“Mi chiama Juliette, and, uh, I’m from the United States,” I stuttered to a classroom full of eyes, all turned around in their seats. They were looking straight through me.
“Vengo dalgi Stati Uniti,” a young teacher with dark, textured curls and big hoop earrings said, correcting my English to Italian. I looked at the thin blue line stretching across the page in my college-ruled composition book, where I slowly wrote down the translation. I still felt the eyes.
Monday evening, my host father mentioned his Australian friend attended a free language course at Termini, a train station near the apartment. I’ve been searching for inexpensive courses since arriving, and this was the hottest lead I’d gotten. He provided me with an address, and a picture of a schedule that had been hand-drawn with permeant marker. It had Chinese characters neatly printed beneath it. (Do you print characters, or draw them?)
If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you right now I have been avoiding these classes all week. The hour and a half class is offered five times a day, which means thirteen opportunities passed by before enough self-loathing convinced me I was fresh out of excuses.
The reason I was avoiding the course, aside from general laziness, is because I had constructed an idea of what it would be like. It’s a free Italian course for immigrants, which prompted images of an over-crowded, underfunded classroom that lacked the organization and tools I (believed) I needed to successfully learn my conjugations.
When I googled the course and found a phone number, a man answered and told me he didn’t speak English.
Something about this I found to be discouraging.
Hiding behind a phone call is one thing, but walking into a place, and locating someone in charge to enquire about registration is just NOT the American way. We prefer email tag, cross-referencing, and lots of specifics.
As I approached the block, I immediately knew where I needed to go. A diverse group of individuals huddled together, chatting and smoking cigarettes. They were all waiting, so I waited, too. Upon joining the crowd, I automatically began isolating myself. Without realizing it, I was noting my differences, and building up defense walls. I shuffled around anxiously, not really sure where to look. I was hoping I could identify someone in charge.
A woman began shouting names from a list, and individuals entered the room in the order they were called. I approached her after she finished, and she directed me to a different woman who spoke English.
“I’m new, and don’t know any Italian.”
Level A1, she told me, and motioned for me to enter the jam-packed classroom. There were three empty chairs in the far back right corner. I fought my way through the crowd and sat down.
“Here goes nothing.”
One by one, the students introduced themselves, stating their name and where they were from. I inferred the response structure, as it was repeated by most of the room before me, but still stumbled when it came to be my turn. The seats were not assigned, yet the room somehow reflected the individual’s origins. In the front was a group of African American men and women, to my left a mixture of Asian and Arabic people. In the back right, I was situated among a large group of Spanish people. They dominated the room, and conferred among themselves in their native tongue.
I was the only white person.
For the first time in my life, I was the ethnic minority in a classroom. I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I noticed. I thought back to times in my life where a sole individual had a different ethnic make-up than the rest of the room. I wondered how it made them feel.
Despite my whiteness, which was overtly apparent to myself, no one paid attention to me other than a man from the Congo who wanted to know where my boyfriend was. (Ladies… don’t forget to bring your boyfriend’s to class!) Despite the cramped conditions, and lack of table surfaces, I felt comfortable and prepared. People continued to arrive after class began, and once all the seats were filled, students began adorning a staircase.
The room exhibited a collective positive attitude, the energy jovial and focused. Starting with the letter “A”, the teacher asked students to name Italian words that began with each letter of the alphabet. No one raised their hand, but everyone spoke in respectful turns. There was joking, and laughing. I didn’t understand most of it, but still caught myself smiling a few times. The teacher annunciated each word slowly, writing it on the board, laughing right back with the class, teasing certain individuals.
I spent 17 years in the American public education system, and four of those years put me in a five-digit number’s worth of debt. Throughout this time, I was always annoyed about being in class. I could never focus, and was usually counting down the minutes until I could leave, kicking myself for even coming in the first place. In this classroom, I was completely engaged. Stuffed in the back corner, I was stretching to see over heads, copying the words written on the board.
Maybe it’s because I have motivation to learn the language, but something about the energy in the room electrified me. The men and women were there because they WANTED to be there. They came early to sign up for class, and waited outside so they could pick a good seat. Learning this language was like learning a secret for survival, and because it was a tool we all needed for practical use, we were patient and willing to put in the work. Take away money and requirement, and suddenly I’m an actively engaged student. The value of the situation changed.
I could have left at any time, and some people did. I wanted to stay. I was learning. I had a notebook, a pen and a dictionary. This was a lot more than most people. Some individuals were glancing over my shoulder to see what I was writing down. I wondered if they owned a notebook, or wanted a piece of my paper. I realized how fortunate I was to have these tools.
The experience made me think a lot about the education system. It also made me think about human behavior in general. Why is it when something is given to us, we don’t want it as bad as when we have to earn it? Even so, most of the time we would prefer having something handed to us. The things we feel forced to do are often resented. The things that are voluntary tend to result in higher satisfaction.
I wonder what would happen if we made going to school a choice? I think most children would choose not to at first, but with time, as all lessons are learned, would decide it was something that would benefit their future. Would they then go with the idea that it was a choice instead of an obligation? Maybe no one would go to school, and we would all become street fighters. At least it would cut back on over-population. Or maybe we would populate more because everyone would just be having sex.
Why is theory so difficult to practice?
I don’t have the answers!
Today I felt humbled in the classroom. Social barriers were destroyed, and an unassuming group of diverse individuals bonded over a common goal. For an hour and a half, no one cared about anything else. I also learned a valuable lesson about my anxiety. I can think of a hundred-million reasons to avoid doing something, and at the end of the day, the self-sabotage created in my mind is always exponentially worse than the thing I’m trying to avoid. Once again, the universe has proved me wrong.