Clare and Jean had to rush off from our lunch for a school meeting. Their children are in a terza media class that is in trouble for disruptive behavior. Actually only a couple of children in the class are making the trouble (and everyone knows who they are), but, in any case, the teacher called in all of the parents to discuss the bad behaviour of the class as a whole.
The remaining six members of our lunch group were confused. We were meeting for a good-bye lunch to honor a friend who is returning to Canada after eight years in Rome. Together we cover a few continents: a South African, an American, an Italian / American who grew up in Rome, a British / American married to an Italian, a Belgian married to a French-Canadian, a Russian naturalized American, the honoured guest, another French-Canadian and me. All but three of us have or have had children in the international or French schools and they were confused. “Why doesn’t the teacher just call in the parents of the children who are making the trouble?” asked the practical American. The three of us exchanged those knowing looks, "doesn’t work that way,” Clare cut short – this is her third child going through the Italian school system and she knows the ropes. The teacher never singles out the individual children who are making trouble. Instead the parents of all the children must account for the behaviour of the class as a whole.
As is often the case, it comes down to the relative placement of the individual and the group on a value scale. In Italy, over and over again, the group takes the high ground. The school sezione or class is the place where this value is both learned and exercised. Teachers do not single out students because the class is a unit onto itself – like the family, a basic unit of survival that is higher on the value scale than the individuals of whom it is made. The group must survive in order for the individuals within it to do so too, not the other way around (our way). So it is the group, the class as a unified whole with the parents, that must deal with its disturbing internal elements in a way that allows for the survival of the group. The dynamics of the classroom are so different from anything we have experienced that they are very difficult to grasp. The process of group formation is slow and complex and effective so that by the end of high school, the web of collective experience has been spun for life.
The Italian / American nodded in understanding. Although she attended an international high school, American university and British graduate school, on return to Rome, she easily slipped back into the web of her Roman scuola media friends, of which she was and will always be a part.
E (that's me in the brown shirt)