Monday, March 8, 2010


I started school one late September morning of 1977, certain that it would be the sudden and irrevocable end of childhood, of play, of friendships. In hindsight, I think I know why: my sister, being nine years older, would have just completed the first year of the liceo classico, a brutally demanding high school with a staggering drop out rate. They made her life hell, and hers was the only experience of being a student that I had access to. The fact that this is what my primary school looked like can’t have helped much either:

Each floor in that building has to be at least five metres high, and must have looked even more towering to little me. And let’s take a closer look at one of those welcoming front doors:

You don’t need to be a strict Foucauldian or to venture into metaphor to see the contiguity between this kind of space and a prison or an army barracks. And indeed in my first year I encountered a teacher with a true passion for discipline who had plans to cure me of my left-handedness and who sent me home in tears one day because I made a mistake, and she did not tolerate mistakes in her classroom.

But as far as the horrors of school went, that was it: in my second year she retired and was replaced by a group of four young, passionate teachers working together in a pilot programme of full-day instruction. The days were long - we finished at half past four in the afternoon - but there was plenty of time for play and recreation, and other than the occasional after-lunch recess spent hunched over our desks in silence because somebody had broken some cardinal rule or other, I don’t recall the discipline being very strict either. Overall, I remember those years as being formative, both socially and educationally. And what more can you ask of your school?

Except I say it was formative, but it's not as if I remember very well what the teaching and the learning were like. I mostly remember the extra-curricular moments, and that intimidating space and the use we made of it.

Here's the compound again, seen from above.

We lived each year in a different classroom, sitting at rows of desks facing the blackboard and the teacher. We ate bland food in the canteen off a fixed menu, and everything had to be consumed, even the zucchine that had been boiled to within an inch of their molecular integrity. When it wasn't raining, we spent the morning break in the outside yard on the top left of the picture, while the longer break after lunch took place in the inner yard, where for some reason we weren't allowed to play soccer. Therefore the morning break was the fulcrum of the lives of us boys. We played on a concrete basketball court, with jackets or backpacks for goal posts. One of my most enduring memories of primary school is in fact the image of my best mate holding a football under his arms and crying his eyes out because on that particular day we were told we couldn't play. The caretaker was burning a pile of rags in the middle of the court. It was really quite a raging fire, but my friend reckoned we could play around it.

I would love to recapture the time in my life when that kind of explanation - 'the playing surface is on fire' - wasn't enough. That's the raw material that we were, a bunch of small humans liable to choose self-immolation over spending half an hour inside on a sunny day. School cured us of that, to say nothing of the things that it taught us: letters, numbers and words, to read and to summarise and to analyse and to explain, to problems-solve and to stay on topic and to draw neat circles and many other things besides. Not only the foundational skills that we needed to acquire all sorts of useful knowledge down the track, but also the mindset of being a student: to be punctual and to pay attention and to perform to expectation, as well as the expectation to be graded, which of course is the key to the whole thing. A desire to be measured against the standards and do well is just as necessary as the actual ability to do well. It's the fundamental act of compliance on which formal education is predicated, and you must learn to act the part at the earliest possible age.

And so it was that in that first Christmas at school they made us pose for individual portraits. Sitting behind a desk, the primer open before him at what I'm sure must have been a random page, a smile to indicate that he was happy to learn and not at all creeped out by Santa and his trusty bowtie-wearing giraffe sidekick, student 17 of class 1G is the very image of that compliance, of acting the part.

A penny or two for your thoughts, little man. Were you worried even then about writing with the Devil's hand and making too many mistakes? Or had you already caught glimpses of your path, which was that of the good student, always spoken about in glowing terms, taking pride in his achievements?

