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Elia, a five-year-old boy living in Milan, can't wait to turn six so he can "graduate" from scuola materna (combined preschool/kindergarten) and start elementary school. Filled with enthusiasm when he enters first grade, he quickly becomes disillusioned. While the scuola materna teachers were nurturing, the first grade teachers are rigid and strict-concerned above all with discipline and order. Elia soon begins to hate school and his self-esteem collapses. Halfway into the school year, his life suddenly changes when his father accepts a job in Germany and Elia transfers to an international school, which uses an utterly different approach. After the change, Elia becomes happy, enthusiastic, and eager to learn. My Stomaco Hurts is a witty and perceptive foray into the world of international schools. The experiences lived by Ms .Dovera and her son at the boy's new school in Germany provide ample opportunities for cross-cultural observations as the family adjusts to new ways of looking at the world around them. The author's observations are acute and demonstrate an adept ability to analyze her own Italian culture from the inside. Her delightful sense of irony and tongue-in-cheek comments make for a highly enjoyable read. The juxtapositioning of the author's adult descriptions with her child's naive observations create a refreshing rhetorical style. The explanation of the methodological differences between traditional schools and the progressive practices favored by international schools is clear and well articulated. This book is an amusing and informative primer for all parents who have questions about current educational approaches. Day Jones, Associate Director, American School of Milan, Italy
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Copyright © 2011 IPOC di Pietro Condemi Milan Italy
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at the address below:
IPOC di Pietro Condemi
159, V.le Martesana
I - 20090 Vimodrone MI
Translation by Larry Gurwin The moral rights of the translator have been asserted
Original title: Mi fa male lo stomach! In viaggio verso una scuola diversa, 2007, Milan: IPOC
Front cover: Laura Floris, graphical planning
This book was born from personal experience in a particular context and is not intended to be a critique of the Italian public school system or a defense of international private schools. The elementary school experience is subjective – every parent and every student lives it in his or her own way – and it’s an experience that can play a fundamental role in influencing the rest of a student’s life. It affects the way a student relates to adults, to the outside world in general, and to authority figures and hierarchies.
It is because of the undeniable importance of elementary school that the author believes it is appropriate to reflect critically on two different educational systems to help parents make informed choices for their own children.
Because they are all just fruit-loops who don’t know what it is to believe in something which is hard to see, or to keep looking for something which is totally hard to find. Ben Rice
My name is Elia, I’m five years old, I’m almost finished with scuola maternaand I’m ready to start first grade. Mamma tells me that I’ve already been at school for three years but I can only remember as far back as a year ago when other kids were finishing scuola materna and they taught us a lot of interesting stuff – like how to blow spit bubbles. Now that I know how to blow spit bubbles, it’s my turn to teach it to the smaller kids.
I can’t wait until I’m six years and can start first grade. Everybody says elementary school is great. You learn a lot of things and the teachers are great and you make new friends. I’m lucky that there will also be some old friends like Giorgio, my best friend, who will be in class with me and since he’s a really good student he’ll be able to help me. I’ll pay him back by helping him with his coloring. He’s a little colorblind and I can help him choose the right colors.
Mamma usually takes me to school (sometimes Papà comes with us), sometimes on her Vespa, even though we live only a few seconds from school. I love showing up at school on the motor scooter wearing a helmet because I’m almost the only one who ever does that. When I’m 16, I’ll buy a motor scooter, because my grandmother told me I’m too young to ride one now – even if I win it in one of those contests they have in potato chip bags. So we should get a different brand of potato chips, one that gives prizes that I can use now.
Even when I don’t feel like getting out of bed and I take my time getting dressed, eating breakfast and deciding what toy to take with me, as soon as I get to school I feel like running to my classroom, which is called “Turquoise,” which is one of my favorite colors. The hallway is full of kids and parents hanging up jackets and changing shoes. The parents are rushing because they have to go to work but the kids try to go as slowly as we can so our parents will stay with us longer. One teacher is always waiting at the classroom door to welcome us and I look right away to see who it is because there are two teachers and if Giovanna is at the door it means that Laura will be at the exit that day – which I like because Laura always reads us the best stories before we leave.
