help them answer a question, they try too. Like when they have to explain the meaning of a word in English, first they say Non lo so, prof, dai but with my hints and help they figure it out in Italian. Then of course there's the Ma non so spiegare in inglese, I don't know how to explain in English, which I pretend not to understand. Come on, I say, give it a try. You can do it. And they try, and they do. It's such a tiny victory, just one word and one definition in English, but to me today it felt big. Which makes me wish I could spend an hour with each of them, pushing them along until they figure out how to move forward by themselves.

Bah. Maybe with some more experience I will figure these dilemmas out. For now I'm just a fledgling myself, trying to wing it.

venerdì 15 ottobre 2010

home again, home again, where is home again?

I'm back. In Milan, I mean. It might seem like I just left (I did, four scant months ago) and that I just wrote that I was home in the U.S. Though, really, I'm not so sure where home is anymore.

Coming back to Milan was a hard decision, and then easy. I agonized over whether I would be able to make it through another winter of fog and bone-soaking rain, whether I was coming back for the wrong reasons, whether I shouldn't settle down with a Real Grown-Up Person Job already. My brother helped me break it down nicely, though: live in the U.S. with no guarantee of a job, especially not an intellectually stimulating one, probably in Northampton where the winters suck just as much if not more as the Milanese ones...or return to Italy for maybe my last opportunity to live in Europe, where I have a job I like and find interesting that (just barely) supports me, friends, and someone I love. Oh, I thought. Well, when you put it that way...

Quindi, eccomi qua.
The summer felt like a brief american pause in a continuum, my life italiana. Arriving in Milan I was suprised by how comfortable I felt. My amoroso met me with a bunch of wilted flowers picked from the Parco delle Cave and helped me carry me egregiously large bags. My speaking wasn't so rusty after a summer of skype dates. I knew the train and the station where it arrived and the bar nearby where we stopped to recharge my phone. I knew the tram to take to get to the apartment where I would be staying with a lovely professoressa. Everything was much easier.

(My ensuing apartment hunt was easier too, though made longer and more frustrating by my knowledge of neighborhoods and average rents and bedbugs and old world attitudes towards guests. The specter of bedbugs haunts my dreams.)

Now I've found a place to live after three weeks and a run-in with old Sicilian sexism and I've begun working. Same characters, different year. The kids know me and greet me in the hallways (a quick and urget "Hi RAYchel!") as I round the corner of the stairs. A couple of my classes erupted in delight when they saw me walk in the door, but they're more happy for not having a test than for speaking English with me. Still, it feels good.

So I'm starting up the blog again. I have to keep stock of the wonderful things my kids do, and I have to keep stock of myself.

giovedì 17 giugno 2010

in transit

Back in the U.S. but not settled. I have eaten lots of Thai food. I have also read some books I had waiting for me, including Beppe Severgnini's La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind. More to come on what's happening with me, but for now I leave you with a near-perfect description of my apartment in Milan.
While describing the problem of mammoni and young Italian's difficulty in finding a house, Beppe writes:

...the compromise is utilitarian yet poetic. Many young people create an all-Italian (my house: all-Italian, all-male, except for melting pot, in apartments where a graduate from Milan (R, the intern/slave for a gossip news agency, and he's actually from Gallarate) lives with two students from Bari (just one student, also from Milan) and a sales rep from Rome (solar energy engineer from Abruzzo)...These are places where spring-cleaning is put off until October (my fault on this one too), food is stored in the freezer (pre-cooked meals from mamma), pasta with tuna is cooked in a dozen different ways (A's specialty is with olives as well), and a glass is raised for every celebration because it costs too much to go out for a drink. (Gassata and gin anyone? Or would you prefer a glass from the Vinbox?)

venerdì 28 maggio 2010

little gifts

Gifts I have received from my teachers and students:
A linen scarf from the teachers at Zappa
A bottle of limoncello from the principal
A bracelet from Ms. B
A photo of the class of 1G where they are giving thumbs up (one of my signature moves) and have written "THANK YOU RACHEL"
A photo from 1E class plus a note saying:
FOR RACHEL! Nice to meet you! Remember us! You are very funny! You are fantastic! We like you!
A bouquet of yellow tulips from the 3rd year class plus a note that says "We won't forget you, have a nice trip, with love..."

