Gravemente insufficiente. Critically inadequate. That was my mark in English as well as other topics at the end of the first and second year of intermediate school.
When you have a number of fail marks the teachers have a meeting to decide whether you should be granted an overall pass mark or be forced to repeat the year. Pupils who are subjected to this drastic measure are said to have been bocciati (bowled) or respinti (repelled), and oh how I’d like to know the history of those two words, which might originally have been intended as euphemisms but are anything but: bowled, like a pin standing alongside other pins, with no capacity to get out of the way, hoping that the giant ball will spare you and hit somebody else; or repelled, like medieval soldiers laying siege to the citadel of knowledge - and being driven back with heavy casualties.
I was spared this gruesome fate, and in the second year this came to my family I suspect as a genuine surprise. Yet I can’t honestly remember how I felt about it. I know I hated school intensely, but I couldn’t say if the prospect of catastrophic failure was any more terrifying than progress, for either way there was no meaningful end in sight. The alternative to school was never not-school, at least for a stretch of five or six more years, and I doubt I could see much further ahead than a week or a month in those days.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure I suffered from depression. It’s not just what I remember of that time - the desperate sadness, and those spiralling thought processes that I call to mind with apprehension even now - but also that I don’t remember so much of it: most of my classmates, most of my teachers, what the inside of the school even looked like. Seeing as I recall my time at primary school and high school quite well, I can only associate that blank interlude in my autobiographical memory with some sort of psychological trauma. But you know what kids that age are like, right? They are such difficult years. And I suspect it was left at that by everyone involved, seeing as there was no concrete, visible trauma that one could point to, and that they all hoped that I eventually would snap out of it, in the same mysterious way that I had snapped into it.
Meanwhile, school was prepared to let me progress to the third year and as far as the final state exams in spite of my critical inadequacies, but not to investigate their underlying reasons or pause even for a second to consider whether it, the school, might have a less than positive influence on young people who exhibited my particular symptoms. To wit: the truancy, the apathy, the lack of aptitude in most disciplines and - equally as unexplained, equally as suspect - how I still seemed to do very well in Italian and in written composition. It was that one talent that counselled against an outright bocciatura - my teacher of Italian and History, it was whispered to me, had fought like a tiger on my behalf - but I’d still have to come right eventually in order to pass the final exams.
And come right I did. I don’t have any memory of how this happened either, I just know that the fog lifts midway through that final year and I remember studying for the exams, doing well once again like I used to. Maths and English became things I could make sense of, whereas in other topics it was simply a matter of putting in the work, and spending some time in class. As quickly as I lost it, that compliance that I had interiorised so well at primary school came back. Outrageously, I passed the exams with distinction and that is the only permanent record left of my wretched time at intermediate school, so that you could be excused to think that I had been a model student throughout. Thus the institution colludes with my amnesia.
One of the things that bothers me to this day is that I was likely held by somebody at the time as evidence that the system works, a troubled and poorly performing student who thanks to the patient nurturing of his teachers finally turned things around. Accordingly, my giudizio (mark or grade, yes, but literally judgment, sentence) included the recommendation to send me to a liceo so that I could eventually pursue a university degree. Some of my classmates weren’t so lucky. Their recommendation was to ‘enrol in a brief professional training course’. Brief. There’s another heavily loaded word. Please don’t leave your child at school for too long, it’s painfully clear that he or she doesn’t belong. And how many families mistook that advice for an instruction that simply had to be followed?
***English has its own linguistic tangles too. When your teacher fails you in a subject, is it your failure or theirs? Can school itself ever ultimately fail a student? The way in which those final evaluations of ours were worded placed the burden of success or failure entirely on the student, but now in New Zealand the talk around National Standards is all about finding the schools and the educators that fail their students. A truly democratic public school system ought to produce consistent results regardless of socio-economic disparity, or so the theory goes. It’s not true of course, growing up in a family that has a history of being rewarded by the school system is a very strong predictor of educational achievement. But who are these kids who do well? And what does it mean to do well? How much of it is the result of having interiorised a discipline, and trusting - because you know it to be true, because Mum is an architect and Dad is a doctor - that educational achievement translates into wealth and a successful career?
