Wilson High School Seen Through Italian Eyes

An Italian exchange student reflects on the unappreciated wonders of an American high school.

The best thing is to be ignorant of something? Everything is new, everything is different, and everything seems great: going to the beach is so cool for those who live in the mountains, children think that doing homework is super fun (just because they have no idea what it really is), and I’m pretty sure that anyone who does not practice parachuting secretly dreams of launching themselves from an airplane with a parachute, sunglasses and a go-pro attached to the helmet. However, if you ask someone who actually lives at the beach how beautiful his life is, he will probably tell you that in the 17 years of life he was never aware of having the ocean at his doorstep; when your little sister, who invents a new alphabet just for fun, asks you how is doing your homework, you show her the dark circles under your eyes and the mountain of books on your desk; 99% of the time if you ask a paratrooper what was the most exciting thing in his life, he won’t mention even once his sport, because it is a part of everyday life, nothing special, as if he were a mattresses seller, a clerk or a professor.

Well, this is exactly what happens when an Italian teenager, who has never attended an American high school but who has spent a lifetime watching movies in which high school seems like a social experiment full of nothing but handsome football players, mean cheerleaders and ugly girls who magically turn into beautiful prom queens, actually attends a high school. Seriously, there are a lot of very unique aspects of American school that kids don’t even realize, which are absolutely amazing, especially for someone like me who’s coming from a school dating back to World War II that still has the same walls and the same floors as when it was created (as well as a lot of the same teachers and rules).

INTERNATIONAL: In my school in Italy, we call someone who comes from another neighborhood a foreigner. In here there are people from all over the world.

First off, let’s talk about the freedom to choose subjects. How many of you have ever thought about how brilliant this system is? Allowing students to specialize in areas in which they have a particular interest, and letting them decide at what level to study that subject, and giving the chance to CHANGE THEM EVERY SEMESTER! Guys, do you realize? Do you know that in Italy you are forced to study music even if you have the musical ear of a sloth, and if math is too hard for you, it is your family’s responsibility  to spend a fortune on extra lessons in the hope that you get to the end of the year without having a nervous breakdown?

In addition to ordinary subjects such as math, grammar and history, there are things like creative writing class, where you are graded on your imagination. Not creative? Don’t worry, there are countless other possibilities that you can choose: in this way studying doesn’t become an excessive burden (it’s still boring, but it is definitely better studying what you like).

ELECTIVES AND CLUBS: I can’t believe to be in a school when I see it.

Another thing that, trust me, students around the world envy about Americans is the teacher / student friendship. You’re probably wondering what I’m talking about, because for you it’s normal to have a teacher who is friendly, wants to aid you in all your difficulties, and works to make you love the subject they teach. That’s not normal, I assure you.

And let’s talk about all the …the …I don’t even know what to call them! How would I explain to other foreigners like me, who see school as a kind of prison that keeps you from having a satisfying social life, that in American high schools there are things like spirit week, a week in which every day people dress following a different theme, that  teachers even participate in sometimes, that is created just for fun? How to explain that every Friday, rather than running out of school and hoping not to even hear its name for the rest of the weekend, you’re willing to GO BACK to attend a football game with nearly the whole school?

ALL KIND OF STUDENTS: that’s so amazing

This is another magical part of American schools: sports. I only speak on behalf of Italian teenagers, but I can tell you that in Italy practicing sports at competitive levels and trying to get ahead in your school career at the same time is a real challenge. Why? First of all, because Italian schools don’t have sports (running around in circles in a gym that is falling apart and that smells like mold can not be called a sport). And second, because of the homework and the almost complete lack of understanding by teachers of personal time, which leaves you with no time to practice a sport independently.


SPORTS: What more is there to say?

This is why every day I fall in love when, walking to school, I stop to watch the football field, the athletics track, THE POOL(!!!). I don’t know how it works in the rest of the world, but I don’t think that all the schools in the world have ski, cross country and golf teams. The American high school has so many resources that it’s not even depressing to spend time there; it’s actually an integral part of a student’s life, occupying most of the day with activities that go beyond study, study, contemplating suicide because of an excess of study and, of course, studying.

Ok, now let’s talk in particular about THIS SCHOOL, just for a moment. Food carts just steps from campus? Starbucks? Subway? Escaping the cafeteria food is not a small luxury. Before coming to Portland, I was in a college in New York, and every day, for lunch and dinner, we were forced to eat in the cafeteria. It was horrible, and I was terrified of having to spend all my lunches this way for the next nine months. So imagine my surprise upon arriving at Wilson, when I realized I could eat sushi for lunch every day.


FOOD CARTS: Trust me, for a hungry student that’s better than a 5-star restaurant

Now can I talk about frivolities? How amazing it is to have a real clothing store in school? Based on the number of items available, it’s obvious that rooting in American schools is a serious matter: it’s impossible not to get into the spirit of the school wearing all that Wilson gear.


I don’t wanna even touch the homecoming / winter formal / prom topic, because you’re probably fed up with foreigners who worship the prom as the most mystical thing in the world. I don’t wanna talk about the lockers, because they actually are just lockers, but to a foreigner like me who’s been raised on American’s films, the locker is more or less the symbol of high schools (I’m happy to have informed you in case you did not know about it), although in real life no one really decorates their locker like they do in the movies, and making friends with your locker neighbor is pretty difficult because after getting out of your class, taking what you need from the locker (also counting the time it takes to open it with that infernal spinning lock system), and going to your next class, you only have five minutes, and the corridors of the school turn into crowded highways in that time.


LOCKERS: How can’t you figure out how wonderful they are? THAT’S SUCH A PIECE OF ARTWORK!

I must admit, however, that the change of classes is my favorite time of school: you see more people than you can even believe, and if you’re from a small school like me, above all, everyone is different. Here no one judges you for how you’re dressed, and if someone does, no one cares. I have been here for less than two months and I have seen thousands of shades of pink in the hair of students, whimsical pajamas, Santa Claus hats in September, colorful socks, and of course the inevitable sandals with socks (I thought it was just a legend, but now that I’ve really seen them on a lot of people, I feel like a different person).


There are thousands of things that are absolutely thrilling for me, but I know you would probably end up bored if I kept going (I bet I’m the only one who is electrified by the presence of a library, the microwaves in some classes, tutor time and the wi-fi), so there’s just one last thing I want to say before concluding: the American school is a real injection of life, and for me it will always remain a mystery how ALL THIS could be part of your everyday life to the point that you don’t even perceive how great it is. Stop to admire your school sometimes, you might realize how lucky you are to be living in a movie.


Words by Elena Sorrenti