My classroom is really beautiful. It has a “soft” corner where you can roll around or take a little nap when you’re tired. There are desks pushed close together so that they look like big tables. Our class work is on the windowsills or hanging from the ceiling and our drawings are on posters. We have a tape recorder for music, a basket with tissues for when our noses are runny, lots of books, paints, crayons, glue, scissors, colored paper, cardboard, and all kinds of supplies.
I love drawing and making things and the teachers told Mamma that I’m very talented but that I shouldn’t tell the other kids because it could hurt their feelings. Maybe they know anyway because some of my drawings are hanging in the hallway and in other classrooms and they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t any good.
Parents are allowed to come into classrooms when they drop us off and when they come to pick us up so my mother always sees the new things that we’re working on and the old ones that are already finished.
The classroom also has a big bulletin board with a list of the jobs that the kids have to do during the week. For example, it tells you who will be the line leader and who will be at the end of the line, which are both important jobs. Line leader is better, though, because you’re in front. There are also the waiters (which I used to call “raiders” because I didn’t speak as well as I do now – I also used to say “bomb it” instead of “vomit”). The waiters set the table before we eat. Other kids have to put the paints away (which is my favorite job) or put away the cushions. There are other jobs, too, but I can’t remember them.
We work every day and we do a lot of things and we also learn numbers, letters, songs, circles, and shapes. We also learn stories and we say if we liked the stories or not and answer questions about them – if we could see that a child or a grownup in the story misbehaved. Sometimes we misbehave by fighting over a game or pushing each other – mostly the boys because the girls play other games. And then the teacher explains what we did wrong and sometimes makes us sit on the “time out” bench where you’re supposed to think about what you did. That part is hard because you usually feel you didn’t do anything wrong so there’s nothing to think about.
The bad thing about scuola materna is eating because you’re supposed to eat what they give you even if you think it’s yucky. Some of the kids still don’t eat anything – like Sofia. When the food came, she would always say “Mmm – my favorite dish” but would eat about one centimeter at most. But everybody had to at least taste the food. For example, I hate fruit – especially oranges, which make me throw up. I mean it! One time they gave me a slimy little piece of an orange and it stuck in my throat. I started to cry and although I tried to keep it down I had to spit it out.
Mamma told the teacher that I have this problem but she won’t give up and I can’t stand it anymore. I hope they don’t give me oranges in first grade and I don’t think they will. If they make you eat things you hate, elementary school won’t be the great place that everybody says it is.
Whenever you do something well the teachers tell you that you’re very good and if you do something the wrong way they help you to do it over and even if your supplies are used up you can borrow some from another kid. This thing about helping each other and sharing things I learned at scuola materna. Let me give you an example. If I’m using a red marker and the ink runs out, I can borrow one from a buddy who doesn’t need his. It’s like that for a lot of things: You always have what you need.
Yesterday I talked a little with Mamma about first grade and I asked a lot of questions, like: “Are there oranges? What time do we leave in the afternoon? Is it true that I’ll have to do homework? Do I really have to stay seated at my desk if I have to pee? Will I wear a smock? How many teachers will I have? What happens if I don’t do well? Or if I have a stomach ache? Of if I don’t understand anything? Do you have to study a lot?” Mamma knew everything because she went to elementary school herself. She said I should tell her everything that happens, even strange things, because the teachers don’t talk to the parents the way they do at scuola materna and if I have a problem only my mother can help me. She already knows the problem with the oranges.
Scuola materna ends in just one month and then there’s summer vacation when I turn six and then I finally start first grade. I hope the vacation is short because I can’t wait anymore.
