Crossing the Rubricon: A Battle with Rome and Time
A Year In Italy, From Exams To Experiences
It’s a liminal time for many folks right now, and what threshold we are passing is unclear. My liminality this year is spent living at home with my parents in Upstate New York, sending out Ph.D. applications, reading my readings, and teaching online or as a substitute in the local school district. I’ve learned to adjust to different rubrics, whether it’s putting a star on a first grader’s corrected spelling worksheet or covering the outlined syllabus of a Latin student’s upcoming exam. It’s sedentary and familiar.
Yet, in my dreams, I am in movement. Leaning over my seat at the front of a Pullman overlooking Greek blue-green landscape, I clutch my accordion folder and feel the weighty shadows of students, chaperones, and teachers in a blur of rows behind me. I scan the horizon ahead and prepare to form a logistics game plan with the Greek bus driver. Sometimes the fog shifts and I am sitting in the middle of a bright Italian banquet table, feet throbbing from a full day of walking on Roman cobblestone and marble. Satiety and cheer are in the air, but I scan the long table, ready to take action against allergies, accidents, and miscommunication.
This is residual stress and nostalgia of pre-COVID tour travel during my gig as a Paideia Rome Fellow two years ago. The stupidly lucky luxury to live, study, and work in Rome for 10 months was something I couldn’t imagine for myself. As a high-achieving, grade-pursuing, newly-formed Classicist, I still didn’t think I should be there. The end goal was to run US school tours, connecting the surrounding art and architecture in Italy (and Greece, as it turned out for me) to Latin literature and history. Far from feeling fluent in Latin on paper let alone in the spoken sphere, who was I to teach students Latin and provide their formative experiences in Rome? I was not good enough.
So, of course, I made it my job to become good enough. I knew how to prepare for tests and fulfill essay rubrics, but this task was a bit more open-ended. How does one check-off things on a rubric that doesn’t exist? By making a syllabus of course! Learn all of Italian (and Modern Greek). Master Latin. And memorize all of Greek and Roman history. Totally reasonable.
The Fellowship provided Latin and history seminars and Italian classes, but there was a lot of time left for me to figure out what to do with myself in the Eternal City. My initial monkish plan to ingest all the books quickly became overwhelming, but I still had an abundance of time, time I first used to overthink. Too many afternoons and evenings on my own, wondering if I was doing it right, if I was fulfilling this experience as it should be fulfilled. Although relaxation and rest are important, if every second was not well spent, I felt like a failure. The thing is, I was failing, not only because of my downtime watching YouTube in English, but because of how I was protecting myself from new experiences.
I was holed up inside myself with my nervous loneliness. And I’m so grateful for it. In a way, I stayed foolishly introverted, but I also began to find value in this time for self-reflection, increasingly bolder exploration, and a more manageable goal of not studying, but living Italian a little every day.
Baby, Baby, Baby Steps
The first step out of failure was tossing out my debilitatingly high expectations of learning Italian. I wasn’t going to be casually reading Dante any time soon. I found something far better about a month in. La Mia Storia by 13-year-old Justin Bieber’s ghostwriter. I found it on the shelf of my host family’s guest room, where I was staying the first three months. This was once the bedroom of the grown-up daughter who clearly had a phase, as I discovered upon opening the side of the closet that would never be opened again, containing a painstakingly decoupaged shrine to the Canadian heartthrob.
I embraced the Bieber-mania when I realized my seriousness was seriously sucking the joy out of language learning. I beat myself up over the excruciating long pauses when I tried speaking with my host mom, squinting hard as her responses glided past me. When it was time for dinner (a tavola!), I stayed silent aside from briefly complimenting the cooking.
With no time for pity, I needed to find my childhood curiosity, and La Mia Storia let me laugh at myself, lovingly. As 13-year old Bieber introduced himself to his Italian fans within those pages, I learned to babble about myself and where I’m from. I kept eagerly reading the children’s books my hosts had to offer, including Captain Underpants (Capitan Mutanda), and soon gravitated toward more culturally Italian easy reading, such as Natalia Ginzberg’s comedic play, Ti Ho Sposato Per Allegria (I Married You For Fun).
Finding more ease and vocabulary for telling my own story came with a whole lot of listening. Even though I don’t like coffee, I look back fondly at the morning ritual of sitting at a cafe in Monteverde and reading before work. Glancing up from my book, I’d watch an absent-minded apparently famous author, crumbs still on his chin, signing the book extended forward by a nervous waiter. I’d get hooked on the pop music playing on the radio and make Italian playlists on Spotify when I got home. Evidently, the cafe was not a great place to actually get work done, but it gave me familiarity with the Italian cadence, which I started to long for rather than fear. Relaxing YouTube breaks transferred from English into Italian without much guilt-mongering and I played around with Ecclesiastical pronunciation in my Latin reading.