Pretty sweet. And then upon leaving, I found this note in the basket of my bike:
X Rachael (spelling error!)
Hi Rachael
Have you got Facebook?
If it is a yes, can you add us
P F & M DM


mercoledì 26 maggio 2010


Today was my last day teaching at Parini, and I'm a little relieved. It was impegnativo, a little stressful, working my schedule around the 2.5 hour block I needed to get to the school, teach, and leave. The kids were not always a treat either, as in the beginning they were a little aloof and I couldn't shake the feeling of privilege that permeated the classroom, but by the second half of the year we had gotten to know each other and we could joke and laugh a little bit.
In the last ten minutes of class, we played a short game of "Would you rather..." to practice speaking. I asked them, "Would you rather a job that you love that doesn't make much money or a job that you hate where you make lots of money?"
M, a boy with long black hair and the air of a metalhead, smiled at me and said immediately, "I want a job I love, because I don't need a lot of money."
"Okay, great," I said. I then turned to the rest of the class. "What do you guys think?"
L, a blonde girl who has spent a good deal of time in California and has asked me what "co-ed party" meant, said, "I would rather a job that makes a lot of money because I want to be rich and I can always do what I love when I am not working."
"Ah, okay, good...T, what do you think?"
"I would like a job that makes lots of money because I can quit it after a few months but still have lots of money."
Oh dear, maybe I'm an idealist, but this was a little bleak for me. I turned to G, the artistic girl who wants to be a photographer and loves to read and got teased about her new boyfriend. She was my last hope. "G, which would you rather?"
"I agree with T. I want to make lots of money but then I can quit."
I turned to the class in general. "Does anyone disagree, other than M? Do you all want to make money?"
They all nodded. "Yes, lots of money!"
I looked around the room. "Alright, so no one here wants to be a teacher, I guess."
They guffawed. Sigh.

lunedì 24 maggio 2010

the apocalypse? no, just soccer in Europe

(Inter flag we found in the street waving proudly on my balcony. Bonus: Milan sun!)
Y'all in America may or may not have been paying attention to the European Champions League, where the best soccer clubs in Europe compete for several months to become the campioni. Inter, one of Milan's two teams (and a little bit the Yankees of Italy), beat such teams as Chelsea and Barcelona to reach the finals against Bayern, Munich. And guess what...
They won! For the first time in 38 years or something crazy like that. Not Real Madrid, not Manchester, but Inter! Want to see?

We went to the Piazza del Duomo to see the game on the big screen with the crazies. Here is a video of its last moments and when the crowd realizes that Intern has won. For the first minute, everyone has their hands in the air and says "OOOOOOO," and then the crowd erupts with joy, the sky with fireworks, the piazza with crazy.

It's a little Blair Witchy, but you get the idea.

And then for hours afterwards (including bonus shot of our bikes and me terrified about leaving them with the crazies):

So I guess you could call this my first European Football Experience. Pretty intense, and all the noise and smoke and flares made me think on some level that the Rapture/Word War III might be occurring. Do these kinds of things happen in the U.S.? I missed the images of the streets of New Orleans after the Super Bowl. Maybe I do not care enough about American sports.

In the end, all was well, the only casualty was the mudguard of F's bike.

A selection of chants heard that night:

Josè Mourihnoooo dadadadadada (ode to the coach sung to the tune of "I can't take my eyes of you")

Juventino pezzo di merda!

Siamo noi
Siamo noi
I campioni d'Europa siamo noi!

mercoledì 19 maggio 2010


Today was my last day with my lovely 5th year students (vomit aside), my last day tutoring, my last trip to Via Emilio de Marchi, the home of the family where I landed when I first arrived. But I'm not going to dwell on that, because I might be back next year...
So instead, I will record a few conversations I've had recently:

In both Cremona and Zappa you need a key to use the elevator. Zappa conveniently has two custodians who wait around with their keys to call the elevator for you. They both ignored me more or less for eight months, but after my relentless "ciaos" one has started to smile at me. Yesterday she called the elevator and asked:
C (gesturing to my dress): Aren't you cold?
Me: No, it's very hot up on the fourth floor.
C: But down here's it's cold.
Me (almost sweating already): Yes, well I'm warm-blooded.
C: Yes? Do you eat a lot?
Me (amused): Lots.

Today one of the secretaries I had never talked to before followed me to the drink machine to get her tea. She said:
S (smiling ear-to-ear): Oh hi, how are you?
Me: I'm well, and you?
S: Ah how sweet you are! How wonderful! Where are you from?
Me: I'm american.
S: Ah how sweet, how wonderful. (che dolce, che bello) But are you alone here?
Me (is this an existential question?): I have friends.
S: What about are you parents?
Me: They're in the U.S.
S: Ahh, how sweet and wonderful. Goodbye, then.
Me: Goodbye.
And back to the office...

Then a student (not one of mine, but one who always says hello to me) found me in the pizzeria beside the school.
Boy (in English): Are you occupated?
Me: Occupied? No, I'm just reading a Sherlock Holmes story for class.
Boy (laughing awkwardly): Oh, occupied, yes. Oh, that's boring. I thought it was a letter from your girlfriend or something.
Me (playing up the awesomeness of Everything That Is School, downplaying the strange flirting): No, but it's actually quite fun and interesting.
Boy: You don't have an English accent.
Me: That's because I'm from the United States.
Boy (gesturing towards my plate): And what about Italian food? Do you like it?
Me (following gesture to my empty plate): Um, yes. I love it.
Pizza man (with pizza): Eccola!
Friend (impatient): Andiamo, dai!
Boy: Okay, see you.
Me: Bye bye..