We’re preparing a show for the end of the school year and it’s going to be great. We’re pretending to be knights and we each have a horse, a cape, a sword, and a crown, which we made ourselves. In a special room we built a kind of castle with a whole story written on the walls and there’s also a throne where we get crowned. Our parents have never seen this room so they’ll be surprised. We’re also learning some songs and my favorite one is Promised Land by Eros Ramazzotti. It seems like the words were written just for us – the kids who are finishing scuola materna: “We’re the children of today … a gentler world … we will never give up, we will never be too tired to seek a better world” and things like that. I can’t wait to sing it.
We have arrived. The scuola materna phase is about to end and it’s time to take stock. I remember that at the beginning I used to look critically at the meager facilities, constantly aware of things that didn’t fit my idea of the educational ideal, and I had little arguments about those things with the teachers. But my son was content and, as the days went by, he was flanked by a group of friends – cute little boys, to be sure, but with a desire for independence and distinct personalities. I saw Elia become more mature, developing a critical sense toward himself and a sense of loyalty toward others, in spite of the inevitable struggles for space and material things. Sharing is a beautiful concept but it’s difficult to put into practice – even for adults: Raise your hand if you’d be willing to lend your new car to any old colleague… The age changes, the “games” change, but the result is the same.
The educators at the scuola materna level organize teaching activities with the few resources that are available to them, generously (and compulsorily) supplemented by the parents who “tax” themselves at set intervals. A donation at the start of the school year is invested in toilet paper, tissues, and paper cups. Another contribution is spent on photocopy paper, marking pens, glue, modeling clay, and so on. You try to recycle old materials (but then have to run out and buy new things because you can’t find what you need at home). Supplies are procured as they are needed, depending on the project: Old sheets to be cut up (which you can’t find at home, so you end up buying new ones), crêpe paper in the only color that isn’t available (which you find out after looking everywhere for it), twenty-centimeter-high glass jars (like the ones you just threw out), old pots and wooden spoons for an improvised band (which luckily turn out to be on sale at the supermarket – three for the price of two).
The concept of “planning” is probably viewed as vaguely reactionary, which explains why the requests for supplies that arrive through the daily grapevine are always urgent – needed the very next day. If you’re a working mother, you usually find out at 8:30 the night before what your child has to take to class the next day when a stay-at-home mom phones and asks (with a touch of sadism), “Did you get the inflatable platypus for tomorrow?” It’s not unusual to bump into other “victims” at the late-night supermarket in the central train station looking for items that are impossible to find so they won’t have to go to bed feeling guilty.
Apart from this, the teachers have my full admiration for their ability to take many different children and turn them into a functioning class.
I admire them for their goodwill and self-sacrifice more than for their training. Just consider the greatly anticipated show that the children put on at the end of the school year – the crowning moment of the school year. It usually happens like this…
The hall is filled with parents and grandparents whose hearts are throbbing for their little geniuses, camcorders and still cameras are aimed and the tension in the air is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. One of the parents is already wiping away a tear, another is complaining that somebody stole his seat. Then the children arrive. They enter in a long line and form a half circle, with the smallest seated in front. Some of the little ones busy themselves by tidying up the areas behind them, a few show their discomfort by turning their backs to the audience. The tallest stand in the back, but when they don’t find their usual buddies on their right and left they start moving around aimlessly, directly behind the teacher. The show is now ready to start but … the tape recorder doesn’t work, the CD is scratched, or the audio tape is tangled up. After several more minutes of preparation, exhausting the patience of parents and pupils, the music somehow starts. At least half of the children are silent, several mess up the words, three clap out of sync because they forget to look at the teacher, and so on. The painful spectacle is mercifully brief and the applause is hearty. But my reaction is: If the teachers aren’t even able to assemble a simple choral group, why do they keep trying to do it – year after year – instead of organizing, say, a nice bingo evening?
This is how we Italians muddle through: Not trying too hard, figuring that if you’re enjoying yourself, it’s good enough. And we all learn to settle for it.
