6. An Education

My second English teaching job was with a Dickensian-ly dismal school located near Termini station. In a neighborhood of internet caffes, some of the worst Italian restaurants in town and some of the best Korean, was a building with a door large enough to allow in a horse and carriage. Through this door you followed a rather dingy red velvet carpet up a couple stairs into the school that was located on the ground floor level and in the basement. Every room had been turned into a rabbit warren of tiny booths made of thin particle board, painted white. In each cubicle was a desk, two chairs, a trash can and sometimes, if you were lucky, the CD player to use for listening exercises. It was always cold. And the basement was dark. No bats though.

Every Sunday I received my schedule by email and would find out how much time I’d be in “the cell” and therefore how much money I’d make that week: Monday 9-10, Tuesday 10-13:30 etc. When you came in, you had to ask for your room assignment slip at the front desk. 9am-11am in aula 1 (room 1) then 11am-12pm in aula 5. Who were my students? I didn’t know until they were literally sitting in front of me pushing their little booklet across the desk so I could see what they had done in their last lesson and could take it from there. The pay was €9.50 an hour.

Now, to get your slip with your room assignments was a cultural challenge in and of itself.

The front desk was presided over by terrifyingly mean Italian women, a type I would get to know over the years as unfortunately common but which I had yet to become acquainted. Their hair was dyed, their clothes always seemed to be strange patterned nylon (strange because patterns aren’t usually a “thing” in Italy) and their faces were more or less obscured by an inch thick layer of make up and scorn. I’d stand in front of the desk while they chatted with each other (something I was to learn would be repeated in 75% of clothes shops, airport info desks and post offices) until I finally coughed a little bit and said something captivating like: “ciao” upon which they would stare at me like I’d just asked if you could be their “bwand new fwend.”

“What?” They’d spit out the word.

“My room assignments?” I think my shyness irritated them more than the disruption of their conversation. After a huge sigh, some eye rolling and glancing at each other like: these idiots, youknowwhatI’msaying? One would place my slip on the desk next to my outstretched hand (not in it) and return to their chat. This was a fundamental American vs. Italian difference. As an American I knew to politely wait to be asked what I needed. It doesn’t work like that in Italy. You have to march right up and say what you need and they’ll give it to you. This is also how they drive. This is how you get the check in a restaurant. This is how you get anything done. If you wait around on the sidelines, you’re deemed a little bit dim and quite frankly, you’re wasting everyone’s time. If you don’t make your intention known what are they supposed to do about it, intuit your every need like a baby? As a pathologically shy introvert, always trying to avoid stepping on others people’s toes, this was such a challenge for me that it bordered on torture. But wasn’t that why I’d moved half way across the world without a plan? To find Laurenissima? To find out if I was capable of toughening up and asserting myself?

Then there was the teaching.

It was English for people who had too much going on to commit to any specific time each week or who liked the flexibility of having a bunch of different teachers. I think this method could work for someone at an advanced level but for the beginners I’m pretty sure it was an endless variation of “Hello, my name is-.“ They could request certain teachers but it wasn’t always guaranteed. More than once I was met with a disappointed, “Oh, you’re not ___(fill in the blank of other, better, life-changer teacher and not my wretched self)”. There was the student who just wanted to flirt with English teachers… a lawyer trying to improve his skills for work…a newly-wed couple trying to improve their English together… a young woman applying to school in England who needed to pass the dreaded IELTS to qualify for an application.

“Why do you want to go to school in England?” I asked.

“There are opportunities there,” she said. “Why did you come to work in Italy?”

“I’m figuring that out…”

If I got the basement duty I’d have to talk to Olaf who would tell me about all the numerous books he’d written on medieval something-or-other which didn’t sell so well because the general public “was not very educated.” In the hall I might pass the red-haired Francesca who flirted relentlessly with every student. She didn’t flirt with romantic intentions, she flirted for lessons. “Oh darling how aaaare you? I didn’t know you had a lesson today,” she might say to a student sitting with me. “Ohh, why didn’t you tell me, would love to see you for the next one. In fact, let’s schedule it right now together, I’ll go tell the girls at the desk, ok?” and effectively hijack the student I’d just spent the last hour trying to convince to choose ME for the following week. English Prostitution 101.

