Michelle Damiani is an American writer and psychologist. Her book about her family’s life in Italy, Il Bel Centro: A Year in the Beautiful Center, is now available on Amazon.
A perk of eighth grade in Italy is the annual gita. Italian for “excursion,” this is a three-day rite of passage celebrating the end of middle school—a last “viva!” before the students divide into specialized high schools. Nicolas returned home in bliss from his recent gita and recounted stories of paprika flavored Pringles and the revelry inherent in fifty eighth-graders on the loose in Venetian palaces. But nestled in these stories that animate my boy is a quiet discovery about Giovanni.
Giovanni is in one of the other eighth grade classes, so Nicolas didn’t know him before the gita. On the trip, Nicolas discovered that Giovanni is challenged. Though his comprehension seems adequate, his speech is hard to understand, and more than that, Giovanni isn’t fluent in social norms. In short, he hugs too much. He likes to pet students’ hair, and gets closer than is comfortable—even for Italians. He also gets upset easily, and requires a full-time aide.
I can picture this child in the American school system. Or at least the school system where I used to work. There, he would likely be in a different classroom surrounded by children with difficulties ranging from mental retardation to autism to oppositional defiant disorder. He’d learn academics, but he would learn little about functioning in mainstream society. Or perhaps he’d be deemed high functioning enough to be in a mainstream classroom, but then he would be avoided and at worst, bullied.
Here is what is striking about Italian schools, or at least Spellani schools. There are no bullies. There are no bullies. There are no Queen Bees. And there are no outcasts. My eyes fill with tears as I write this, and if you have ever loved a child who has been victim to the caste system inherent in American schools, I think you will understand why I find it so astonishing, and so moving.
Giovanni is not ostracized. He is loved and accepted. The other children—middle schoolers remember, as into Justin Bieber and smartphones as kids in the U.S.—fold him into their lives. They look out for him, they allow him to pet them, they laugh when his awkwardness crosses a boundary, they gently remind him of appropriate behavior when he goes too far.
And he is not a special case. Gabe has a little girl with Down syndrome, Renata, in his classroom. She also has a full-time aide, not because she went through a lengthy process that forced the school to provide support, but because she needs it—much like our children have been given Italian lessons simply because they need them. Yes, Renata struggles with learning academics and also managing social skills, but she is learning all this within the context of being with other children. Who are also learning something vital.
The child who is reading several grades below average, the child who is atheist in a country of Catholics, the child that eats chalk for attention, the child from America who doesn’t speak the language. There is an expression in Italian, “Tutti parlano la stessa lingua a tavola.” “Everyone speaks the same language at the table.” It’s a gift to see this in action.
Because it’s not just welcoming for those who don’t have their chromosomes lined up like animals entering Noah’s ark. It’s also invaluable for the rest of the class. Students learn that everyone has value. Everyone. Initially, having a special needs peer proved challenging for Gabe. He would come home every day with annoyed stories about Renata’s atypical behaviors. Now? Gabe’s teacher tells us that he is one of the kindest students in the class with her. I am grateful that Gabe is learning to feel good through empathy instead of feeling good through superiority.
And this lesson lasts into adulthood. There’s an older man in Spello who also has Down syndrome. He’s a little challenging to understand, even for locals, but no one rushes him. People stop and listen. He comes into the bakery and eats his pastry behind the counter. The owners weave around him to make espresso, sometimes patting his back with a smile. And then he leaves. The community takes care of him. And in this way, he helps the community. Folding him in increases the town’s flexibility and capacity for care. Everyone wins.
It’s a lesson, above all others, that I hope my children take from this year. More important than how to make pasta. More important than how to conjugate irregular Italian verbs. More important than an increased sense of scope and possibility. In fact, it’s the most important lesson of all.