Maybe they're not much. They seemed sweet and wonderful at the time. And strange.

mercoledì 12 maggio 2010

Lazy at best

I've been a bit down on the posting, and this time I can't even blame it on the good weather: it's been raining for about ten days straight.
And I can't blame it on nothing happening in at school. For example: A week ago, I was introducing Joyce to my 5th year class. We had just begun to read "Eveline" when a boy whipped around in his seat and vomited all over the floor. There were screams, half the class escaped to the window, the other half outside of the classroom. Lesson put on hold. The next day I was on the third floor and saw some of my 5th years in giro. They said, "Hi Rachel! We really like Joyce!" Sure.

And it's not that I've been bumming around the house: I went to Florence with F a week ago, which was lovely. We caught La Notte Bianca , where shops stay open into the early hours and there are concerts and hordes of night owls. Then on Saturday we took the train to Sesto Fiorentino to attend Primo Maggio at Istituto di Ernesto de Martino, the place where I interviewed Ivan della Mea and in general fell in love with folk music.
Here is a video of one of the choruses at the festival singing "Stornelli d'Esilio," one of my favorite leftist songs. Chorus is like this:

Nostra patria è il mondo intero
e nostra legge è la libertà
ed un pensiero
ribelle in cor ci sta

Our homeland is the whole world
Our law is liberty
And a rebel thought is in our hearts.

More or less.

There's more, but I am a bum. So I will wait until I am not a bum/not sfasata from a 9-7 workday.

martedì 20 aprile 2010

for rachel!

To walk from Zappa to Cremona you have to pass the basketball court and track, which frequently host all sorts of sports. I had run over to Cremona to make a photocopy and was returning to Zappa, and I found my students of last round's fourth year class playing soccer. They saw me and said, "Hi Rachel! Hi Rachel!"
The ball rolled my way, I kicked it back (despite pencil skirt), "Grande Rachel!"
And as I passed, one of the boys pulled away from the others, ball shooting out before him, and raced to the goal, yelling, "For Rachel! For Rachel!" And scored.
I was moved.

lunedì 19 aprile 2010

my experiments milanesi

I've inherited an old Nikon camera, almost untouched and only in need of a little "re-foaming," and I figured that there was no better place to practice taking old timey pictures than Milan. I have no idea what I'm doing (though thanks to the instructions of my mother I have a vague idea how to use the light meter), but I like the feel of the camera and the noises it makes.
In honor of the arrival of warm weather (finally), here are some of the experiments from my first round of film.

A few weeks ago, F lead me to the countryside outside of Piadena (aka middle of nowhere) to a festa di cultura at a country house. Meaning neverending amounts of wine, grana padano, polenta, gorgonzola, burger, and best of all leftist folk music. I felt my old joy for this stuff and even saw Suonatori Terra Terra, the first Italian folk band I ever saw playing la musica popolare. Pictured: F leading the way along the highway into the countryside, mandarino e vino, and the maestro of the gorgonzola.

Here are some kids painting the walls outside of a centro sociale, one of the occupied buildings converted into a hangout space for young people (especially leftists). We saw a police car pass by without a backward glance. An elderly couple stopped to talk to the adolescents and compliment them on their work. "Almeno così i muri sono belli eh," said the elderly man. At least this way the walls are beautiful.

Before spring break, I had an absolutely lovely Sunday in Milan where I woke up early (gasp) to go to the junk mercato senegalese near F's hood. After wandering around looking at appliances from the eighties and instruments and vintage place settings, we headed to Bosco in Città for greenery and a picnic...

...followed by a tour around Parco delle Cave and a sip from the fontana dei vechietti (Cue F's old lady voice "O sisi signora mia, ormai non ci sono più le mezze stagioni.")...

...and then a trip to the monthly Mercato dell'Antiquario sui Navigli, basically like the junk market only 10 times more expensive. I thought these typewriters were beautiful.

It was a Good Day.

