Continuing along the same theme of this months COSI post I was reminded of an incident a few years ago which showed me a valuable preview of what to expect when my little boy starts school later this year. At the time I was shocked by the pantomime which was played out before my eyes and in fact I saw the same things happen as my son went through the ‘scuola materna’ or preschool in Italy.
On the whole my son had a positive experience and made loads of friends but I was looking forward to being more involved in his school, keenly waiting to be asked to be volunteer, imagining story times and even offering my services as an English teacher for the children, only to have the door slammed in my face.
It is with excitement and anxiety that I await the beginning of the Italian school year in September which will offer a challenge both to my son and to myself. No doubt there will be plenty of material for me to write about.
Let me introduce you to the political posturing, corruption and secret deal making which lies beneath a tranquil mask of my local community’s Kindergarten.
For me the gathering of the school community became more like an animal satire along the lines of the Renaissance master Chaucer, rather than a piece of everyday life. After all Italy is where real life becomes surreal.
Witnessing my first pre-school play opened my eyes. The front playground of the kindergarten was converted to a small stage, the entrance decorated with colourful flags like those hung outside second-hand car lots.
The children had been rehearsing for many weeks, the teachers and parents preparing costumes and after show snacks until the last moment. On the lawn mini kindergarten chairs are set up for the audience, kids and plump ladies squeezing themselves into the unexpectedly resistant wooden seats.
The show for me began even before the curtain went up, as the audience made up of mostly mothers came into the small courtyard formed by the stage. Groups of acquaintances formed, some mothers began swarming like bees forming a hive.
Looking around at the crowd I noticed some hyenas grunting things to one another, exchanging sly looks. Some hungry piranhas were devouring one another in the corner with rows and rows of sharp toothed criticisms. A group of vultures swooped in picking at the gossiping carcasses all around. All of these animals created an amazing amount of noise and confusion, I wanted to run as it was all too ghastly and disgusting for words, but the worse was still to come.
The last group of mothers came in, fashionably late to show off the fact they had taken time to dress themselves well, do their hair, drape themselves in gold, remove all excess facial hair and douse themselves in gallons of cheap noxious perfumes. Holding my breath so as not to faint from the smell I look around at this last group. These are the status followers, all that matters are the new clothes, the make up, the jewellery, the high heels, appointments at the hairdressers and these were only the children. It was like one of those fanatical toddler beauty pageants in the United States where the parents obsessively groom their children like exasperated French poodles at dog shows.
With the arrival of this final group, the buzzing, grunting, snapping and crowing came to a climax and so the gossiping and bitching no longer contained itself to the small groups. It becomes a freestyle war of words which were spat out like a furor of bullets being fired from a machine gun. This was guerrilla warfare at its worst, each casual glance murdering each person in a three hundred and sixty degree radius, these looks were splattering blood and mutilating corpses all around.
The chaos and the noise comes to a hush when the kindergarten teacher rang a little bell announcing the commencement of the show, the wounded were gathered up as the pageant began. I noticed the teacher too had taken the time to go to the same hairdresser as most of the other fashionable mothers, her hair style matching the others and panning around, a large section of the audience has the same fringe and flicked up, blow dried tips. The excessively groomed, over dressed and vertiginous platform shoe wearing kindergarten teacher welcomed everyone and announced the first group of children.
The kids come out onto the stage in their cute little flower costumes, to sing about the seasons. Two girls in front had the same hairstyle as their teacher, they obviously had been to the hairdresser that morning. They sung their little song with the normal enthusiasm of children and dance their little dance with the usual level of co-ordination of four and five-year olds.
After the number finished the teacher comes out on stage again, with slight difficulty balancing on her chunky heels, to thank the children and explained the great educational objectives the kindergarten has been working through in its curriculum. I didn’t realise how intense pre-school education can be, including subjects based on Italian language skills, art, English, mathematics, environmental studies and home economics. It seems a little complicated for four and five-year olds, I’m sure it had been a productive year for the students.
The second, third and fourth songs continue on the theme of the seasons, weather and the environment in the same manner as the first and now every child has had its turn on the stage. This would have been a good moment to end, but it didn’t. Half an hour of little children singing, crying, jumping and dancing out of time is cute at first but after three hours of it, it becomes little more than torture.
The punishment inflicted on the audience includes songs about the numbers, the flowers, they did all the primary colours then moved onto black, white, brown and purple, I think they even made up a few colours only to sing about them. The final hour was dedicated to songs sung in English, at this stage the poor exhausted kids don’t have a clue and don’t care. It was terribly cruel for those children, I can imagine the many weeks of preparation, ritual punishment, the teachers drilling the kids like a military academy to learn all of those damned dances, songs and poems, an Italic kind of child abuse.
It was nauseating to watch, pathetic to witness. The tired eyes of the children, staring at me like news footage of starving children from the third world. Most kids were reduced to tears, to the total oblivion of the teachers who were only interested in stroking their own egos. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
After the torture show there came the gorging of the teachers and parents on the meticulously prepared snacks. Some parents have bought expensive sweets from the local patisserie, as this part of the show is all about appearances. The real competition is among those who make their own desserts.
Munching on sweets and sipping cool drinks the mothers comment on the home made cakes, some failures are left untouched whilst others like the home made version of the Ferrero Rochers and fruity crostata tarts were a success, everyone has to know how they are made. So compliments are given all around and recipes are exchanged in the spirit of community and friendship amongst the mothers of the children.
The remnants of crumbs, pieces of left behind cakes, crushed potato chips, spilt sticky cool drink stains on the tables and the half filled plastic cups of coke are all that remain at the end of the afternoon, in the corrupt, tough world of kindergarten plays.