The spring my older daughter Charlotte turned six, I went to the office of the elementary school in Siena and put her name on the list for first grade, a five minute procedure that, in light of the standardized tests, recommendation letters and interviews to which my Stateside friends were subjecting their children, left me suspicious: could anything so readily accessible and totally free of charge possibly be any good?
In superficial ways, her first years of elementary school were baffling. My confusion would start with the list of supplies we had to buy, the word “quaderno” (notebook) appearing repeatedly with various endings like -ino and -one, which indicate to a real Italian mother how many spiral notebooks to buy, how many three ring binders, or what size squares the graph paper pad should have, but to me meant only that the guy at the school supply store was going to have fun with me. Once, I remember feeling relieved to see listed a “vocabulario” which I knew to mean “dictionary,” until I saw the next item on the list, “dizionario.”
By trial and error, I slowly sorted things out. I learned which snacks to send (prosciutto or Nutella sandwiches) and that if Berlusconi was in office, she needed a pressed, white smock to wear: this Prime Minister’s education policies focused on appearances. I knew she would eat or lose or trade on average four pencils and one eraser a week, so I stocked up in advance. School finished at 4:25p, but I knew to show up early and chat with the moms, or else. At pick-up, where grandparents abounded, the children were kissed and then always asked that academically-loaded question, “What was for lunch?”
Education-wise, even my German friends were impressed that Charlotte learned cursive in first grade and the multiplication tables in second. In third grade, a poetry notebook emerged, and each weekend she had a poem to memorize and recite the following Monday in class, the beginning of what would become many years of increasingly important oral interrogations. I was especially charmed when these weekend assignments became snippets of Dante in the fourth and fifth grades.
In middle (6th-8th grades) and high school (9th-13th), a more fundamental difference emerged, namely the extent to which the kids are left to their own devices. The teachers show up—each class has a room and the teachers move around—give a lecture, and go. Homework is sometimes assigned and never collected, the students are quizzed orally once or twice a semester, and there are regular written exams. The message, at least at the high school level, is take-it-or-leave it, and no one seems to fret about anyone else’s fate. On the contrary, I know of one high school teacher who likes to start her lectures to a particularly rambunctious class by reminding the students that at their age, school is no longer obligatory!
On the whole, though, my daughters’ schools, like my own, and like those of my American friends’ children as far as I can tell, have their share of brilliant, inspirational teachers, solid, relatively effective ones, and the inevitable spattering of disappointments. Grade inflation is hardly a problem: with grading from 1 to 10, 10s are never given, 9s rare and 8s considered excellent. Parents are thrilled with 7s and perfectly happy with 6s (passing), as are the students, since “getting into college” is a concept that barely exists. (For some faculties, like medicine, you have to pass an entrance exam but for most others, you just sign up, at any college you want.) And that’s the real difference here: high school performance doesn’t determine much of anything, and maybe consequently, neither the students nor the parents are very ambitious–on the one hand, utterly refreshing, on the other somewhat unnerving for this American: we have to be going somewhere, don’t we?
So does this mean the Italians have managed to keep education “liberal,” i.e., focused on developing the powers of the mind rather than reduced to a means to an end? I’d like to think so, but in fact, on the national political stage the Italians worry about youth unemployment and talk vaguely of the need to create opportunity, while locally, practically, they buy apartments and cars for their twenty-year-olds and find them menial jobs through family connections. The kids know themselves, Tuscany and often not much else. Most would be hard pressed to list the kinds of accomplishments that an American high school student aims to collect. For better or worse, they remain largely unmarked by striving.
With Charlotte entering high school, I expected that squiring my younger daughter, Giorgia, through elementary school would be a breeze, and practically-speaking, it has been, by-and-large. But sometimes, I still wonder about the system. The summer before she started, she and her same-aged cousin were singing songs in the back seat of the car on the way north from the Rome airport. My niece, who at the time attended a private, New York kindergarten, was singing a song about the physical properties of light. My daughter, who went to one in Siena, was singing a song about a mushroom.