Finally, to close, a portrait of the bici on my terrace on a sunny day, the one that we keep meaning to fix up.

giovedì 15 aprile 2010

all downhill from here

I'm beginning to realize just how little time I have left here. Six weeks. Six weeks is nothing...and the sun has just started to come out! Che sfigata.
I spent a lovely Easter break in Avignon and Paris with my close friend from Smith. We took the train from Milan, something I've always wanted to do, and ended up in a 17th century studio by the house of an old friend of my mom's in Saint-Hilaire-d'Ozilhan. Chuck was a grandfatherly Brazilian-American who regaled us of his human rights efforts during the Dirty Wars in South America. I felt I had arrived during the idyllic and beautiful conclusion of a film, just after the dramatic action.
Paris was also beautiful, full of the street performers I miss in Milan. I think at the end, however, Emily and I were sick of butchering the French language and both ready to get back to countries where we could be understood...
In other news, I've begun a new round of classes (my last), which means a new round of students to meet. Yesterday, I introduced myself to a 3rd year class at Cremona. When I said I was from the United States, a boy up front said he liked South Africa better.
"South Africa?" I asked, thinking maybe he meant South America, as opposed to North America, a preference I've heard before.
"Yes, South Africa."
"Well, they're very different places. What do you like about South Africa?"
"I like the Negro Woman," he said with a grin, waiting for me to be shocked.
This took me aback, I have to say, which is rare. I have become relatively accustomed to the politically incorrect (at best) and blatantly racist comments that pepper conversation here.* I raised my eyebrows and said, "Ah, well we all have our preferences. Does anyone else have a favorite country?"
A boy in the back said, "USA!" but the others remained silent. I asked, "Maybe Italy?"
"No," several kids said, others shook their heads. The first boy said, "I hate it here. When I wake up in the morning, non riesco a respirare, cioè I can't breathe."
He was Albanian, and he first immigrated to Puglia before moving up the peninsula to Milan. And he did not like Milan, for sure. I found myself defending our strange smoggy city. Look on the bright side, I said, thinking in my head that, with more knowledge of English, he might have replied, "There's no bright side, it's cloudy all the time."
In a way I understand him. Milan has offered me its share of challenges and smog. But there is much here that I don't want to leave, and sometimes I forget what a pleasure it is just to interact with strangers in Italian. To be missed when I don't go to my favorite bar, wave to the workers at my neighborhood gelateria, go on long bike rides in the sun, to be close to someone I love.
The time is creeping up when I will have to decide whether to come back for another year or not. I told my mentor that I have applied to return, and we have already made a toast to it over Cola in a fifth year class. But I am not so decided. I will have to think about what I should do, the best idea for my career and my personal development, and perhaps most of all what I want. Non lo so. We will see.

*Another example: At a world sustainability fair here Milan full of green products and charities, Fa la cosa giusta, a charity had made posters expressing solidarity for Africa. Their solidarity took the form of white Italians in blackface with wide grins. I did a double take. F called it a cagata.

mercoledì 24 marzo 2010

gli ormoni

The students of my FCE Prep class at fancyshamncy high school Parini have been dropping like flies. Maybe it's the sunshine or the proximity of their spring break, but only about 12 people out of 30 showed up today. And this with the teacher who hired me begging me to teach another course because my feedback is so good.

When I arrived at the school, I noticed two students making out by the motorini, and I also noticed the girl, G, was in my class. I stopped looking and gave them a wide berth, kind of adorable, none of my business, and when I started class I had forgotten.

Anyways, the small number of kids meant that I could be more chatty with them, and after we finished going over the practice exam, we chatted about the novità in our lives. I asked G what was new, and she blushed, smiled, and said, "Nothing." Three other girls burst out laughing.

"Nothing?" I asked. No one gets off with "nothing". "What will you do for vacation?"
"I will...go to the mountains," she replied, setting off another set of snickers. I said it would be good to get some fresh air.

I then asked A what was new in her life, and she said, "I am happy. I am happy for G, because she has finally got a boyfriend!"

G's face turned from a red into a deep crimson, and all the girls, G included, giggled until they were snorting. I said, "Ah, oh, that's why she's now the color of her shirt." I felt a little bit of their excitement and embarrassment and almost turned red myself. I felt the urge to tell her that despite what everyone seems to believe, having a boyfriend isn't really so important, that you can do wonderfully without one, maybe even be more yourself, and make sure you don't let him affect how you feel about yourself or tell you want to do. But I held my tongue and let her be happy. It was time for excitement, not old Smithie lectures.

Relationships are a funny thing here. Scratch that, everywhere. But talking about them seems to be an especially favorite pastime here. Everyone has a great interest in your personal life, and in sharing theirs. I've had a teacher complain to me about her yearly French tryst, who never puts in enough effort. I've overheard teachers discussing the relationships of students (How can S be dating him? He is such a pig! I was very surprised). Once Elena explained to me that she knew a boy was doing better in English because his girlfriend of one year was making him study. Students kiss in the hallways.

Also, I made the (possible) mistake of telling Ms. R that I am involved with someone here, and she immediately assumed that 1) we were engaged, 2) we were living together and 3) that I was going to remain in Italy forever and now she and I can meet for tea every now and then. I replied that I had to leave in June, and she was horrified. "What will happen to your relationship?" she asked. I shrugged hopefully.