Anecdotes aside, the scuola materna experience contributes in a fundamental way to the development of the child’s social skills: It’s the first unsheltered, non-family environment in which the child is placed and in which he or she is judged on the basis of performance. As far as my personal experience is concerned, I observed a great respect for individuality, constant emotional and motivational support, a judicious balance between giving and receiving – in other words, a continuous interplay between educational requirements and the personality of the child.
It is in the scuola materna environment that children form their first strong relationships of friendship and mutual respect, by working in groups and accomplishing things. Efforts are rewarded, weaknesses are understood, mistakes are analyzed: The children are constantly stimulated to improve themselves through constructive self-criticism.
With a bit of luck you meet educators who know how to transmit enthusiasm and curiosity about the world and, even if the teachers haven’t reached the highest educational levels, you can at least count on affection, creativity, and a healthy dose of “goodness.” They could do more, but, overall, the scuola materna experience is positive. The children in the third year of scuola materna are well integrated into community life, feel strongly about their abilities, have developed a notable sense of independence, and are ready to jump to the next level.
My little boy feels more grown up now and he’s ready to face new challenges. In any event, the completion of scuola materna marks the end of a calm period.
With the beginning of first grade, things are becoming serious. There will be judgments, evaluations, grades, meetings with the teachers, homework during vacation time, frustrations, comparisons, disappointments.
These are my memories of school times, but things are probably completely different now: I’m sure something must have changed in the past thirty-five years!
1 In the Italian school system, children spend three years at a scuola materna, which is comparable to a preschool and kindergarten in the American system. After completing scuola materna, the child enters scuola elementare – elementary school.
On July 14, I turned six years old – for the second time. It was great and I got all the presents I wanted. Since my birthday is in the middle of the summer when everybody is away on vacation, Mamma always has a party for me in June in Milan and it was really great this year because we put a little swimming pool on the terrace and we fought with squirt guns for hours and since it was hot none of the grownups yelled at us even though we are all wet on the terrace and in the house. Now we’re on vacation at the beach and I’m turning six for real and I’m celebrating with my grandparents and parents. After that we usually celebrate some more, for example with Uncle Ricky and Aunt Cristina who live in Trieste and who give me a present when I go there even if a lot of time has gone by.
Now that I’m six years old I’m ready to start elementary school but it’s too bad that I have to wait until September. I already know the school building well because it’s really close to the scuola materna so I’ve seen the outside of the elementary school lots of times. I’ve been inside the school twice. The first time was when the scuola materna kids were about to die because an electric wire was broken and they took us to the elementary school for our safety and the second time was for a Christmas party when Giorgio’s grandfather was dressed up as Santa Claus but we could tell right away that it was Giorgio’s grandfather. My classmates went there another time for a visit but I had another ear infection so I skipped it. It didn’t matter because the school was exactly the same as before.
Mamma and Papà said that besides Giorgio there will be other classmates from scuola materna: Simone, who’s really fun because he’s always clowning around. There are also two girls I know, Giada and Francesca, but if they didn’t come it wouldn’t make any difference to me because they’re girls.
We still have to buy a backpack and pencil case and I want a Bley Blade backpack because they’re really cool. I hope Giorgio gets one too so that we’ll have the same kind of backpack but if he buys another kind they’ll be different which means we won’t mix them up.
