Part of a continuing series comparing schools from Italy and America.
On the morning of December 1, in front of the amassed student body of the Liceo Virgilio, a banner was lowered out of a courtyard window. It read, “VIRGILIO OCCUPATO” and was received by raucous cheering. To an Italian reader, this message could evoke a whole range of reactions, from groans to smiles. But to anyone else, it begs an explanation. Every winter, Virgilio students ‘occupy’ the high school. The process begins when students, with the consent of the teachers and administration, lock the doors of the building and pile up furniture to block off other entrances. Then, for the next one or two weeks, part of the student body remains in the building at all times to ‘protect’ the occupation from being broken up by the police. A typical day in an occupied school includes an assembly with a discussion of political issues in the morning and bored kids roaming about, drinking and smoking at night.
The occupation is a time-honored Italian tradition. At almost every public school, it is the most beloved event of the year. Especially at Liceo Virgilio, one of the most famous ultra left-wing schools in all of Italy, it is a ritual that is treated with the utmost reverence and respect. However, the reasons behind the occupation remain unclear to almost everyone. Whether it is opposing the hiring of French teachers that are in fact Russian or the fact that not a single computer can be found for large stretches of the school, most of the students can’t say. However, no matter what the motives are for the occupation, it seems to accomplish nothing. The only change at the Liceo in recent memory is an increase in the number of acceptable tardies from 10 to 15, which happened five years ago. Yet the occupation continues to take place year after year. The administration, in its various efforts to do away with the occupation, threatens to cancel every class’s foreign trip. These trips, which promise to take children to different countries all over Europe, have been planned at length beforehand. If after the occupation the administration does in fact cancel the voyages, rendering the hours of organization pointless.
The occupation just about captures the twisted logic of life at Virgilio. The students are so upset with the state of their education that they are happy to miss two weeks of it to protest.