It's the brutal truth: the one entity that doesn't care about you and your boyfriend is the Italian immigration police.

lunedì 22 marzo 2010

line of the day

Rounding a corner on my faithful bike, Natty, on a rainy day, yellow Paddington bear hat on my head, middle-aged Italian man watches me pass and says,
"Che brava!"

a word on grades

Back from a long hiatus of indifference to blog-writing. Turns out when the suns out it can be hard to stay inside. Also my parents were here, and I was busy running around with them and eating. Word to the wise: All the pain and suffering to make a reservation to see Da Vinci's Last Supper is worth it!

I've been thinking a lot about grades and motivation, especially after an incident a few weeks ago at Zappa. Zappa is the technical school I teach at, as opposed to the classics and scientific high school, and I have noticed that the average level of English is lower here. Some of the kids are still wonderfully positive and allegri, but they do struggle more than the kids at the other schools. (This goes in hand with the common belief that linguistic and classics high schools are the best schools with the highest-achieving students, followed by scientific high schools, and then by technical and vocational institutes. As with all common beliefs, it is not entirely true, but I have noticed general differences in the academic levels and economic status of the students at my schools.)

Anyways, in one of my 4th year classes at Zappa where we were learning business English, the students, in pairs, had a project of conducting a mock interview. One was the potential employer and one was the potential employee. One boy, M, missed the day we assigned this project and, because these kids rarely check up on the work they missed when they're absent, did not have a partner and was not prepared to act out the interview. We decided that I would be the employer, he would be the employee, and we would do the interview next week.

The next week, I sat down with him in front of the class and asked him questions, not all of them from the script in the book, and he responded decently. He stumbled over some phrases and didn't understand every question, but I could understand him. The teacher then asked me to give him a grade.

I knew about the Italian grading system already, even though I almost never give grades myself. It goes from 0 to 10, with 6 as passing, on the surface pretty similar to our 0 to 100 scale. However, I had been surprised in the past when I heard students rejoice over 7s and 8s. For me, those grades seemed low.

I thought of the boy's performance, and decided it deserved about a C. It was hardly spectacular, but he had reacted well to unexpected questions. So I whispered to the teacher, "Perhaps a 7?"

M overheard me and immediately began cajoling the prof in Italian to let me decide. I could tell from her face that she disagreed with my opinion, so I asked what she thought was best. "Listen," she told me, "you have to understand how its works. If you give these students a passing grade, they will not study anymore because they think they have done well. They stop working. If you want them to study more you have to give them a lower grade. M especially will not study."

She didn't think he had done a good enough job to pass. Also, his relentless attempts to convince the prof to give him a better grade began to change my mind about his effort. We compromised and gave him two options: accept a 6 or re-do the interview the next week with the teacher. He accepted the 6. When we continued with the other interviews, the highest grade was a 7.5, and the kids who received it were quite happy.

Both the students' contentment with lower grades and the teachers' philosophy for motivation surprised me. While a student at a good public high school, I was never obsessed with grades, I always worked hard and appreciated an A as a reward. Maybe I was a little nerdy, but even my less smartypants companions wanted good grades, at least in the B range. Rarely did people fail.

Here, students regularly worry if they will pass the year. And the teachers, convinced that the kids won't study if they aren't worried, seem to keep them in suspense. Small errors lose you entire points off your score. I've never witnessed anyone receive a 9, and I asked F if he knew of anyone who had received a 10 when he was in school. He said, "Mai, never." The system here embodies the idea that you cannot reach perfection, as a opposed to U.S. system where it is possible.

So, I wonder, which system is better? Perhaps a question that I will continue to chew on as the months wind down...

