While I am on a spree (see yesterday’s post), I would like to tell you a story that happened a few years ago while I was working in cultural exchange sending Italian high school and university students to do work and study programs abroad.
An Italian 17-year old girl went on a three-week high school program run by an American university for both American and foreign students. In addition to language study, they could take academic courses and activities such as art and drama -- an expensive and prestigious program.
On arrival, the students had an orientation in which they received THE RULES, lots of them. My sons have been through the same process every summer at day and overnight summer camps in the US. As my then 13-year old told me, “they tell us not to do the stupidest things that we would never have even thought of doing…..until they told us not to do them.”
At the end of the session, the students signed off on THE RULES and a ZERO TOLERANCE clause – immediate expulsion from the program on infringement of any rule, for example, no alcohol.
A few days later, our Italian student was discovered in a pub with two American girls. She had a small beer in front of her, half empty.
First I made a “cultural case”. Although she had signed a zero tolerance form, she had intimately understood (it’s a context thing) that she simply shouldn’t get drunk (and why would she want to do that?). So, when the American girls invited her to join them (what a great way to practice her English and fit in) she went along. The American girls were “transgressing” alla grande. Our Italian, not being so used to rules and their universal and inevitable application, was….let’s say, culturally confused. Only a few days before leaving Italy, she had gone out with her class and Jesuit priest teacher for a pizza to celebrate the end of the school year. With the pizza they all had shared coke, water and beer, so what was the big deal?
Then I made a “learning opportunity” case. I pleaded with the program director, “You could use this incident to have a frank, open discussion with the students about cultural differences in approaches to alcohol. The American students could even learn something from the Italians.”
In the end, rules are rules, and zero tolerance means zero tolerance – everyone is treated exactly the same, in every case, uniformly, with no consideration for outside circumstances.
She was sent home the next day. No reimbursement of fees. She had broken the rules. I think she is still confused.
A dopo-domani (from Trento),