The days I saw fellow teacher Adam reminded me that there was humanity left in the world. Adam, another teacher in the school, brushed and combed his hair so he looked like Frank Sinatra, always wore a white button up shirt with a thin black tie, and sturdy black studious looking glasses. I couldn’t tell if he was straight or gay but I didn’t really care – he was the only person in that entire building who clearly didn’t loathe everything around him and who hadn’t descended into bitter pettiness. He was a happy, positive person and he shown like a candle in a cave.

This place was clearly a stepping stone for him, he was on his way somewhere. I didn’t know where but I knew it would be better. He even made the atmosphere in the school better. Time passed around Adam. It pooled around the others, clung to them, dragged them down, sodden and suffocated. Adam moved. You knew Adam was just always nice, with everyone. He didn’t single anyone out. But if you were nearby you received some of it and in those first months, those were the kinds of interactions that I really needed to get through a day.

I got another kind of language lesson from Adam. One day in what could have optimistically been considered a break room consisting of a photocopier and some old books, he wrote out for me all the words and gestures that I needed to know to make it in Rome. At the top of the page he wrote: “Romanesco,” the Roman dialect, and then proceeded to beak down various hand gestures, swear words and colloquial phrases he thought would come in handy. Perhaps he saw I needed some tools to help me speak up for myself. The result was, I still couldn’t carry on a conversation in Italian but now I could tell someone to go fuck their dead relatives! In Italy, it’s all about family. 

This school is where I learned a lot about Italy, about the crocodile women, how to act like I knew what I was doing without having the faintest idea, what to do and what not to do. I learned to be like Adam: this is your stepping stone and don’t, under any circumstances, get stuck here like the two (possibly British) women who ran the school. One, who seemed to have perpetually greasy black hair, would bring you into her office and tell you how various tests worked: I guess this was job training. Everything about her sagged from the bags under her eyes, to her shapeless clothes to what seemed to be her very soul.

“You start with a …” pause in which she pondered the meaning of her life…” listening exercise.” She turned the paper toward me:

“Here it is.”

I looked.

“Right there.”

“Yes. I see.”

“And they answer the questions. Sometimes there are 8 or…. even…. 10….. questions…. for them…” Long sigh. “….to answer.”

There is no way this woman was not deeply depressed and I always left our interactions worried for her well being… and mine if I stayed in this school.

The other manager was a bony blond, the kind with no softness or curves, just elbows, shoulder blades and one of those low buns that kept her hair close to the skull. Everything about her was cutting. Adam informed me in a whisper in the hallway once that her accent was entirely fake. She wasn’t even British she was from Ohio but had gone to school in England for a few years at some point as a child and now, had “taken on airs.” I’d never know if this was true or not but I seriously hoped it was.

She’s the one that if you passed would tell you what you were doing wrong:

“Hmm, that’s a lot of paper to be using,” as you made a few copies on the machine, trying to impress your student that Francesca was drooling over.

Or: “Why is your binder being kept like this? No. No. No.”

Then: “Please turn the volume of that down, other teachers are here too.”

Every pointer was a thinly veiled reprimand. And the only time I remember being in her office to learn about the IELTS test, she stopped in her monologue once and looked down at the page I was scribbling my notes on. “Oh,” she said simply, looking up at me as if I’d been caught texting my boyfriend instead of listening to her.

“What is it?”

“You do see what you did, don’t you?”

Turning red, looking guilty, having no clue what she was on about, I went for the answer of last resort: honesty. “No, what did I do?”

“The word “English” that you’ve written there.”

I looked where I’d scribbled “IELTS: int. english lang. testing system.”

“What about it?” I asked.

“The word “English” should be capitalized. You do know that … don’t you?” I looked down at the page covered in my own version of chicken scratch.

“Well, these are just notes for myself.”

“Incorrect is incorrect,” she said.

People like Francesca, Olaf, the two directors and the desk harpies had been there for years. You could feel the frustration and the boredom crusting around them, mutating them into spiteful or desperate or just plain depressed people.

Now I think, probably all those bitter women could see that people like Adam and me and the other new American ugg-wearing teachers would be in and out, making naive comments about how the bus was sooo late and how it was just “crazy” that the metro was shut down… again. Who knows what they thought of us. We were skaters, gliding through their world, having our little “foreign experience” while they were stuck there, paying crippling taxes with few job options, trying to steal students for less than €10 an hour.

Soon, I’d be gone. Are they still there?

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