lunedì 1 marzo 2010

a bus ride

Once again I'm posting something about play rather than work, but I had to fix the bus driver in my memory and if I don't write something about him he'll slip away...
This weekend we went to Champoluc in Val d'Aosta, X has a house there. I had to leave Saturday instead of Friday with F because I had work Saturday morning. Train, train, bus from Verres up the winding mountain roads to Champoluc.
On the bus we were at first the only passengers, and we sat up near the driver (F said we were vechietti, I said that if you put me in the back of the bus on mountain roads I will puke). The driver was a small man with gray hair, bald on top, bulbous nose, toothy grin. He asked us if his cigarette, which he dangled out the window while waiting for other passengers, bothered us. I thought of my roommates and said absolutely not. When we set out, he drove to the train station to check for other passengers and to take us down a parking lot ramp (Come un luna park!) as if it were a rollercoaster. Not bad, eh? he asked.
He was warm and wonderful. He asked F if he were milanese and they discussed the merits of city bus driving versus country bus driving. The autista concluded that even the higher pay could not tempt him to Milan. In Aosta the spese were low, the people were warm, life was tranquilla.
Two tween girls got on and sat directly behind the bus driver. They were obviously familiar, they spoke to him like a good friend. He asked them how their studies were going, how were their families. One of the girls began telling him about her parents, who were divorced, and their children with their new companions. He said, Oh so you have lots of brothers and sisters. And she said, No, we're not really brothers and sisters truely. And he said, But they are still the children of your mama, your papà, è sangue lo stesso, blood is blood, che mondo, carissimo amico.
Then he asked,Chi è quel ragazzo che sale ogni mattina? Anche ieri? È maleducato quello, non saluta mai, non dice niente. Ma saluta, ragazzo. Di dove sei che sei così maleducato? Ma cosa ti hanno insegnato tuoi genitori?
He complained about a boy who takes the bus every day but never says hi, never says a word of greeting. Where is he from, that he never learned manners?
At one little village he stopped the bus and noticed a girl getting off. He asked her, Can I ask you a favor? You know what it is? She said, Of course. He gave her a sack of groceries he had bought earlier in the day and told her to bring it to his wife (Sai dove abito, vero?). The girl stepped off the bus and the driver called out the window, Grazie! She replied over her shoulder, Niente! He turned to us and explained, Così mia moglie mi fa da mangiare, altrimenti mangiamo le patate e basta! (This way, my wife will make me something to eat, otherwise we would be eating potatoes and that's it!).
As we climbed further into the mountains, the height of the snow beside the road growing, the light fading away, he sang along to the songs on the radio. More people got on and off the bus, never very many. At one point he stopped the bus to let off an elderly woman. He asked her, Give me a goodnight kiss!
No, I will not.
And why not?
She replied, You know and I know that you have a wife at home.
Yes, and you have a husband, who is watching us right now!
And we turned to look out the window and sure enough, I saw a dark stooped figure in the warm orange window and the curtain fall as it was released. The old woman and the autista laughed, she made her careful way down to the curb. He turned to us, È un terrone come me! È tanto geloso, quello. (He's a redneck from the south like me, he's a jealous one alright!)
He would turn to us now and again, smiling and saying a word or two. F asked me why I was being so quiet, and I told him it was because I had to remember everything, fix it all in my memory. We had to arrive, though, and I was a little sad when we did. I had that feeling that we were friends now and that we should know each other's names or kiss goodbye or share something that meant we were more than just customers of a service. I could have stayed on that bus for a long time, my head on a warm shoulder and my ears filled with singing and friendly words.

lunedì 22 febbraio 2010

And on the weekend...

After my traveling plans for the weekend of Carnevale fell through, I decided to make the most of my weekend in Milan and take advantage of all the cool events in giro. I also had my camera with me for my adventures. My Saturday consisted of:

-bike ride into centro with F to see the children in their holiday costumes. We found a Trasforma Milano exhibition that turned junk into toys:

(Duomo lookin' imposin')

-Then we swung over to the Samedi Gras Multirazziale, a march against racism in Milan. ("Dove tutti sono milanesi, tranne i razzisti"). We danced with our bikes to reggae, watched the destruction of Lega Nord political posters, and paused in a tunnel to sing and curse at the vice sindaco of Milan.

-After our daily dose of politics, we returned to my neighborhood, Isola, for the Milano Clown Festival. The Festival, which lasted over three days, included street performers, artists, and musicians from all over the world.

The night before, I had watched the Brera Street Band perform al Frida. Saturday, we caught Le Rang du Frond al Teatro Sala Fontana.

They were fun (I especially enjoyed the fishnet-wearing banjo player), but they were playing strange banjo glam punk for a crowd that was half under 10, and I think they were a little confused. Their attempts at Italian were adorable though (Per favore potere lower the volume perchè i bambini sono *puts hands over ears*).

We headed to Piazza Gioia for the clowncerto of Hibiscus Theater from Spain, grabbed a beer at Frida, and then returned to Gioia for the concerto finale.

I never figured out the name of the band, but they were French and played gypsy music that everyone felt in their feet. The PIC Clowns mingled and danced too. At one point one of the singers began talking about a mystical experience (in French. All I know F translated for me). The accordion player began wiggling his fingers at the crowd, and we wiggled back. He climbed down from the stage, we kept wiggling our fingers. As he moved through the crowd, he caught my eye, cocked his eyebrow, grabbed my hands and pulled me to the stage. The singer began chattering in French, asking me my name (Rachel. Vashayl? Ra-chel. Mayshell? Rachele! Machall? Rachel! Ahh, Ray-shell!) Next thing I knew I had an accordion strapped to my back and the accordion player embracing me to play it. We spun around in circles while the crowd cheered and the band played along. Then as a finale, the entire band kissed me four times on the cheek, merci merci merci, bravissima. My head was spinning. F laughed at me and said he could tell I was confused about the kissing the entire band deal. And as we left to go dancing at Circo Bussa, strangers said, "Ciao Ray-shell!"

