Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.

Back to School: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

This is the fourth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Little Debbie pecan pies, and join in on the conversation.

Back to School

Draw near, draw near, stranger, as I spin you an epic yarn. A timeless story of love and betrayal, of struggle and suspense, of triumph and failure. There are heroes, young friend, and villains galore. I will tell of innocents and schemers, of noble causes and fiendish designs, of the loftiest and the basest of human desires. Draw near, wanderer, and listen to my tale of fate, destiny, and—ultimately—a moral to it all.

Hear me as I sing the tragedy of How My Children Transferred Elementary Schools.

No, wait. Don’t get up. It’s a great story, I swear. It really does have all that stuff in it. Listen, your beer’s on me if you’ll just sit here for ten minutes and hear me out. Ten minutes. Seven. Seven minutes. Ok? Ok.

The school year began here in Umbria this week, and as I lightheartedly dropped my sons off to their second and fifth grade classrooms, I couldn’t help remembering this same time last year. My older son was beginning the fourth grade, and we were both anxious. He had had a particularly tough third year; his favorite teacher had retired after the second grade and he and the new teacher had locked horns for the subsequent nine straight months. I had gone back and forth about simply switching him to the other local elementary school (in Italy you get the same teacher for all five grades of primary school, so if you don’t see eye to eye you are kind of stuck), but had decided to continue where we were (and enroll my younger son in first grade there, as well). This homepage helped me with learning activities that you can do at home with your kid.

It quickly became clear that something had to give. My nine year old was desperately unhappy, thus we were all unhappy. He started asking me if he could change schools and maybe take this as a chance to apply to some Atlanta private schools, which gave me pause, as his best friends were all classmates. He was obviously at the end of his rope. So, come January, I took both my sons (the first grader wanted to be with his brother) out of their elementary school and enrolled them in the other public school about half a kilometer away. Thus began a golden period in their lives, and a private hell in mine.

Fine, private hell might be overkill (though I did promise you drama), but let’s just say I was completely blindsided by the social ripples caused by what was, in my mind, a relatively innocuous (and, I may add, completely none-of-anyone’s-business-personal) decision. You see, it slips my mind sometimes that I live in a small town. It’s easy to forget, because Assisi gives the impression—what with the crush of millions of visitors a year—of being a teeming metropolis. But the fact is that only around 1,000 people actually live in the historic center and–of those–999 are all up in your business.

I also tend to underestimate the dark underbelly of small town dynamics because I went to hands down the most awesome, lefty, fun, accepting, smart high school in North America. I realize the correlation may be fuzzy, but from what I understand from friends (and bootleg copies of Glee), the average American high school educates you not only in algebra and creative writing, but also in how to navigate cliques, handle gossip, recognize the mean girls, and generally hone those delicate antennae indipensible in managing the subtleties of social interaction. Because–despite all the romanticizing and idealizing–life in a small town is pretty akin to life in high school, except the median age is higher and the chaos which can be wrought more damaging.

The weeks following the school switch (I should probably add that I had been my sons’ PTA president for six years, so admittedly we weren’t the most low-profile family in the school)–during which a whisper campaign was initiated, teachers I had known for years publicly denounced my decision, families with whom we had travelled and socialized since our children were three years old stopped speaking to me, friends quickly separated themselves into wheat and chaff categories, and acquaintances whom I hardly knew by sight stopped me on the street to chat conspiratorially in the hopes I might let something slip unpolitic enough to stoke the flames of debate at the local cafè—were perhaps the steepest learning curve of my adult life. My kids went back to school, and, in a way, so did I. However, while they stopped shedding tears over their lessons, I began shedding them over mine.

It’s the Economy, Stupid.

Nothing gets people’s dander up like the specter of job loss, an aspect I had naively underestimated when making my decision. Assisi has two elementary schools in the historic center, which is simply mathematically untenable given the size (and age) of the population. This is a known but unspoken truth; every spring when enrollment begins the two schools fight tooth and nail for students, because if they don’t reach a minimum class size teachers are transferred or let go. It’s that simple. So, when students leave—especially students of somewhat outspoken, public, influential families—the school (and their teachers) immediately circle the wagons, and their first priority becomes damage control, spin, and desperate number crunching. Perhaps not the noblest of instincts, but human, nonetheless.

No One is Disinterested.

If there’s one thing you learn very quickly when you move to a small town, it’s that you can’t pick your nose in the car. Because everyone knows you. Even people you don’t know know you. They know you, they know your significant other, they know your boss, they know your cleaning lady, they know your postman. Not only do they know them, they are probably related to them. They may not like them, they may barely speak to them, but if the universal currency of information is on the block, you can be sure that there will be some exchange…and often the heftiest price paid is by you. And in a social crucible where knowledge is power, where gossips wield stunning power, and where—to be honest—very little goes down of particular interest on any given day, even the most banal of events (who had coffee with whom, whose car was seen parked where, whose kids were taken out of one school and enrolled in its rival) acquire the whiff of scandal.

Change is a Big Effing Deal.

