By Patricia Winton
Please visit me at Italian Intrigues on alternate Thursdays. Next week, I’m writing about a special cheese
Stacks of notebooks and packs of pencils dominate the shops. New backpacks and diaries lure students to choose their annual identifying statement. But nothing signals the approach of the new school year in Italy like racks of grembiule (smocks) hanging outside shops catering to children. In the primary grades, pupils wear smocks over their street clothes, traditionally pink for girls and blue for boys. In recent years, that practice has given way to predominately white smocks with a touch of pink or blue collars or piping. And with a nod to the shameless advertising that targets children, pockets embroidered with images of Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse vie for attention.
These smocks are one of the most visible differences between Italian schools and American ones. I have no children studying here, nor am I employed by the Italian education system, but I do work for an adult program that contracts with secondary schools to hold classes after hours. Thus, I’ve seen inside a variety of classrooms over the past ten years.
One of the first things I noticed when I began teaching here was the omnipresent religious icon in most classrooms. Despite what you may think, Italy has no official religion, having rejected that idea after wrenching itself free from centuries of papal domination in 1870. Yet most classrooms sport a crucifix or an image of the Madonna—or both. For Italians, this is normal; many people hang such an icon over their beds at home.
The second thing I noticed is that schools do not have pencil sharpeners. Each student carries a small case supplied with pens and pencils, perhaps a short ruler and white-out, and always a little pencil sharpener such as the one I use for my eye liner. Students sharpen their pencils at their desks, often sweeping the shavings onto the floor. The more fastidious ones carefully catch the scrapings onto a piece of paper and carry them to the trash can.
Another notable item usually missing is toilet paper. It’s customary to retreat from the classroom with a little packet of tissue tucked in your palm. It’s simply normal. The stalls in Italian public restrooms have floor-to-ceiling walls with a real door, so it’s not unusual for males and females to use the same facility since there’s perfect privacy within the stalls themselves. In a couple of schools where I’ve worked, that unisex principle applied.
The classrooms themselves are basic. In the secondary schools where I teach, the students sit side by side at tables for two. Each is equipped with slots for holding books and an ingenious hook for suspending bags. There is generally a place to hang coats along the back wall. Most of the time, the blackboard stands free from the wall and can be flipped so you can write on both sides. I actually like this feature because I can write something I want to share later in the lesson and have it all ready when the time comes.
And then there are the bars. Every school has one. Students and faculty alike go for coffee or juice, water or sandwiches. Many school bars serve lunch, complete with pasta dishes and main courses. And while alcohol is not prominently displayed like it is in a public bar, an adult (over 16) can have a glass of wine with lunch or a bit of grappa in the coffee. And while I’ve never seen a student imbibe in alcohol on school premises, I’ve seen the principal have both.
My observations are superficial at best, but they represent the things that first struck me when I arrived in Rome ten years ago. But the longer I’m here, the more normal they seem.