My first English teaching job in Rome (or first “mission, should I choose to accept it”) was to go on assignment to a school where I’d have two tasks: teach English to a class of seven year olds for an hour and then have a private tutoring session with the Mother Superior. It was a school run by nuns.
Need to catch up on Laurenissima? Click here to start from the beginning with how and why I moved to Rome and who Laurenissima is.
I told them I didn’t think the class would be a good idea since I really didn’t speak Italian or have experience with groups of kids. Also, I did not consider myself a “kid person.” Unfortunately as a young woman, nobody believes this. You’re female, you must be a kid person. Male English teachers got jobs teaching business English or running summer camps. Girls got kids.
Despite Daniela’s belief that I couldn’t teach one word of the English language, I accepted the job. I really needed the money.
That’s when they told me the school was in Ciampino. Ciampino is not in Rome. It is a town about 16 kilometers south east where the cities second airport is located. I’d have to take public transportation to the central train station in Rome then take the train there then walk about 20 minutes to get to the school and, to add insult to injury, that walk was entirely up hill. Overall it took me over 1.5 hours to get to this school. I was paid €50 total for the two lessons (one hour with the kids and one hour with the Mother Superior), the highest hourly wage I would ever be paid by a school in Rome. No payment for lesson planning and no transportation costs were covered.
“Don’t worry about the Italian,” they told me. “There will be other teachers there so you don’t have to be in charge of discipline.” When I arrived in this school I realized that there were indeed other teachers there… in the school. Not in the classroom. They were teaching their own classes and of course would not be coming into mine to discipline anyone. Perfect.
I had only one lesson with the Mother Superior, in which she learned the words for ‘man’ and ‘woman’, before she disappeared for a two-week religious retreat. So that’s the excuse nowadays. Without her lesson, I was only making €25 for the entire four hour expedition. I couldn’t afford to not take it even if my first job in Rome was actually not in Rome at all.
One of their teachers brought me to the room on the first day to explain where things were. The kids were already there. “This is the board! And the desk is here.”
“I can see that,” I said. “Are there any supplies? How are the kids?”
“You’ll get used to yelling! A lot!” she said with a crazed, exhausted smile. Then she showed me a small metal bell and said, “This we use to make them silent.”
“Quiet. To keep them quiet, yes,” I said. I picked up the bell. There was no pendulum inside. “But, have you seen it’s broken?” I asked.
“Oh yes, it broke long time ago, you just do like this,” she said, taking the bell from me and proceeding to bang it against the table with a raucous clatter which immediately caused all the kids who had been chatting or playing quietly to start yelling so they could hear each other over the sound of the bell. “You see! It works!” I swear she was laughing maniacally while she did this.
Terrified, I asked, “What do you teach them?”
“English!” she said.
“What? I thought I do English.”
“You do more. You are the mother tongue!” she said. I realized why this was so disorganized. I was just there to expose them to the sound of real English and any qualifications beyond that were quite frankly more than they could hope to ask for.
“Ok, so we could coordinate our lessons and–“
“Bye now! Bye Bye! Ciao ciao ciao!”
I was left alone with the children.
I had about three seconds of believing that I would soon be teaching these kids English and perhaps even singing with them like in the sound of music. Maybe I’d even learn guitar and we’d sit in a field of flowers and we’d change each others lives. That fantasy didn’t last long.
The yelling began immediately. Raising a hand to ask a question seemed to be a foreign concept so they came up to me holding their papers out with imploring looks on their faces, all yelling over each other to be heard. “What are we doing???”
I started with number bingo. “The next number is two!” They couldn’t hear me of course because they were yelling in Italian, “What’s Next? What’s next?” Most of them were out of their seats, either not paying any attention to the “lesson” or they were coming up to me, pointing to certain numbers and bellowing, “Is it this one?”
“No, sit down.”
The girls were obsessed with bossily telling the boys what to do and then coming to tell me how Marco or Federico wasn’t following the rules. Then they’d try to steal the teacher’s bell to restore order themselves. Somebody’s got to do it. Answering one kids question, my voice was suddenly drowned out by some little girl hammering the bell on the desk and I’d have to go pry it out of her hands.
“Do your own coloring,” I told one girl, which caused her to immediately burst into frustrated tears: “But Giuseppe isn’t doing it right!!!” while Giuseppe threw his hands up in the air, shaking his head like: screw this. And that basically sums up many a relationship between Italian men and woman.
One boy, after yelling at everyone and ripping another ones homework in half then proceeded to hide under a desk for the rest of the class and wouldn’t come out. I wish I could have joined him.
They figured out pretty soon that I was totally inept and literally couldn’t communicate with them (exactly as I’d told my boss who of course didn’t care.) In fact, one of the only things I could understand was when they turned to each other, shrugged their narrow shoulders and said, “Lei non capisce.” She doesn’t understand. To this the other little ones would nod sagely as if to say, “So that explains it.”
If the first lesson was bad, the second was absolute chaos.
They cried, fell down, threw their pencils at each other, broke chalk on the floor, ripped each others’ pictures in half after pokemon cards were stolen while the girls incessantly continued trying to control the boys. At one point I heard a tapping from the cabinet next to me and opened it to find Daniele inside (how long had he been there?) just as violent Flavio hurled a plastic dwarf across the room into Marcos head.
The lesson concluded with Flavio (the possible psychopath) chasing Daniele down in a corner of the room, dragging him to the ground and kicking him while I wrenched them apart in horror just as another teacher (remember they were nuns, making it somehow even worse) appeared at the door with one of the students gripped by the ear saying: I found him in the hall!
After three lessons, I quit. For their sakes and mine. Then the nuns called to fire me. The only thing I could feel pleased about was that order of events: Quit and THEN get fired by nuns. Small, pathetic victory.
During the last lesson I had hidden the offensive metal bell in my bag to prevent the over-zealous girls in the class from “helping” me restore order by banging it on every available surface and screaming “Attenzione!” In my haste to flee from the building I forgot to return the bell and found it in my bag later that night.
I tried to tell my Italian roommate about the bell. As I saw it, it was the only funny part of the story. I showed it to him and started to cobble together some phrases in my terrible Italian.
“For silence. For kids. But broken.”
“Is it a game?” asked my confused roommate.
“No, it doesn’t speak. So is stupid to use.”
“Yes, it is a stupid bell.”
“No, not the bell. The teacher is stupid.”
“It is the teacher’s bell?”
“So, you stole it?”
“No! No, it was an accident.”
“You had an accident with the kids and something broke?”
“No, I just… nevermind.”
“Ok. But you know that bell doesn’t work, right?” he said. “It’s broken.”
The broken bell sat on my dresser for a few days before I buried it in a drawer, a reminder that without learning how to speak, I’d be just as incomprehensible as it was, listening to the chant of “Lei non capisce! Lei non capisce!”