Then, on Sunday, we took a little trip to Cremona, the birthplace of Stradivarius. We wandered around, saw the Duomo, and visited a little flea market. I bought two records, Johnny Cash and Doc Watson, to play on my new (borrowed) giradischi.

All in all, it was a good weekend.

mercoledì 17 febbraio 2010

Bars e caffè

And the autogestione continues. I went into school for about an hour today, read Faulkner, and chatted with Fabrizio about grammar (Does the sentence "The question was asked to her" sound as weird to you as it does to me?). Doing very little tends to make me all sorts of hungry, and since I couldn't justify lunch at 10:30am, I headed to the bar around the corner for a cappuccino e brioche (I miss my sfoglia crema I used to get in Florence, Milan is all northern-European-y and frequently shuns my pastry of choice).

I walked in and said ciao to the barman, who always responds, "Ciao prof!" Then I heard "Ciao Rachel!". One of my students from the first two months was there, milling about in her raincoat and backpack. Her mother works the cash register. I immediately switched to English. During a short and terrified exchange half in English, half in Italian, she explained that the vice-principal had sent her class home early for the day. Then she helped me pick out my brioche. The barman whipped out a plate for my pastry and put my sugar in my cappuccino for me. When I finished, I went to pay, and I found out that my lovely student had paid for me. It made me all warm and fuzzy inside. I thanked her profusely in English (sweetie!) and headed on my way...

Bars are the best. Good things tend to happen in them. At Brother's Bar, the first bar I went to in Milan and where I go every time I tutor at the family's house, the two old barmen always seem so delighted to see me. They always ask me, "Come stai?" and when I respond bene, "Ah si vedo che stai bene," and then make some comment about being too old. At the bar near the school, the young barman knows what I get, knows what kind of sugar I like (grezzo), and always calls me prof. Returning for a visit to Florence with friends from study abroad, the barmen at our favorite cafè (TabacchiBar per sempre) not only were delighted to see us but bought us our coffee. It's one of my favorite parts of Italy, the ritual of ordering an itty bitty coffee and standing by the barman to down it in a minute or two, making a mess of crumbs and cream, eavesdropping on conversations, making friends...

lunedì 15 febbraio 2010

Autogestione (self-management)

No matter how many times the profs half-explain it to me, I still don't fully get it. This is the week of autogestione, which means the kids run their own lessons. Or study by themselves. Or don't run their own lessons and hang out in the hall, buying packaged snacks and shots of espresso from the vending machines and drawing hearts on each other's faces. Either way, if they want they can kick out the teacher and take over class themselves.

BUT don't think that you can hang out at home, or godforbid explore the city, do something adventurous. You must be at school. Maybe the kids will want you, maybe they will decide to have lessons. You never know. I waited a little bit with Ms. R because she wasn't sure whether the kids in her 2G class would decide to autogestire or not. Probably not, she said, because she had heard they wanted to paint their classroom instead. Still, we waited until a little before the class started when we could see the registro, which had the records of the previous lessons that day. Sure enough, autogestione. No class.

It was nice to have a bit of a break, however. I hung out in the teacher's lounge all morning, figuring out my schedule for the next few weeks, planning tutoring for this afternoon, reading Absalom, Absalom! (I gave it as a gift to Fabbro, then realized that I didn't remember it at all and better re-read it).

The profs were feeling gregarious. Ms. R came up to me to ask me what I was reading. Then later, while I was at the computer, she asked me to borrow it. Then she asked what I was doing on the internet (finding photos for story prompting). Then she came and sat by me while she read so she could ask me about words she didn't know.

Ms. S also came to talk to me while I was at the computer, which delighted me because even though she always has lovely ideas for our classes together, sometimes she is a little cold towards me. She told me about a K-12 creative writing organization called 826 Valencia in San Francisco, as well as other organizations whose newsletters she subscribes to. She talked about the city with such a longing, I hadn't known she had lived there. We agreed to do something with creative writing in our next classes together. She seemed very happy, excited.

Every conversation seems to start with an almost-accusatory "What are you doing?" What is that American up to now? They're just curious.

Ok, now I know: Autogestione = bonding with profs

giovedì 4 febbraio 2010

Teacher's pets and favorites

Never the twain shall meet...

