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.

venerdì 22 gennaio 2010

My adorable students...

I was looking up the website of Cremona when I found this video made by some of my students. They're singing "Domani 21.04.09,″ a "We Are the World"-esque tribute by around 50 Italian artists to the victims of the Abruzzo earthquake. I'm not entirely sure what their idea was behind it (tribute, saptastic joke, così?), but it's a pretty cool little window into my school...

And if you're interested in the original...

giovedì 21 gennaio 2010

Wrong side of the bed...

Woke up this morning, swung my feet out of bed, and splashed into about a centimeter of water. My whole room had been flooded by the radiator. Sometime in the night, the little lamp we had clamped to it had turned the knob that releases water, beginning the deluge which trickled out of the kitchen and perfectly under my door.

I woke up my valiant roommate Richard (Riccardo), and together we spent a half-hour wiping up water with towels, rugs, and tablecloths and wringing them out in buckets. Finally, the room was relatively dry, and I thanked roomie profusely. Un po' incasinata, but things were improving.

Having a mild case of disorderliness, I had let my two winter coats fall on the floor from the chair they were hanging on, and now they were soaked. So I put on my thrift coat I got in Florence to face the January day. This coat is, however, way too long for my bike. I had almost made it to Zappa before it got sucked up in the brakes, stopping the wheels and almost sending me into traffic. I pulled over and got down on my knees, spending twenty minutes on the side of the road trying to wriggle it out and enduring the confused sguardi of the more functional adults who passed me. Ended up tearing it to get it free. Oh well, it only cost 9 euros, and it makes me look like an old lady anyways...

At last, when I finally made it to school, covered in bike grease and my sanity barely in tact, I had a good story to tell the kids. Who needs dignity when you can make teenagers laugh.

mercoledì 20 gennaio 2010

The Characters

A compelling story without compelling characters is a rare thing. My story may not be compelling, it might be kinda normal, but I can at least include some kinda normal characters as well. (My roommates, I can say for certain, are less than normal).

RACHEL: 22 years old, native tongue assistant, teacher, tutor, English language gigolo (gigola?). Intrepid bike-rider, book-reader, and Italian-speaker. A little fuzzy about the next step, or The Future.


GIOVANNA: Generous and sweet professor who guides Rachel through the delights of the Italian school system and its bureaucracy (speaking of which, when will Rachel ever get paid?). Before class, a little scattered and tends to drop things, but during class she's totally in gear. Frequently talks about her son, who apparently has little passion for English.

ANGELA: In gamba professor with a beautiful British accent. She doesn't yell or scold the students, and together they do their best to encourage and teach them. Gave Rachel bedsheets and one day even took her to the Virgin Fitness Center (fashamancy) to try out their vibrating pedestals and sauna. Oddly insists on translating simple Italian phrases into English for Rachel.

ELENA: The second of the two blonde, in gamba professors. Sweet and confiding, bonds with Rachel because they are both southerners (Elena from Ischia, near Napoli). Invited Rachel to lunch at her house, where she taught her a delicious fresh zucchini recipe, and frequently heaps advice upon her (which pesto to buy, which alleyway to take to school, where to get a mattress/umbrella/pastries/mozzarella di bufala). Has an adorable and embarrassed son in one of Rachel's former classes, plus two other boys. Is frequently exhausted.

LUCA: Passionate and intelligent literature teacher. Needs to discuss all lesson plans at length, but in the end they usually come up with nifty ideas together. For example: Everything Rachel --> the South --> Civil Rights and Obama's victory speech --> American ideals --> Romantic ideals --> Whitman --> Emerson --> Dead Poet's Society. Now that they are working together in the 4th year, he seems a little less enthusiastic.

MS. B (first name unknown): warm and competent professor, with the philosophy that a little bit of strictness at the beginning doesn't hurt. Laughs a lot. Rachel would be really happy to be in her classes more, if she ever let her, but there always seems to be an exam or grade to prepare for. Still, when they are together they make a cheerful team. Rachel misses her 3rd year class with Ms. B.

ROBERTA: Über competent teacher big on intimate discussion. Rachel is working on "the open road" as a concept in her class.

MS. R: Very strict but very curious about the United States. Gives Rachel a candy after every class because she has to "talk so much".

MS. G: Called her class "donkeys" on the Rachel's first day. This has colored their relationship ever since.

FABRIZIO: Former Alitalia employee now teaches. Suave and tall. Happy for Rachel to teach pretty much anything, and to teach that anything to both his second-year classes.

MARINA: Professor at the fancy classics high school who hired Rachel. Small and sweet, refers to herself as a nanna, gnome. Candid about her personal life. Thought Rachel was English, almost kissed her when she found out she was, in fact, American. She loves Americans.

Then there are the professors I am getting to know little by little, mostly by smiling and speaking Italian competently. There is the Siciliana that confided in me how incredibly difficult teaching can be, especially when a student tells you to your face she doesn't give a fuck. There is the gym teacher that starts awkward conversations while I am working. There are my wonderful "students" of my conversations class: the French teacher who considers herself timid but says her personality is red, the scientist who declared the life of the punctual man (his life) a lonely one, the hyperactive vice principal who invited me to her house for dinner and introduced me to her lovely daughter (female friend! working on it...), the professor who brought in Pink Floyd to learn from the lyrics...

