“Break a leg,” is a commonly used expression in English to wish good luck to someone, although it sounds to a non-native speaker like a negative wish. In Italian, there is a curious expression to wish good luck that runs along the same lines: in bocca al lupo. This means, literally, “in the wolf’s mouth.” Whenever anyone has something to do that requires good luck wishing, especially exams, this expression is used. The proper response is not grazie but, rather, crepi (or,crepi il lupo), essentially meaning, “may the wolf die!” Years ago I heard the origin of this phrase from someone, but to speak truth, it seems that few Italians know its origin and that the story may differ anyway. Some things I’ve read have said that it originated in rural places where wolves were predatory; to kill a wolf was a difficult task, thus rendering someone who was successful in this venture quite accomplished. Another source or two mentioned the traditional story of Little Red Riding Hood, implying that when you go into the wolf’s mouth, may you be so lucky that the wolf will die and you will come out, safe and sound. Others have written that it is metaphorical and that the wolf is fear and you have to overcome the fear of whatever task it is that you are about to take up. Even further exists a possible connection with Rome’s foundation story, although it is unclear why any true Roma-phile would want the Capitoline Wolf to drop dead. If anyone can enlighten me on the true origins of this phrase, if there be any, please do. In any case, it’s part of an Italian-speakers vocabulary and I have been hearing it all over the place. I’ll tell you why.
The Italian school system differs tremendously from ours. At a typical American high school, a student might have to take 2-3 years of math, 2-3 years of a foreign language, 4 years of English, 3 years of science, 4 years of history, and can choose a variety of electives, which can range from art history to computer science to shop class. An American student usually does not specialize in subjects until university. To get into university, an American student should have a passing GPA and, in Arizona, I understand they have to have passed the state AIMS test.
In Italy, however, a student must choose their high school: liceo classico, linguistico, scientifico, artistico, all of them focusing more on the given subjects (classics, languages, science & math, art). To be able to enroll in university, students must pass the Esame di Stato conclusivo del corso di studio di istruzione secondaria superiore aka L’esame di Maturità. This exam consists of the following:
Three days of written exams (8:30 am until usually 3ish, although students may leave when they’ve finished):
La prima prova: Italian, which is the same for all students taking la maturità in the country. Students must write an essay about one of the topics given, which can range from the life of Enrico Fermi and his discoveries to the theme “We are what we eat” (both of which were on this year’s Italian exam). Different written sources are presented, not unlike an AP exam’s DBQ, and students must integrate these into their answers. There are a few options, always including a textual analysis of Italian literature or poetry, and students are encouraged to choose the option, of course, about which they know the most.
La seconda prova: This part of the written exam depends on what type of liceo you attend. If you go to a classical school, it would usually be a passage of Latin or Ancient Greek. For the liceo scientifico this year, they had (an apparently brutal) math problem that is accompanied by relevant sub-questions.
La terza prova: Possibly the most difficult part of the exam, this is where the student must be prepared for all subjects, but will write on four topics chosen by the examining commission, I think.
L’orale: An oral exam, the committee of which is comprised of three of the student’s teachers, three external teachers and an external president. During this exam, the examining commission may ask the student questions from any of their subjects; the goal, however, is not to ask about all topics but to insure that the student knows more or less what they’re talking about and can successfully defend their opinions and analyses.
The entire score is made up of not only the student’s grades from their last year at school, but also the scores of all portions of this exam; additionally, a student may earn 5 bonus points, depending on their scores on other parts of the test. From 2009 until now, a passing score was 60 and the highest is 100.
Currently, Italy’s youth is in a time of panic. The exams began last week, and will continue until around the middle of July, when the oral appointments are over. Everyone who was taking the exam did Italian last Wednesday, and that was all anyone could talk about. It was on the news on TV, discussing which topic was most chosen out of the options, it was in the newspaper, interviewing students coming out of their tests, students are studying like maniacs, writing practice essays and figuring out where they can rewrite them so as to be accessible during the tests. Parents rehash their own memories from doing la maturità. Once the exams started, students would come home and be on the phone all afternoon with their friends talking about what they did and how.
Due to this national sense of anxiety, which has spread from the students to their parents and relatives, phones have been ringing off the hook all to say, “In bocca al lupo!” Which brings me to my point: thousands, maybe millions of wolves have died in the past couple weeks. Every single person who has called to talk to Esa about her exams has said the phrase. Every time the phone rings, instead of an angel getting its wings, it’s another poor wolf dying violently all lone in the woods somewhere, perhaps in Eastern Europe. PETA would never stand for it.
I leave you with this thought, American readers: be grateful. Be grateful that we don’t have to do these exhausting, extensive and often impossible exams to get into college. I won’t argue that it may be a better gauge of college readiness (although, from what I understand, the rampant cheating on these types of exams may be a better indicator of how clever the student is rather than how much they really know). A comprehensive exam required to pass to the next level is certainly something I could support, and do, in fact, at my own job. The amount of information required, however, for this exam and its rigor is truly impressive, and I can only beg you now, dear reader, to be grateful. For the sake of the wolves.