rowing up as an American in Italy I always knew I was going to be a little different. Maybe that’s why I never felt the need to follow all the social rules. I followed some, like dressing the same way as every kid my age. But my American side did upset one major bonding tradition in Italian classrooms: cheating.
I never cheated in school because — blame it on my parents — I always preferred to fail than do well by cheating. It never felt worth it having to tell my parents I’d been caught.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t tempted. I remember a time when I took a math exam and my mind went go blank on a question about Euclid’s second theorem. (Was it really as important as the first that I needed to know it?) No matter how much I wracked my brains, I was at a loss.
As they say, “Ask and ye shall receive,” although for me it was more of a ” Thou didn’t ask, and yet still ye shalt receive.” Sensing my distress, a classmate sitting next to me pushed her paper to the edge of the desk so I could see it. Then someone behind me started “thinking aloud.”
Cheating is a form of solidarity against “the system” and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I mean, these kids were taking time out from a hard test to help me. More than that, they were so invested in my test performance they must have been carefully observing me for signs of faltering.
Sometimes I could disregard these “bonding moments” by just closing my eyes and pretending to be really absorbed in my thoughts. But other times, ignoring help was much harder and more socially charged. For instance, when I’d be sitting at the front of the class during an interrogazione, a question session, teachers always managed to find one thing that made me hesitate. At that instant, all my supportive classmates immediately started piping up. You can close your eyes, but closing your ears is harder.
So there I was at the front of the class trying very hard to show the teacher I wasn’t listening to these “suggestions.” Ignoring their daring attempts to help me made for some awkward post-interrogazione exchanges. “Didn’t you hear the answers we were whispering?” How do you tell people you don’t like a gift? You can’t. So you make something up to protect them. “Oh, sorry! I was so deep in thought trying to remember the answer,” or “Oh my gosh, I totally black out during interrogazioni, I completely lose touch with the world,” or more creative ones like “Sorry, I’m half deaf right now, I have a middle year infection.” Quelle horreur! Lying to those who just wanted to help me! Maybe it would have easier to have accepted their help instead of deceiving them.
The other side of the coin is when people try cheating off you. You can’t make a big show of covering your paper because you don’t want your classmates to realize you’re hiding your answers. Plus, lots of movement might tip off the teacher that the person next to you is trying to cheat.
As if that wasn’t enough, there was always the underlying expectation that because I was an English-speaking student my presence in the class was to ensure the whole class got a 9 in English. I had no problems helping people out on their homework. That’s allowed. What was harder was having kids ask me how to say, “I went to Sharm El Sheikh for break and it was really incredible.” Should I give them words and sentence structure that fit with an Italian kid’s linguistic approach? Or should I risk exposing my handy work by recommending more accurate versions? And why should I even be doing this? It’s still a test.
Again, my recourse was to play dumb and say things like, “Yeah that looks pretty good,” or, playing off the teacher, “I’d totally help but she hates me because I speak American English, and I have no idea what this would be in British English, ugh, don’t you hate this class?”
Sometimes, my conscience jumped in and I’d just tell the truth: “I’m not allowed to help, I think.”
In short, starting at a very young age — and thanks to the Italian school system — I was faced with moral dilemmas. Do I help cheaters cheat and compromise my integrity? How do I reject their help without offending them and still do my own work? It wasn’t always easy, but it made me adept at avoiding confrontation. And it taught me how to actually face my failures when, inevitably, they come.