Other characters to follow...

lunedì 18 gennaio 2010

And so it goes...

Classes have been going well in these two weeks since the holidays. I've been talking about high school and prom night with the kids after finding a funny little article from Newsweek:

Prom Night Isn't What You Think

They seem to really like it, or at least to be mildly amused by the sorry adventures of our valiant teenager, although he wrote the article before they were born. We begin by discussing their typical image of prom--the romance, the dresses, the perfection, the final scenes of "Twilight"--and then we read the article--disappointment, frustration, a two-year-old tux. Afterward, we talk about the contrast between the two.

In my other fifth year class, we've begun talking about the South, which I hope to follow up next week with some blues and bluegrass. Maybe some Mississippi John Hurt...

When I'm not in class, I've been seeking out a warm place to read. Of course, there are countless cafès and bars, but they are not always welcoming for a long, literary stay. I need a place like the Haymarket in Northampton or La Citè in Florence, a place with coffee and books and magarì a comfy couch, a place where I can go, curl up with a book or some work, and stay for hours. I think once I find that place I will be much happier here...

mercoledì 13 gennaio 2010

Life path English lessons

I've been rediscovering my nerdiness here, and it seems to fit well with my work with the kids, especially the 5th year students. Unfortunately, I'm not sure even the most enthusiastic gesticulating about Walt Whitman and Thoreau conveys their awesomeness. I mean, I understand when the adolescents start to nod off and drool on their desks, I've been there too. But now I've seen the light! The Romantics! The idealism! Nature! Simplicity! Isn't it just great kids?
Part of the problem, the source of my enthusiasm, is that every Romantic we read seems to be speaking to me. A little bit like how in 10th grade I thought every emo singer with a swoosh hair cut was speaking to me. Same deal, only now it's Whitman.

For example, let's start with something ridiculously well-known that I just now appreciate:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...
-Henry David Thoreau, beginning of Walden

Oh my god Henry, did you just peer into my soul? Or was it the literature workbook that read my mind in deciding to include your brief excerpt? I've been worried in these months (years?) that I've been too distracted to think, let alone create or decide what I want to do next. I too must go into the woods to clear my mind, I just need to figure out where/what my woods are. I think I have narrowed it down to somewhere within two countries.

(The kids did not seem so psyched about this passage, but they're an especially quiet group. Next time we meet we will get to discuss it more, and I will find out whether they are at all as impressed as I am.)

Next, Whitman:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill'd with them, and I will fill them in return.)
-Walt Whitman, "Song of the Open Road"

I've been carrying this little piece of poem around with me for awhile now, pretty much since I left the States. I hadn't really read any Whitman until I found an old edition of Leaves of Grass in the basement of my parents' house, given to my mom by an old boyfriend (A+ on the present, boyfriend). I found "Song of the Open Road" before any of the others, it comforted me then and it still does.

And then, in class, we read:

The Open Road. The great home of the Soul is the open road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not 'above'. Not even 'within'. The soul is neither 'above' nor 'within'. It is a wayfarer down the open road[...]
Only by taking the open road.
Not through charity. Not through sacrifice. Not even through love. Not through good works. Not through these does the soul accomplish herself.
Only through the journey down the open road.
The journey itself, down the open road. Exposed to full contact. On two slow feet. Meeting whatever comes down the open road. In company with those that drift in the same measure along the same way. Towards no goal. Always the open road.
Having no known direction even. Only the soul remaining true to herself in her going.
Meeting all the other wayfarers along the road. And how? How meet them, and how pass ? With sympathy, says Whit- man. Sympathy. He does not say love. He says sympathy. Feeling with. Feel with them as they feel with themselves. Catching the vibration of their soul and flesh as we pass.
It is a new great doctrine. A doctrine of life. A new great morality. A morality of actual living, not of salvation. Europe has never got beyond the morality of salvation. America to this day is deathly sick with saviourism. But Whitman, the greatest and the first and the only American teacher, was no Saviour. His morality was no morality of salvation. His was a morality of the soul living her life, not saving herself. Accepting the contact with other souls along the open way, as they lived their lives. Never trying to save them. As lief try to arrest them and throw them in gaol. The soul living her life along the incarnate mystery of the open road.
This was Whitman. And the true rhythm of the American continent speaking out in him. He is the first white aboriginal.
-D.H. Lawrence, on Whitman

I thought of myself as being on the road in the beginning of my stay in Milan, some sort of vagabond traveler, but it's not so true. I live in an apartment in a very cosmopolitan city (at least Firenze was a little bit commie). I have a job (several jobs). I am settled. I'm a little bit deluding myself with all this identification with the open road...

And yet, I am very far from home. I am uncertain and doubtful, and I am always moving. I'm still working on my Soul. Hopefully my high school students can help me out with that, as I maybe can help them. As soon as they finish making sex jokes.