I graduated from college in very fortunate circumstances: a summer internship through September and a full-time position beginning in January. However, my fall season loomed wide open. Should I kick my feet up poolside, as my dad suggested? Or find a temporary job and save some money, as my bank account pleaded?
Fun or function? Pleasure or practicality?
Aristotle’s theory of the golden mean proposes that the virtuous choice resides between the extremes of excess and deficiency. I hesitated to settle for simply working in the final period preceding my first full-time job but, at the same time, I could not accept the decadence of a three-month vacation.
I found my golden mean in volunteering abroad as a teacher assistant in Italy. I lived with a host family in Turin, Italy, where I taught English at a local high school for 15 hours a week. I joined a group of nearly 30 volunteers located throughout Italy’s Piedmont region, most of us with little to no teaching experience or Italian language skills.
Regardless of my lack of expertise in either field, I embarked on my mission confidently; I had been teaching my two younger siblings for years and, with a last name like Agrippina, I expected to pick up Italian quickly.
My host parents, Anna Maria and Franco, were high school teachers of subjects that invigorated them – Anna Maria was a Physical Education teacher who danced through her days with boundless energy and Franco taught or played music for most of his waking hours.
They had two sons who recently graduated from college, Mateo and Daniele, and a nine-year-old son named Nicolo, who specialized in playing basketball and Clash of Clans.
Nicolo and I bonded over our hoop dreams and spent many hours at the local park, honing our jump shots and imitating the moves we made on his NBA Playstation game.
Most days Nicolo, his parents, and I finished school by 2 p.m. and gathered at home for a delicious lunch. The rumors are true – we really did eat pasta every day, and I often enjoyed a glass of wine before a post-lunch nap. After filling my four years of college with a double major, two jobs, and track practice, I embraced the leisurely Italian lifestyle.
My experience struck the perfect harmony between volunteerism and tourism. I made a veritable impact in the classroom, reaching over half of my school’s 1,200 students while instructing 30 different classes. Although my official classroom duties centered on conversational English and American culture, I taught lessons on a diverse range of subjects including global warming, cover letters, and Beyoncé lyrics.
I chaperoned field trips to Turin’s finest theaters and museums and enjoyed celebrity treatment from my students, who venerated all things American. Their rudimentary knowledge of the English language was endearing in its candor, as they delved into the deep mysteries of American culture with incisive questions like: “What is the ‘spring break’?”, “Do Americans really party all the time?”, and “Can I hug you?”
At the same time, the limited hours of my position granted me freedom to explore my temporary hometown, which shone with the elegance expected of Italy’s first capital. I traversed Via Po, rested in Piazza Castello, craned my neck to see the top of La Mole Antonelliana, and savored the inimitable taste of Gianduiotto chocolates.
By the end of my time teaching English in Italy, I felt like an authentic citizen; the baristas at the local café greeted me as a regular customer and I issued directions in Italian on more than one occasion (okay, it was twice).
I learned at least as much as I taught during my time in Italy. Venturing beyond my comfort zone and home country enabled me to become a student once more. My host family modeled gracious hospitality, greeting me every day with full hearts and plates. My students embodied eager curiosity, as they questioned me on all aspects of American life. And the people of Italy, who relish simple pleasures and cling tightly to their families and communities, shared with me a lesson echoed by Aristotle: “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”
My time as an English teacher assistant concluded with a lovely surprise. On my final day, I naively walked into the school gym after a local field trip and was greeted by thunderous applause from a crowd of nearly 500 people. Students and teachers delivered heartfelt speeches, kind thank you cards, and generous gifts of chocolate liquor, an Andrea Bocelli album, and a massive jar of Nutella. I was truly overwhelmed by this display of love from people who were strangers to me just three months before.
As the party wound down, I was mobbed by students requesting farewell hugs and selfies. I know that Aristotle warned against extremes, but I could not suppress my excess of joy.
Ready to start your own adventure in Italy as a teacher and explorer?