Posted by: 4initalia | June 12, 2009

The Kids Are Alright

I took the bus to La Rotonda, the mall. Okay, so I admit it: Andy’s theory that where the bus stops is clearly printed on a map at every stop is apparently true. But when I stood in the pick-up zone, at the time printed on the schedule, with my bus pass visible, the driver sailed right past me. So I may be drinking the Kool-Aid, but I don’t inhale.

La Rotonda has about twenty small shops where gorgeous Italians buy things that make them look even better. The mall also has a Target-type store, Conad, which sells stuff to keep Italians’ homes clean and neat while they are wearing fabulous shoes. Conad carries the usual assortment of kitchen plastics, including Tupperware bowls, but not the dull stackable kind you find in America: Italian consumers require specific shapes for specific items. For example, who else would demand a lemon-shaped container for slightly used citrus? Is there a separate one for limes? Let’s hope that there are different containers for peaches and nectarines, we certainly can’t afford to get those mixed up.

The everything-in-its-place thing is funny, but there’s a troubling aspect to the plastics aisle. The packaging for every one of those bowls includes a photo of adoring, radiant children. Apparently Italian children are ecstactic over the very idea of leftovers in sealable containers. Legos? Electronics? Don’t be silly – what kids really want is a lemon preserver.

Although I like fresh lemons as much as the typical pre-teen Italian, I am skeptical about buying anything that makes my children that happy. My kids peak in enjoyment when they’re engaging in any activity that concludes with glass shards or the demise of a light fixture. Italian children must be up to something or they wouldn’t be that excited about a lidded bowl. So I’m going to stick with glass and foil, at least until I get some direction on what these kids are doing with the Tupperware.

Friends ask how the kids are doing. They attend a private school that costs as much as a Maserati because the school is attended by the offspring of people who make Maseratis, Ferraris, and the occasional Lamborghini. As a perk to lure good workers from all over the world, the companies pay the tuition for their employees’ children. Pavarotti’s offspring went there, which explains the wide halls, and the cafeteria food must be good. But now you know why a Ferrari costs as much as it does: field trips to Florence and full-color yearbooks for every child.

Andy teaches for a private university, which certainly wouldn’t cover our private school tuition, that would be wrong. Home schooling is not an option, if every family member who came to Italy in January is going to go back with us at the end of December. There is an international school in Modena that is excellent but insanely expensive.

Of course we are getting our money’s worth: there are constant updates on the kids’ progress. Every week, Annalise’s teacher, Ms. Sweeney, stuns us with the shocking news that Annalise can read. Out loud, even. Every Friday, Annalise’s “Homework Diary” includes a Post-It note with the same breathless announcement. “Annalise read ‘The Boy Who Fell in the Well and Nearly Died’ clearly and with expression!!” Annalise is seven years old and has been reading for three years. Ms. Sweeney’s weekly discovery of Annalise’s reading ability is Ground Hog Day-esque. How many times did Annie Sullivan announce that little Helen learned the sign for water? You can only milk that for so long before parents want to know about long division. After twenty-four versions of the same update, my enthusiasm for this news is starting to flag. If Ms. Sweeney continues to be startled that Annalise can read, for the sake of her health, I’m not going to mention that she has also graduated to finger food.

While I’m not shocked that Annalise can read, I am surprised at the content of the books offered to second graders. One of the first books Annalise took out of the school library was about Paddington, the small British bear rescued from a train station. But in the school’s version, Paddington is kidnapped and held for ransom by an unruly gang of badgers. Although I try to keep my parenting edge, I wasn’t expecting illustrations of Paddington hog-tied and threatened by his abductors. In another book, a young prince is kidnapped by his evil uncle, who throws the boy in jail, takes all his money, and extorts cash from the rest of the village until peace is restored through several pages of violence involving hand to hand combat and spears that glint in sun and moonlight. Night night, honey. Then there was a chipper read about tots caught in a devastating flood that almost killed them and destroyed their furniture, and another about the bombing of London, with an informative aside on the discomfort of wearing gas masks.

I’m no fan of fairy tales; in all the “princess is saved by a kiss” books, I tack on an epilogue that the prince is a crackerjack with a toilet brush, and the day after the wedding, the princess starts medical school. So I don’t do fluff. But Paddington’s struggle with rope burns and post-traumatic stress disorder is a bit much for second graders. The school teaches in English, and the library books are all British. If this is what kids in England grow up reading, I can see where Winston Churchill got his moxie. Apparently Neville Chamberlain skipped second grade.

Although classes are taught in English, Annalise and Alex both take four and a half hours of Italian a week. At least once a week, Annalise comes home with a bulging blue notebook: Italian homework. Italian homework consists of worksheets that help the kids practice Italian vocabulary. The children are supposed to write each vocabulary word next to the picture provided. However, the words are represented as indecipherable scribbles. What Italian word is meant by that hairy looking ball of clay? Or that hookish thing, that is crooked at an odd angle? I’ve never seen a specialized container for any of these objects in the plastic aisle of the Rotonda, a bad sign. And I can’t fake the perky “Oh honey, you know what that is” essential to noncommital homework assistance.

