LSF English Camp

Our days of LSF (Lingue Senza Frontiere), set in a somewhat ghetto middle school on the north end of La Spezia, were grueling. They began with a slow trickle of noise into the classroom, kids arriving one by one to add their own unique bit of commotion. The screeching chairs, bouncing balls and operatic Italian voices would climax at about 8.45 at the sound of my whistle. Within a matter of seconds the kids would relocate to the gym, where wide games would commence a 30min struggle to keep 30 kids' attention. By the time class actually began around 9.15, I was exhausted. After all the talk and warning about Italian kids being ridiculously hard to control, I was happy to learn within days that Italian kids are simple kids, not even too different from those of Fuyang. All kids are ridiculously hard to control (without the threat of violence). They're less intelligent than adults, generally have zero attention span, enjoy destroying things and try to cheat whenever they think they'll get away with it. But there are ways (aside from the threat of violence) to bring fear to their little hearts so as to survive as a teacher. I still don't know what any of these ways are.
The method I tried and mostly failed using to instill fear was a point system, a tally I kept running on an ancient chalkboard, the grand "prize" for the winning table a tiny pack of gummy bears. Some kids were easily bought, putting away their enormous paninis or giant chocolate pastry "snacks" so they could someday get their hands on those two pieces of gummy bear waiting for them in the teacher's drawer. Others figured out that snatching entire bags of candy from my box wasn't so difficult while the teacher was concentrated on making Chinese hats or correcting i's into y's and gi's into j's on students' diaries. 
During lunch break I was grateful to let the chaos take over, setting the whole horde loose outside along with Joanna's little band of 5 and 6-year-olds. Early on, I watched my kids from a distance, savoring the pasta or pizza or boiled wheat that I could scavenge. Although my hosts were great about packing large lunches, two generous parents made it a habit to bring Joanna and I heaping portions of home-cooked goodness each day to go on top. Pranzo became a veritable feast, and considering the amount of energy expended each morning in keeping 30 kids occupied, it was a fortunate thing. 
While I kept an eye on the bulk of the normal kids, playing new variations of hopscotch meets jump-rope, kicking balls over the fence and chatting about High School Musical VII, I let the odd ones do their own thing. For Speranza it was "cooking," grinding "food" out of grass, dead leaves and flowers that she mashed into slime with a rock, for Ludo it was shuffling around the edges of the school grounds with his hood over his head, mumbling to imaginary friends, for Mattia it was sitting next to me as punishment for grabbing girls' 10-year-old boobs, for Samuele it meant rolling in the grass like a wounded animal, and for little Marta it meant playing odd group games that nobody understood but her.
Marta once tried to drag me along into her world, pushing me into a patch of tall grass and handing me a piece of air before sprinting off to set up more of the human pieces to her game. When she saw me sneaking off seconds later she raced back to reposition me according to the way things were supposed to be, frustrated that I couldn't see the master plan myself. I watched her exhausting herself in forcing other kids to join in the fun, laughing when each one would wander off just as I had. I held the piece of air in front of me as she came back over, looking almost but not quite defeated. Looking down from my make-believe "house," I watched her adorable, pleading eyes desperately trying to communicate the seriousness of her silly air-key-grass-house game, all in the cutest Italian voice from which I understood nothing but casa. Joanna later explained the game had something to do with robbers. Either way, nobody played it but Marta. 
After lunch I'd set the kids to work making crafts to sell to their parents. Most were happy to work on masks, costumes, postcards and giant backdrops for the final presentation, Lo Spettacolo. But as in China, the kids' work was only as creative as the examples I'd personally create for them. When I drew an elephant with three tusks and seven eyes, two thirds of the class had a three-tusked, seven-eyed elephant in their diaries to take home for their parents. Luckily the camp's designated theme was "Around the World," so I felt I had good deal to offer the kids so that their crafts and displays all reinforced the right stereotypes about the natives of India, China, Africa, Scotland and Papau New Guinea, the latter a bland jungle scene with a few naked dark people, wild monkeys and severed, shrunken heads. Although we didn't get around to finishing the last one, our backdrops and costumes were complete just in time for the final show.
The parents may have been more impressed with Lo Spettacolo had they seen the camp rewound to two hours before the show. Impressed that it happened at all. Thanks to our brilliant idea of designating lunch on the last day to a camp water fight, most kids were dripping wet, stripped down, and waiting for their clothes to dry under the sun, tiny shirts and shorts spread out on the lawn and draped from the classroom windowsills. Lots of the little ones were still chasing each other's mostly naked bodies through the school grounds, shrieking through the halls during middle school exams and earning Joanna and I more than a few disapproving glances from the bidella. I couldn't have told you where most of the older kids even were. I would have probably answered that it was the last day. We were just an hour or two from the camp's glorious ending. 
Even without having witnessed the scene of a couple hours previous, the parents were impressed with Lo Spettacolo. It was a silly play about a couple world travelers stopping in various places only to get scared away by lions, tigers, kangaroos, Chinese pirates or the Loch Ness Monster, reinforcing that the world is a dangerous place and they'd all be better off staying in Italy. Every kid spoke English, even Nessie, a cardboard box played by my two least attentive kids: "I am the Loch Ness Monster. I eat children and goats. Ahhhhhh!!!" For its complexity, it was shortened to "I eat children. Ahh!" and it was delivered with finesse. Backstage, pushing elephants, lions, Indians and tigers in and out the auditorium door, I saw nothing of Lo Spettacolo myself, but the clapping was loud enough to spell success. 
In our late afternoons and evenings off, Joanna and I enjoyed time with our hosts, time in the cinque terre and time out in La Spezia and Porto Venere. Meeting past the tunnel at Garibaldi Square, we'd roam the narrow turns of downtown or stop in backstreet eateries and bars, generally bubbling with Italian charm. 
A few days after saying goodbye to the Mannuccis, La Spezia, Joanna and our 30 Italian kids, I agreed to do another camp later in July. I must have enjoyed it. Italian children haven't seen the last of me. 


Sarah Jackson said...

The gummy bear prize trick is such a Jackson thing to do -- Billy does that kind of thing all the time. And I would gladly switch places with you just for the homemade lunches...although my chicken pillows might be better :).

Shery said...

Threat of violence & fear! what a great teacher you're, Joey. The play's idea is so cute,especially the Chinese pirates part.:-)).

Marta is not just an odd kid, she is a freak.loool