That lesson became so ingrained that later, at intermediate school, when things came crashing down, I never so much as questioned the fundamental assumption on which it rested: that if you can't hack it at school it is your fault for failing to learn, and never the school's for failing to teach you. Those specimens after all were all around me already. Primary school was designed to tolerate them and carry them along rather than holding them back (or "bowl them", in the extraordinary terminology that is still in use today), but it made no bones about labelling them as failures, and publicly so. I recall one classmate in particular who didn't seem to even fit into that space. He was always out of the line, out of his chair or out of class altogether. The rest of us by and large were successfully regimented: we marched in single or double file between the classroom, the canteen, the playground and the gym, knew how to sit at our desks, knew how to respond when questioned. He knew none of those things, and nobody seemed to feel any solidarity or empathy for him. He was an outcast but not in a romantic, appealing way: he just didn't belong, and seemed to go out of his way to make himself unpleasant to be around. He hated school, and school tolerated him at best, confident that the axe would fall on him at the appointed time, a year or two at the most into his secondary education. I'm sure it never crossed my mind even for a second that my path at that point would overlap with his, and that I'd forget so suddenly and comprehensively how to act the part - but that's a story for another post.

Andrea Gastaldi, Pietro Micca (1858), oil on canvas.
Italian schools that aren't named after Dante Alighieri, Garibaldi or Mazzini are named after a local literary figure or, when all else fails, a "patriot". This is a rather mixed lot, and includes a number of characters who either chose to make the extreme sacrifice so that the country could be freed from the yoke of foreign oppression, or miscalculated the length and speed of the fuse when it was time to blow up the tunnel. Historians are still unsure which of those particular options applies to Pietro Micca, a Piedmontese soldier who saved Turin from capitulating to the hated French during the siege of 1706, ensuring that it would go instead to the House of Savoy, the eventual monarchs of unified Italy and enablers of Fascism.

Just for that we ought to take turns spitting on his grave, but instead he gets schools named after him - go figure. Our perplexing association with this klutz did have however a light-hearted moment each year on the occasion of the school's run, the Sgambamelata, whose mascot was a happy-looking barrel of TNT with a lit fuse running on tiny legs.

If you visit the school's website you'll see that the little fella is still going strong, in spite of suicide bombing having acquired something of a bad name in the intervening years. But looking back on those far from unhappy times, and suspecting that they were integral to a model of education that was far less benign than it appeared and that is now experiencing an unsettling revival, I wonder if we can read something else in that image, perhaps catch a glimpse of the student condition: a sort of exhilarated terror as you ran from test to test, from the spectre of failure to the hope of remedy, always short on time, whilst your childhood was consumed by the urgency of becoming a successful worker and citizen.

Or not.

Join me next week as I tell you everything I learnt at school about the Phoenicians. You may want to bring your sleeping bag and a toothbrush.


Di said...

My. I loved this. Thank you for this glimpse. I shall buy a sleeping bag for the next occasion. Mine is back home in NZ, in my sister's wardrobe I believe.

Danielle said...

Santa and the pony/giraffe require a LOT of explanation. I am mesmerised.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm afraid your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps it's the closest thing to a reindeer that the artist could muster.

Daleaway said...

It's got a bow round its neck so I presume it's a gift rocking giraffe, or hobby giraffe. Or of course it may be just a stalking giraffe.

Philip said...

Perhaps it isn't a giraffe at all, but an imperfectly dyed Afghan hound. That would at least make some kind of sense.

Word Verification: fouste, bothered in a Foucauldian fashion, as in "Discipliner ou punir? Je ne suis pas fouste."

stephen said...

I loved this reminiscense.

Apropos school names, this was on Strange Maps this week.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Wow, thank you for that. After the war we reversed very quickly the Fascist nomenclatures in various areas, I wonder if we also had or still have comparable school names.

rob said...

Ummmm, thanks, Gio. Childhood can seem like another country- another planet, even.
I'm on for the phoenicians- but more interested in how this ordered world was tipped up-side down at Intermediate school. Ya left us hanging! :)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Patience. History needs to be taught chronologically, because it's a narrative. :-)

Megan Clayton said...

The playing surface is on fire,
the writing surface, under water.
The buildings raise a mountainside,
the bodies cowering as they died.

The angry kids assemble here
for snacks and quiet in lieu of play.
The future migrants walk the coast
for rusting hulks to use as boats.