I had an appointment at my son’s school today (yes, it is Saturday and yes, they do have school on Saturday). On my way out I happen to see his first teacher from the 4th and 5th “ginnasio” (the first two years of the Classical Studies high school). Back then, she was to be feared, not only by the students but also by the parents, and I was no exception. Today was different, she was reduced in stature by the fact that she no longer had power over my son’s life, and I had grown in stature because I no longer had reason to be terrified of our parent/teacher encounters. We were practically equals and we greeted each other fondly and with warmth – she was human!
The hierarchy question. Yes, it is different. At first I didn’t understand the power teachers hold and the deferential stance one must take in their presence. They can fail your child at any time, for really any reason, or make his or her life miserable, or terrify him daily, or pretty much do what they want, and you, as a parent, are at the whims of fate, powerless. A very strange sensation for an American. You can complain to the “preside” who can listen empathetically, shrug his shoulders, and in the end, do nothing because he really does not have any power. What you have to do as a parent and what your child has to do is exactly what every Italian does and has done: be patient, flexible, learn amazing skills at tolerating ambiguity, understand and accept the forces of fate, bide your time, be clever and astute and bow to the unwritten rules of hierarchy.
Italians learn all those Italian traits at school. The process in which they do so is so subtle and so effective that culture (small “c”) is passed along together with Culture (capital “C”). More on that another time….