We know that Annalise’s Italian teacher patiently introduces each new vocabulary term, and reinforces each day’s lesson by reproducing the words all over the classroom: she writes them on the board, weaves them into the rug, carves them into the marble of the school room floor: Ms. Isabella is not keeping those words a secret from the children. But I have no idea what the little symbols mean. And Annalise swears that she was held captive in a cave, with Paddington, while those words were discussed in class.

To ratchet up the agony, each week the vocabulary words involve a different cluster of letters. For example, Annalise will have to identify words that have the letters “gna” or “gno” at the end, or even worse, in the middle. Sure, you say, “I know a word with ‘gna’ at the end, lasagna!!” Just maybe, if the little sketch actually looked like a pasta dish, instead of an infected sponge, I could fill in that blank, Mister Smarmy. But the evil Ms. Isabella requires not one, but twelve words which end in “gna.” And the pictures that go with them mystify me: what’s an Italian word that looks like a boulder partially submerged by the sea, that has “qua” in the middle? There is no dictionary that allows you to find a word using that information. So when the empty lines beckon, Annalise takes the Fifth Amendment, and we’re left to figure it out for ourselves. At approximately forty dollars a blank line, we can’t afford to let any bit of knowledge get past us.

Just when we thought we’d put the child up for adoption over the worksheet fiasco, Ms. Isabella upped the ante: she’s now assigning the kids to write “little stories” based on those well-loved vocabulary words. “Fine,” you say (you’re starting to develop quite an attitude there, Buster). “How hard could that be?” But the story must include those twelve terms, and no others.

The list includes only nouns, not verbs. How do you write a story using only nouns? Don’t the nouns have to do something, in order to constitute a story? For example, in War and Peace, a lot of people involved themselves in warlike activities, and then peaceful ones. Action words, people, they’re out there. But Annalise claims total innocence on the subject of verbs, and there are no verbs on the worksheets. Although on the playground, she sounds like she was born in Rome, when faced with the Bulging Blue Notebook, Annalise claims utter ignorance of conjugation. There are a million different verb endings in Italian, depending on the number, gender and shoe size of the noun that goes with them. There’s a reason they call them verb tenses. So Andy, who is a lunatic, lets her write her story in English, and then he translates it for her.

Annalise, freed from onerous task of actually learning Italian, spins the list of words into a novel-length flight of fancy. Andy translates her story into Italian, but provides a Reader’s Digest version in one terse paragraph. Annalise, upon learning that her Byronic prose has been stripped to the emotive flair of a bus schedule, seethes at the injustice of being edited by a hack. Then the yelling starts. The study of languages is so enriching for the entire family.

When the kids aren’t at school, they’re travelling. To London, Paris, Rome, even Legoland Denmark. They’ve seen so much. The Anne Frank House. The Louvre. Westminster Abbey. Notre Dame on Easter Sunday. Venice at sunset. Normandy in the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. Twenty cities so far.

They’re getting an insider’s view of European history, and an outsider’s view of America. But they’ve missed a few days of school along the way. If they’re going to miss a day, we are required to request permission from their teachers, and we have been informed that permission may not be granted for them to leave.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Go ahead and say they can’t miss class, International School of Modena!! While Andy and I head to Paris, Annalise can hang out with Ms. Isabella, and they can get cracking on some verbs, including “Do your homework” and “Go to sleep.” And Ms. Sweeney, who never tires of hearing Annalise read, can surprise herself with Post-It updates the whole time we’re gone. Alex has so far escaped the gritty world of the second-grade library, but he camp out there while we’re gone, and it’s never too late to learn about the perils of poison gas.

No really, the kids are fine. But I’m still not buying them Tupperware.


  1. Yeah…I couldn’t have summed it up better about the school. My major tiff is that I spent countly hours telling the children that “STUPID” is not a word that they should be using. When they get older, maybe, to reference an occassional waste of time course they may be taking in college, but 4 and 7 are not the appropriate ages in my house. However, the British house must feel differently as one of the books Taylor brought home is titled “Stupid Pants.” OK…Last I checked…my pants don’t have a brain…the only occasional ‘brain’ I see in pants are in men, which, as you already know that Italy has plenty of ‘brain in pants’ induced men.

    My favorite story was the Italian mum whose daughter brought home a book about a girl who, whenever she touched anything, it turned into…uh…merde…Yes…only at the cost-of-a-college-tuition ISM!! I comfort this mother in letting her know that it is based on a true story: Mine, of course. Though I always say “I have the Midas touch…Everything I touch turns into mufflers…”

    Well, thankfully, Analise has an older brother and not a younger one. Because it’s quite difficult to tear the book out of the hands of someone who loves to read, in general, not to mention if they’re reading a book about a girl whose little brother is kidnapped by gnomes.

    And that answers my question as to why I never use…

  2. итак: отлично..

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