The path chosen by our Republican institutions was not to reform the school system so that it conformed to its democratic aims and produce a broadly egalitarian system like the one we have in New Zealand. It chose rather to give the working class access to the old schools of the elites, the licei. I’m a beneficiary of this policy. At a liceo you would study Latin for five years because ‘it broadens the mind’ and not at all because the prospect of studying Latin would intimidate and thus turn away a very large number of working class 13-14 year olds whose families happened to be unfamiliar with the code, according to which ‘broadens the mind’ correctly translates as ‘it’s what you have to put yourself through in order to graduate from a liceo’. By the same token, at a liceo you would not develop any manual skill, because manual skills are what you need in menial jobs.
They were training us to be intellectuals, but the kind of intellectuals who never ask any questions. And I complied - oh, how did I comply! And I learned to fear failure again, which is just as integral to success as craving the validation of a good grade.
My original plan for this week was to write about the fourth kid from the left in this picture. His name is Michael Gove. Nowadays he’s Shadow Children’s Secretary of the British conservative party, but at the time when the picture was taken - in February 1979 - he was taking part in an ‘inter-primary school quiz at Hazlehead Primary’. I could make a snide remark about his brimming eagerness to please the questionmaster, but not two weeks ago I showed you what I myself looked like back then, and aren’t we the same boy, the same aspiring model pupil?
Earlier this month, whilst discussing his party’s plans to rewrite the national curriculum and ‘restore past methods of teaching history, English, maths and science’, Mr. Gove had this to say:
Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages. That’s the best training of the mind and that’s how children will be able to compete.Jake has already commented on what it means to go back to teaching a subject like history in that particular way. What interests me here is Mr. Gove’s desire to restore the school of his youth, a school that demanded much of its students and rewarded them with the ability to compete. Not with each other, you understand, for that would be unseemly, but with the rest of the world: Finland, Singapore, South Korea, the countries that he routinely touts as models of achievement in education. Yet he does not intend to emulate them or copy their systems; he just wants to go back in time. The old school worked for him, you see. Adopted at two years of age by a fish merchant and a laboratory assistant, Gove is in fact a compelling success story. And perhaps, who knows, if it hadn’t been for that blip, that black hole, those dismal two years of spectacular under-achievement, I would think that way too, hold myself up as a model: I did it, and so can you, so can everybody. You just need to put your head down and study hard and trust that you will be saved.
But I wasn’t that student, at least not the whole time. And so now I know what’s wrong with National Standards and the nostalgia for the desks lined up in rows: that they are founded on an insecurity, and that it’s an insecurity that will cripple our children. What is the ‘plain English’ requirement of the campaign for National Standards but the projection of that fear of failure? ‘Please tell me if my kid is critically inadequate, I need to know. Don’t worry about my feelings, their feelings - just give it to us straight’. And then what? How will the Māori boy of five who feels that school isn’t for him be helped by being told that that he is a failure, in plain English and from day one? How will the intellectually disabled girl react to the news? And what about the child who excels academically, for that matter? Isn’t there a danger that little Michael Gove will grow up thinking that that is what school is about: pleasing the questionmaster, doing well in tests, performing well above the standards?
None of this will improve our schools, or change our attitudes towards education. Critically, none of this will persuade the children that they need to be the ones asking the questions, instead of always supplying the answers. Then the issue of just who it is who is critically inadequate - the pupil or the school - might suddenly become a whole lot more interesting.
On the very vexed and much written about subject of National Standards, I must insist that you read this post by Jolisa Gracewood on her American experience and this one by Hilary Stace on the possible implications for autistic children.
Reading Domenico Starnone's Solo se interrogato (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1995) has helped me think far more critically than I used to about my own education. It also features on page 43 a much better discussion than mine of those horrific metaphors for when they make you repeat the year.
On the subject of Michael Gove you also need to read this piece by Philip Challinor from 2008.
My old intermediate school, Scuola Media Eugenio Colorni, is located at the corner of Via Francesco Albani and Via Paolo Uccello, Milan.