So I show up yesterday for my class with my six ragazzi maligni—the high school dropouts whom I innocently agreed to teach, thinking that, because I’ve taught in jails and juvie centers in the past, they’d be a piece of cake. I even agreed to take a cut in pay for this course, since the money from the comune for teaching these kids was short. I show up at two as agreed.
They, as I’ve come to expect, show up a lot closer to three than to two. The tizia who runs the study center (sort of a small-scale, neighborhood version of a community college where the course is held) does what she does instead of imposing order. She titters. Boys will be boys! (They’re not all boys–only five out of six. The girl is the only one worth saving, as far as I can tell, but that’s another story.)
They straggle in, as I say, nearly an hour late from their lunch break, heavily armed with cans of “Schiuma di Carnevale” (a sort of foam, rather like shaving cream, but less dense; it smells, oddly, the way white wine smells the day after a dinner party, when the dregs have mellowed in their glasses all night long), and they proceed to spray it on everything and everyone. Not on me, because I make it clear that I find none of this even slightly funny. But they spray the tizia – her hair, her pants, especially her ass. She titters. She doesn’t get mad or tell them to knock it off. She giggles. She is, in short, a freaking idiot.
It emerges that four of the six are nearly blind drunk. I’m supposed to teach for three and a half hours, but they’ve already whittled an hour off that. Of course, not much is going to be happening in the two-and-a-half hours that remain: We make a stab at starting a lesson. One of them goes on a rampage, knocks his chair over, runs outside to use the schiuma di carnevale to graffiti a huge cock on the school’s front window, comes back in, tells the tizia to go fuck herself, and then collapses on the couch in the waiting room, unrousable. In moments, he’s snoring.
Inside my classroom, another puts his head down on the table and likewise falls asleep. A third has to excuse himself three times in order to go to the bathroom to puke. The fourth seems to be able to hold his liquor better than the others and manages to keep himself upright. Still, he’s more surly than usual and more cocky: We play the Scrambled Sentences Auction, which is usually a sure-fire winner; he bets on everything, gets everything wrong, and loses. That does little to improve his mood.
After Scrambled Sentences, we take a break. Fifteen minutes is the agreement. Twenty-five minutes pass and they’re all still in the lobby, knocking back one coffee after another from the enormous vending machine that takes up nearly an entire wall, and chatting with the tizia. “Si ricomincia?” I ask. “Shall we get back to it?” They ignore me, and so does she, so I go back inside the classroom and start reading a book. Perversely, I decide to wait them out, just to see how long they–but mostly how long the tizia–will let this go on. In the end, at exactly forty-five minutes on my watch, one of the non-drunk students says to the others, “Ragazzi, andiamo dentro, dai,” and all but the guy on the couch come back in. The tizia doesn’t say a word. We limp along for three quarters of an hour, every answer like a pulled tooth. I’m flopping badly.
At 5:10, one of the boys puts on his coat and his motorcycle helmet and sits there like that for ten minutes. I ignore him. When it’s clear I’m not biting, he starts spraying one of the other students with schiuma di carnevale (how can there be any left???!!!). “Okay,” I say, “that’s enough for today.” They’re out of there at the speed of light.
Let’s be realistic. I know they aren’t interested in learning English, and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would make them interested. In theory, we’re supposed to do 20 hours of English together over the course of three months (their entire course, including Italian language, geography, and other subjects, comes to 120 hours). With their chronic tardiness and the breaks that go on forever, we’ll be lucky to manage eight real hours of classroom time. I also know that, in eight hours, nobody’s going to learn a freaking thing.
I know that each of them has a job, and that keeping those jobs is dependent in part upon their participation in this “obbligo formativo.” (If you want a giggle and can make it through the Italian, go visit http://www.rete.toscana.it/obbligoformativo/main.html, which describes the “Obbligo Formativo” initiative in Toscana. If you can’t read Italian, you can at least get the gist from the images.
There is Pinocchio
on the left, who becomes a “real boy” on the right,
saved from a life as a ciuchino (an ass, in both senses of the word) and permanent slavery to the terrible omino from the Paese dei Balocchi–where no one goes to school).
But this is teaching in Italy–at least it’s teaching English in Italy, which has been, on the arc and with a few exceptions, an enormous waste of time and a huge disappointment. Everyone blathers here about the importance of English–global economy, lingua franca, language of the future–and tons of money is floating around to give students from kindergarten to high school and beyond an exposure to English. But the organization of the effort is, in a word, bullshit. As far as I can tell, it’s about politics, not about education. The community, provincial, and regional governments have the chance to fare bella figura because they’re magnanimously providing access to English to everyone, but no one gives a crap about results.
It’s almost the sort of thing that could make a person believe in standardized testing….
But Italy is like this: constant internal alchemy to adapt what is said to what is actually going to happen. As for my ragazzi maligni, I realize that my employer’s only real concern is that I get my registro signed every time I teach. That way, they can bill the center for my hours. The center’s only real concern is that I sign the students’ registri, so the center can then bill the comune for having offered the requisite 120 hours of obbligo formativo. As long as I show up and go through the motions, I could almost literally do absolutely nothing, and no one would mind. I don’t think I’m exaggerating.
And so I’m left with the question: Is there anywhere on the planet where teaching is actually valued? I get dozens of announcements in my email each week from schools in China where they are, apparently, desperate for English teachers. Italy is spoiled: Everyone wants to come here, so teachers are a dime a dozen. (They pay a little more than a dime a dozen, but not very much more.) Or maybe I should start brushing up my Farsi. According to La Repubblica of a week ago, we should all be learning Arabic anyway.