My YouTube addiction came into use one afternoon at anothercaffè, when I recognized the familiar voice and gestures of a remarkable individual. How could I forget that polyglot Luca Lampariello lived in Rome? Here he was at a cafe around the corner from work! Although too chicken to talk to him that day, I miraculously became friends with him. He defied all of my expectations of people who have deep learning in many languages. He wasn’t stingy with his time, he truly loved meeting and connecting with people, including me! He was flexible with his schedule; if asked what his language routine is, he’d say, “every day is different.” He didn’t do well in language classes as taught in school, but found his own methods that encourage an attitude of relaxed and curious joy.
Luca’s good vibes and life learning philosophy are just what I needed to really start enjoying myself in Rome. Although I don’t remember the daily system of ancient and modern language learning I created, I can recall the spontaneous events that filled the rest of my day with Italian adventures. I wasn’t expecting to learn the whole language now, I was looking for enough comprehension to seek out inspiring moments. I dabbled. Taking buses and trains to different fencing centers, I learned how to do fencing footwork and keep score in Italian. I went to Italian operas and concerts, from the horrifyingly amateur production of Mozart’s Requiem in a small church, to the dazzling outdoor Baths of Caracalla spectacle of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. After trying to visit a cult-like Gurdjieff center and being declined because “the master was not in,” I got a ride home from Italian strangers who also got declined and after becoming friends, they invited me to a similar cult-like seminar full of spiritually ravenous souls looking for meaning and answers. You know, your normal evening outings.
Despite the connections made, the indefatigable introvert in me most fondly remembers the solitary walks. There is so much walking to be done, with a tram or metro ride here and there to compliment even more walking. In my happy place, the enormous and green Villa Pamphili park, I would shamelessly listen to passing speed-walking Italians. On a whim, I circumnavigated the Aurelian walls one Sunday. I visited all the Sixtus Quintus inscriptions, stood around meditating on starling murmurations, and filled a notebook with blind contour drawings of statues in and out of museums. The Fellowship came with a museum pass that I eagerly used and re-used for day-long strolls in the Capitoline Museums, the Galleria Borghese, and the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. I collapsed from dehydration in bed after a day fully immersed in the Ovid exhibit. Another day I made my way north to the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia just to see how many strigils I could look at (I was not disappointed).
I would walk and imagine teaching at a site. This started from the practice presentations with fellow Fellows. Again, no rubric, just opportunity to practice, positive peer pressure to prepare something good, and the supportive notion that we were all learning from each other. The jump to doing this in front of students was scary, hence the mental run-throughs. Yet, it became my normal approach to reading a guide book, history textbook, Latin passage, or the landscape of my walk. What would I want to share here? How would I tell the story and help everyone connect with it? My brain would light up, facts and impressions remembered with ease. This was the most powerful development in my lonesome reflections in Rome: the realization that striving to create a moving experience for someone is a way more effective and motivating learning goal than grades could ever be. There are no Tests. There are only Tours.
The Test of the Tours
Whether I was ready or not, my five tours came and went each like a slow expanding inhale always followed by a deflating exhale recovering in bed. From having what felt like an endless amount of time, every second was now full of responsibility. It was exhilarating, it was terrifying. It was curveball after curveball of learning curves. (It is not for everyone. There’s a special kind of person nuts enough to enjoy this part of the job.)
Whatever learning I had accomplished in the previous months was enough to connect the students and help them make connections to Rome and Latin. Frankly, there wasn’t always enough time to get through everything I wanted, and my most valuable contribution was probably helping everyone get around with the Italian I had picked up. But I liked the tours. I learned from them. I was changed by them. Those messy, unpredictable, often-improvised tour days were more meaningful to me than any grade or exam.
Looking back, I really struggled with what I should, what I could do with Rome and time, time and Rome. I struggled with loneliness and what I expected of myself each day. I made mistakes, the biggest mistake being not allowing myself to experience more social adventures filled with more mistakes and more embarrassment. Though I embarrassed myself plenty. I especially cringe at my Stoic Minimalist phase that included carb-restricting most of my meals in the city of supplì, pizza, pasta and gelato. If I get a next time, I will embrace the joyous insulin spikes (though, I will say, the guys at my macellaria sure loved the frequent company). I would also not hold back on taking pictures, selfies and all. It’s possible to capture a moment, cache it, AND experience it. Still, even without many pictures, the experience, the emotion and its environs reverberate in mind and body long after it is over.
There are certain things that cannot be kept. The joy of learning for the sake of teaching for the sake of more learning simply cannot completely replace the drudgery of grading in public and private schools and universities. As I move in that direction, I do not look forward to all the rubrics. But I have crossed the Rubricon and there is no turning back. There is a way of learning I hope to show others, a path I hope others will take while (or despite) learning how to master rubrics, but knowing that grades are not where the joy, purpose, and connection lie.
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