Mamma and Papà told me a strange story. They said we may be moving from Italy to another country. The other country is far away but they don’t know which country it is. They also said I’ll go to elementary school there and that the school will be even nicer. I might start first grade here before we move and I said that’s okay because at least I’ll go to school for a while with Giorgio and since I think elementary school lasts 15 years that means that when we come back I can be with Giorgio again. I don’t mind leaving because I like taking plane trips and seeing new places on vacations and I like eating strange things like Chinese food, but I’m worried that if we move the new school will be in English and I don’t speak any English. I hate it when other people are talking and I can’t understand what they’re saying and I know this because we always go on vacation in France and I never want to play with the French-speaking kids and so I’ll never learn English. Mamma wants me to start studying English now with her and with a teacher who lives one floor below us but I won’t even think about it because I don’t want to. She also told me there won’t be any problems in the English school because there will be lots of kids who won’t understand and the teachers will know what to do and that I’ll speak English perfectly in no time at all. I don’t believe her and I don’t even pay much attention to her because I want to go fishing. I love fishing and I always want to do it but I always have to wait until we’re at the beach. I made myself a fishing pole because the one from the store that I have doesn’t work because the reel always gets tangled up. I found a bamboo stick on the beach that’s perfect for a fishing pole and I attached a fishing line, hook, floater, and a huge weight because the smaller weights were sold out. It weighed almost 100 kilos and it works great. Mamma said that I wouldn’t be able to catch anything with a bamboo fishing pole but I caught three fish today. One of them was yucky and drooling and we had to cut it open with a knife to take out the hook. Actually, the hook was taken out by a lady who had the umbrella next to ours and who also had the knife.
I never touch the fish because they’re slimy and I don’t eat them. When you go fishing the only problem is having the right bait. One time we didn’t have anything and we used some little balls of panettone and the fish ate it but the best bait is the mussels that my grandfather collects with his hands. He’s very good and he teaches me everything about fishing. My grandmother doesn’t know anything about fishing because one time we bought giant worms to use as bait and my grandmother put them in the fridge and they died and Mamma got mad because they stank up the whole fridge and we could all get sick.
I’m having a lot of fun this summer and we’re going to be leaving soon for the Caribbean where I’ll catch colorful fish and then I hope the summer ends so I can finally start elementary school.
Elia’s excitement about starting school is turning him into a real nuisance. He doesn’t realize that it won’t be fun at all, but maybe it’s better that way. He has a strong desire to grow up and this is clearly the first step toward independence and maturity. In the meantime, it’s beginning to seem more likely that my husband’s employer will transfer him abroad for a few years. It still isn’t definite, even though nearly a year has passed since it was first suggested. We still don’t know how, where, or when but in spite of the stress caused by the uncertainty, we’re enthusiastic about the idea. Every time it begins to seem fairly definite, I jump onto the internet to search for information about international schools, to visit the websites of expatriate associations and to evaluate the quality of health care, but as soon as I’ve managed to get a general idea of the situation of a particular country, we learn that we won’t be going there.
When we broached the idea of living abroad with Elia, we were stunned by how easily he accepted it. That’s probably because he can tell that his father and I feel positively about it and our enthusiasm has been contagious. He’s still very young and we are his whole world: It doesn’t matter where we are as long as we’re together. The only thing that worries him is the need to learn English, something he’s extremely unenthusiastic about. He probably views it as an impossible undertaking, even though we constantly tell him that it will be easier than he thinks. I imagine that he sees the idea of living in a mysterious, faraway country as a fantastic adventure worth any sacrifice. That’s the way he portrayed it when he was talking about it today with Giorgio, his best friend. At the same time, he reassured Giorgio by saying that that we would eventually return to Milan, which meant that the boys would be able to resume going to school together. Elia still doesn’t have a clear conception of time: For him, there isn’t much difference between one month and five years.
Elia has a strong desire to travel and to see the world, just as we do – it’s in his blood. It’s a matter of genes, of habits. Despite the objections of his grandparents, we continued to take unconventional vacations even after Elia was born. “He hasn’t even been born yet and he’s already been around the world,” my mother used to say. Of course, these were calmer trips, not like the excursions to the five continents that we took before he was born – with very little money and lots of flexibility. With Elia, we travelled far and wide in the United States, we stayed on lonely little Caribbean islands, travelled to Africa twice, and bounced around Europe. Even for a small child, a trip is always more exciting than an August spent in Varigotti. 
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