May 10, 2007

How things work

Yesterday afternoon parents were invited to a school-wide meeting assemblea straordinaria in the aula magna. Subject: The recent visit by Ministro Rutelli to announce renovation work soon to take place in this important historic building to meet school safety regulations and provide access for the disabled.

Sounds fairly straight forward. But it was not. Never is.

I got a seat up front (simply by arriving on time) and listened carefully and attentively for over two hours as various political representatives (a capo gabinetto del ministero, an assessore della provincia), parents, teachers and the principal spoke. In the end I understood that there are three sides to this triangular question.

The school side: the school needs (and wants) to meet necessary safety regulations (fire regulations were the only ones specified) and provide access for the disabled (a ramp to get up the front steps and an internal elevator seem to be the two issues at hand). The school also desperately needs a few new spaces as several rooms that are now serving as classrooms are grossly inadequate.

So far, all is clear and no one disagrees (politicians, parents, teachers, students, principal).

The principle side: the building, originally owned and run by Jesuits priests as an educational institution, was donated to the Italian state in 1873 (soon after Rome had joined the rest of Italy) on the condition that it continue to be used for this purpose, giving birth to the first state-run liceo in Italy – Liceo Ginnasio “Ennio Quirino Visconti”.

Things are still clear but although the politicians do not disagree, they do not agree quite as enthusiastically and we will later see why.

The political side: the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali has its headquarters just next to the school and shares the same complex. It wants (needs?) another entrance and has incorporated the re-opening of a door on the front of the building, that has been closed for centuries, into the school renovation project. This new door will then require a hallway to allow for access to the offices and this additional space will come from the north wing of the school.

Wait, could you repeat the purpose of this renovation work again (fulfill safety regulations for the school and access for the disabled and the need for new classrooms) and clarify what the Ministry’s door has to do with it? No problem, new classroom space (in lieu of that being taken away) will be provided for by dividing a few current rooms in two vertically by installing metal lofts.

Now I get it -- why so many parents showed up, the cat calls, shouting and wild applause. Can you imagine those desks, chairs and lively adolescents all moving about on a metal floor above the heads of another class. Ma che succede?

I listen more carefully and attentively.

First to the Assessore della Provincia di Roma. Lots of very nice words, but not very much information.

Then a student spoke, concluding with, “Prima la storia dell’istituto, poi tutto il resto” (First the Institution’s history, then the rest). Ahhh History (with capital “H”) bubbling up there again.

A father followed finishing with his “fear of politicians – first they put their foot in the door only to then take it all”. Wild applause – the crowd was warming up.

Another father then came to the microphone to state, “I will not accept the arrogance of the strong, we must educate our children to respect the rules”.

Yet another father returned us to the question of space and safety followed by an impassioned mother, the first to highlight Side Two of the question – the destination of the building by the Jesuits for educational purposes (not ministries and public officials).

Finally came the moment for the architect and project designer to speak. He was whistled at as he wafted on about Ministro Rutelli’s sensitivity to cultural issues. Someone cried out, “keep to the technical side”. So he proceeded to outline the two essential needs, that of the school to be put “a norma” and that of a second entrance for the Ministry, but he never did get around to the technical side. Someone finally yelled out, “tempo!” and he sat down.

Things were certainly heating up.

Then a woman came to the mike, a mother, and what a mother. Tall and imposing, thick, long overflowing reddish hair, grey low-cut stylish tunic, lots of strings of white and gold colored things around her neck, tight jeans tucked into leather boots with heels. As in other occasions, looks can be deceiving to the foreign eye. She was a professional, a civil engineer that has sat on various government committees for public works safety – a powerful woman who could afford to be particolareand freely express her individuality, no conservative suits for her. She asked very pointed questions of the architect, demanding clear answers and as she made an eloquent and passionate speech it was clear that she had done her homework.

A few other fathers followed, one calling for a “stato di agitazione” and my favorite father, a lawyer, who ended up mediating a three way discussion at the mike with the capo gabinetto and the architect to whom he asked pointed legal and technical questions (to which they did not actually respond). As the architect raised his voice, the lawyer/father stepped back, “don’t be so aggressive, I am a timid person” followed by a round of applause and some comic relief.

The Capo Gabinetto spoke so well that I got lost, “what did he say in the end?” Boh. But he is open to dialogue and confrontation.

Final result: A representative group of parents (made up of lawyers, engineers, architects, art historians etc.) was formed and will sit down at the table with the various ministry representatives to talk about reciprocal needs before the project proceeds further.

Can someone explain why this didn’t take place at the beginning of the process instead of now when there is a “progetto esecutivo” in hand and a renovation company already chosen and ready to start on June 15?

A true Italian mystery. But in the end, I have faith that the process will work – certainly in a different way and by a different route, let's call it consensus building through active confrontation.

In any case, it was a great show.

A domani,

p.s. sorry no pictures, I brought my camera, but was too intimidated to actually set off the flash, irritate the speaker and have everyone look at me as a of those blogger skills I need to work on.


Alec said...

Wow, sounds so much more exciting than an English school meeting.

As for photos, it would've been nice to see what these characters look like. Taking photos in embarrassing/inappropriate situations is one of your blogger superpowers! Remember to use it for good though, not evil.

Roman Mommy said...

Reminds of the meeting I attended for parents who wanted to enroll their children in the public Montessori school near us. 70 Italian mammas all yelling out questions at the same time! At least you understood what was being said!!