The City is all about change. About progress. About evolution. About new horizons and frontiers. The Province is all about tradition. About history. About roots. About stability and comfort-zones. And I like that about the Province; after a life of constant movement and adaptation, I like the sense of past and belonging to a larger social tapestry. I especially like that for my children. That said, just as the dynamism of cosmopolitan life can veer into superficial self-absorption, so can the solidity of country life veer into stodgy mistrust and fear of change. Career transitions are whispered about as if they were some sign of failure, rather than simply that of a wish to try something new. Separations are akin to a death in the family, rather than an opportunity for a new beginning. New hairstyles and hobbies are viewed with raised eyebrows and pursed lips. And a change in schools—even to one that is just a few blocks away, even when the classmates are all friends from preschool, and even when the teachers are familiar faces from around town–is viewed as a traumatic, life-altering folly. (Just for the record, my sons are thrilled with their new school and have been from day one. I should have trusted my intuition and transferred them earlier. Another lesson learned.)

I’ve Been Damned Lucky.

The most positive lesson taken from all of this has also been the hardest to internalize:  gratitude. I have learned to be grateful that I can both enjoy the advantages of living in a small community, yet see beyond it to a bigger picture. I can get past defensiveness and finger-pointing when I feel censured, and take a hard look at myself and the mistakes I’ve made. I have a life that is so stimulating and joyful that I don’t need to pay much attention to the minutiae of my neighbors’ days to fill my own. The deep roots I’ve put down have favored, not stunted, my growth and I see the challenge in change, not just the apprehension. Though I smile and wave and chit-chat and trip my social butterfly way across the piazza, I know who my true friends really are…in Tucson, Bali, Piemonte, California, Castiglione del Lago, Chicago, and—a precious few—here in Assisi,  I have the extraordinary fortune to have a crowd watching my back, supporting without second guessing, and caring without judging.

And I suppose that if there is a moral to this story, it lies here. You can’t appreciate the light until you see the darkness, the loyalty until you feel abandoned, the serenity until you get lost in the chaos. The microcosm of small town society puts this into sharper relief, perhaps, but these lessons are all around us regardless of where we are. Life is full of teachable moments, but we have to show up to class with our minds open, pencils sharp, and pride tucked away in our lockers. Because life is also a tenacious bitch of a professor, and each time you flunk her class you can be sure that you’ll keep finding that same topic covered on the next final exam until you finally—finally—get the answer right.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


  1. Gloria |

    Yes, yes, nice story. But I’m deeply offended by our location not being included among those of where your best friends live. LOL

    Kidding aside, I think most of the drama you mention has to do with Italian mentality/culture rather than the size of the place you live in. I can’t see anything different happening in Pisa, Grosseto or Siena!

    Anyway, after scuola elementare comes scuola media, and then the trouble starts for real! LOL Great post as usual!

  2. Alexandra |

    so, what did you tell the detractors your reason was for changing their school? and did the sleighted teacher sling merda at your front door?

  3. Lynn Guardino |

    From one of your friends in Massachusetts….OMG, Rebecca, you are SO my kind of gal! I’m hoping that one day your blog pieces will be chapters in one great read of a book.
    I totally relate to every bit of what you have written. As a child, I changed schools multiple times until I got it right.
    As an adult, I yanked my kids out when it didn’t feel right and while I did not suffer as many of the consequences as did you, there were times……Today, do I regret either my changes or my kids’? Light and serenity follow me wherever I choose to go. Rock on Mamma!!!!!

  4. Jessica |

    Wow… So, a year on after the switch, what’s the new status quo? Do the same people still point & whisper, or are they the ones who now expect you to smile & wave across the piazza? I like to think I’m pretty forgiving, but I’m not sure I could let that one go…

  5. George |

    Another insightful post – you create a window for us into your world. I don’t think I would do well in a small town (I’m too private and insular to fit in well), though I would desperately love to live in Assisi. I second (third?) the requests for updates about how the transition is being handled these days. It’s good to know that your boys are thriving in their new school, so the lessons you learned from this life lesson must have been worth it. I, too, can’t wait for the book and will pre-order it as soon as you give the word. I don’t have an e-reader, though, so please give us a lovely hardbound edition, too!

  6. Diane |

    Yes, this is life in my village too. Exactly. Glad your sons are really happy in their new school and of course that’s what counts. I removed my son for the first year of scuola media–we needed a break after 5 years with the same elementary teacher who was not the right one for my son, but it was very difficult to change things because he didn’t want to leave his friends. I seriously considered moving back to the States as the International Schools are too far and way too expensive. We home schooled American curriculum and travelled. According to everyone here I was “ruining him”, but then I “ruined” him also in second grade when we moved back to NY for 5 months to sell our house. So far he loves the Middle School, we laugh about some of the teachers, praise others and hope for the best. Great post.

    • rebecca |

      Thanks, everyone, for your incredibly supportive feedback and comments!
      The update is this: the school change was absolutely the right decision. My kids both love school now (and have since day one)…they’ve never looked back and, in retrospect, if I have any regret it’s that we spent an entire school year (and then some) being unhappy.
      I have come out of this changed…wiser, but also once-burnt-twice-shy. I am much more cautious of what I put out there, even in casual conversation, and more hesitant to be open with anyone who isn’t on my friend short-list. I’m back on speaking terms with everyone at this point, but there are some social rents which will never be fully repaired. It makes me a little sad, sometimes, to think how this experience has jaded me about human nature. On the other hand, look at all these kind comments here! Maybe people aren’t so bad after all 😉

  7. Monica Fischbeck |

    This goes on in America too! Not just the “Italian Culture”
    The important thing is you recognized how miserable your son was.
    Stand strong girl….great job and the boys will thank you for this!

    Went through very similar situation here in California……I have great adult
    sons who love me for my fortitude and fighting the system. I raised my boys to
    be individuals, they will do the same for their children!