I've been thinking about the teacher/student dynamic a lot in these past days. For a teacher, what is playing favorites? Is having favorites okay? Because I definitely have them. I try my absolute best not to show it, but I have them. For example, there's a girl in one of my younger classes, A, who always has a smile on her face, wears brightly colored sweaters and turquoise pants, does her best to speak in class, and plays in a band. If I were 15, I would want to be best friends. Does it show in my face when I walk in the class that I am in love with her? I sure hope not. I don't look at her more than the others, I call on (torture) everyone as equally as I can. But after a sometimes full and stressful week, a smiling face like hers plus the seemingly genuine desire to learn absolutely delights me, and I look forward to that class.
Alla fine, though I may have favorites, I won't play favorites.

I haven't encountered too many teacher's pets in these months (perhaps because I don't actually give grades), but the quality of the few I've encountered has been quite high. For example, R, a handsome boy at Parini passionate about cooking, sailing, and French classics, never misses an opportunity to ingratiate himself. He's the first to help me if something isn't going right (like when the CD player wouldn't work, cazzo, I'm 22 years old, I shouldn't need help with these things!). Today as I arrived in class, I gave the erasers a sideways glance and commented that they looked very white, someone must have made lots of mistakes. He immediately collected them and took them to the window to beat them against the sill, only to discover that they were, in fact, white erasers. I can't help but smile. No one has ever run to clap erasers for me before, but it ain't gonna help him pass the FCE.

It's a delicate balance to maintain, the democracy of the classroom. Every student has a right to my attention, and I try to give it equally, even though to some I would like to give more, and to others I would like to give less...

martedì 2 febbraio 2010


Rounding the corner to enter a classroom, I noticed a commotion near the trashcan by the door. A boy had darted towards it to throw something away, then moved away quickly. The kids were making casino, laughing and joking in Italian, and the prof, Fabrizio, was giggling.
I came in the class and asked, "Hi guys, what's up? What's the story?" They just pointed to the trashcan. Under it lay a big green zucchini clothed only in a purple condom.
"Oh, look at that, a zucchini" I said, attempting to minimize the condom part. Fabrizio just shrugged. We started class.

The next week, we only had a half-hour lesson, so I decided to play 20 questions with them. A guessed my animal, which was an elephant, so she came up to the front to have the kids ask her about her type of food. After remonstrating them for asking in Italian ("I don't speak Italian. I only speak English, please"), she answered some questions (Is it Italian? Sometimes. Is it a vegetable? Yes. Is it long? Sometimes.). Someone guessed zucchini. Fabrizio turned to me and said, "They really like zucchini."

lunedì 25 gennaio 2010

Our families

Today in my 4th year class with Ms. B (finally I get to return to her class), we improvised. I had thought that it was my first time with the class, so I thought I would do my usual introduction, my life story, ask them their life story sort of deal. I told this to Ms. B as we were running in opposite directions down the hall, and she gave the okay over her shoulder. In the next period though, she stopped me and said, "You've already seen this class before!" Oops. I had thought my schedule had changed, but it was the same class I had alternated seeing the last section. I was just confused. So we decided to talk about our families. Luckily, by this point I am pretty good at improvising.

I told them about my family, how my great-grandfather had named my grandmother, one of four girls, Benny Jean because he wanted a boy. How my grandfather traveled Alabama as a pastor, moving from parish to parish ("What? I don't understand. He works with sheep? Like in Sardegna?"). How when they got divorced, my grandmother went to college and became a social worker. How my mother left Alabama, became a professor, and traveled to South Carolina. How my father was raised by his mother, after his father died of a heart attack, in the heart of Minnesota. How he traveled the northeast and then to South Carolina, also as a professor. My brother, a half brother whole feels like a whole one. Me. But we had already been over me.

These are the stories of two of my students...

N is Rwandan. His parents fell in love while on a school trip to San Francisco, and when they got back they got married. They had three children, including N. the youngest, before they moved to Italy "because there was a war." They stayed together for a little while before they divorced. His father went to London, where he remarried and had other children. His mother stayed in Milan, where she worked for a firm, and raised the children. I asked N if he went to London often, and he said never, he didn't know his father. His oldest sister works in a bank and wants to be "an important manager." His other sister studies at Politecnico with his brother. I said, "Oh, so you're the baby of the family," and he replied, "Yes, but I'm the tallest. I beat my brother at basketball."

A is Italian. He claims his parents met while working together in the United States, fell in love, and got married in Las Vegas. Ms. B and I didn't believe him, "Are you kidding?" but he swore it was true. I asked him how his parents met in the U.S. and he said, "I don't want to know, I don't want to think about it!" I asked him if he had any pets, and he said a big dog named Timmy, but don't blame him for the name because it's his mom's fault.

The stories you hear...

P.S. Today as my regular reward candy, Ms. R gave me truffle-flavored white chocolate. I found it pretty gross, I don't dig truffles. I fear offending her, but I also fear the replacement of the usual chocolate-covered cherry or PocketCoffee with mushroom chocolate. Dilemma.