19th June, 2008

The kind of column I’d write (if a newspaper should ever commission me to write one) #2.

It’s exam time here in Italy. 496,000 students sat their written exam in Italian this week for the final high school certificate: la maturità.  The Italian school system sees students graded throughout their final years at secondary school according to class tests, usually oral, known (chillingly to my English ear) as interrogazioni. But the main, national exams are now, each subject taken on the same day throughout the country.

Not being either a schoolgirl or a parent, I’m not usually interested in these exams but yesterday an article caught my eye. It was a full page in La Repubblica, one of Italy’s national papers. There was a photo of a group of diligent students, poring over their books. Underneath the headline in large, bold type read, Sesso, dieta e relax: consigli per la maturità. Sex, diet and relaxation: advice for final exams. According to “the experts” – a sexologist, a nutritional scientist and a psychologist who teach at universities in Rome – shagging, eating a healthy meal and chilling out are the key to writing good exam papers.

Now I know that those sitting their final school exams are, on average, 18 or 19 years old and that it’s perfectly normal to be sexually active at that age, but I found it really odd that experts were giving this kind of advice to, well, school kids! Can you imagine The Times telling A-level students across the U.K. to get bonking instead of cramming?

In the article, there was a list of advice according to which, I quote: “the day before your exam, eat an anti-stress diet: pasta, rice, bread, lettuce, radicchio, onions, soft cheese, yoghurt, boiled eggs, fruit and herbal teas with honey. Avoid coffee, crisps, savoury snacks, chocolate and alcohol. No curry, pepper, paprika, salt or tinned foods. Going out the evening before your exam is ok: to the cinema or for dinner with friends. Sleep at least 8 hours: staying up late to revise doesn’t help your memory. Making love before your exams helps concentration and your psycho-physical well-being. Then there was some advice about how listening to music helps you to relax and concentrate better (like the American soldiers in Iraq?) and a recommendation to wear “sensible” clothes to the exam:  “no outrageous plunging necklines for girls and closed shoes for both”. Bizarre as that last piece of advice was, I was unable to take it in after the bit about “making love”. Yes! Those were the words used: fare l’amore. The sexologist, Chiara Simonelli, elaborated: “sex is important to let off nervous tension and it stimulates the production of endorphins; you sleep more soundly and concentrate better.”

I thought about how confusing this would all be for the young people unlucky enough to read the article. What if they weren’t sexually active? What if they didn’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend? What if they did but couldn’t get together for a bit of nooky the night before their exam anyway? Would this put them at a disadvantage? Then I thought about just how confusing all this advice was. I mean, eat all that food, including onions, and have sex? (To work it off?!) If I followed all that advice I’d need at least 24 hours to fit everything in. How can you eat a healthy meal, go to the cinema, listen to music, have a good shag and still get 8 hours’ sleep in?

Apart from the misery of being told you’ll do better in your exams if you have a shag the night before, when you’ve spent the last 3 years trying and failing to get one (exams are depressing enough, why do the “experts” think it’s all right to add yet another aspect of performance anxiety to teenage frustration?), how exactly will these kids go about making tension-releasing love the night before their exams? Do their mums read this and say, “Francesco, darling, when you’ve finished your tortelloni and the mozzarella salad I left for you in the fridge, you and Elena can pop upstairs and use our bed. Special pre-exam treat, just this once.”? I don’t think so. Italians are notorious for having to do it in their cars because they live at home till they’re thirty. It may be fun but it’s hardly stress-relieving love-making, is it? And no crisps? No chocolate?! Hang on, chocolate releases endorphins too! What kind of evil torture is this? The least they could concede is that, if you’ve got nobody to shag, you can console your lonely pre-exam blues with a large slab of milk or plain.

I’m still reeling from the insensitivity and stupidity of this advice and am almost tempted to write a letter to La Repubblica to complain. Except I reckon the Pope probably already has done.

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