Liceo a Roma – Part 2: The Forum School (’73-’75)

The Forum School, Rome, Italy

My head buzzed eerily as I heard the Headmaster’s words reverberate in my brain.  Expelled?I walked out of his office and passed his smirking secretary who seemed to relish the scene. I continued into the open air courtyard. It was early, students were arriving and the usual happy, before-class-buzz was in the air. I approached the nearest circle of students who were deep in conversation. I didn’t even know any of them.

After a moment, I piped up, “I just got expelled.” My announcement stopped their conversation. They stared at me. It was a communal shock we all felt. Maybe it felt too big for me to carry. I don’t know why I announced it to them. I was in a state of shock.

“That’s awful,” said one.

“What are you going to do?” asked another.

Then, miraculously, one of them turned to me and asked, “Do you know about The Forum School?”

I shook my head, mumbling, “No.”

“You should go talk to them. It is supposed to be the best school in Rome; there’s something really special going on there. And they’re right in the center, near Piazza Farnese.”

“I don’t know their phone number or address,” I replied lamely.

“Oh, that’s easy, the secretary will give it to you.”

I thanked them all. Turning, I calmly and purposefully walked back to the office, right up to the secretary’s desk. Looking up from her typing, she asked, “May  I help you?” I told her what I needed. Without another word, she opened the directory. It actually felt glad to have her do a bit of work for me. She handed me a slip of paper with a number on it.

I sat down at a small table nearby and dialed the number written neatly upon it. I listened intently as I listened to the phone ring, sounding as if it was ringing a country on the other side of the world. What if no one answers? What’ll I do then?

“Hello, this is The Forum School, Phil Allen speaking. How may I help you?” The voice I heard was soft. Masculine. And something else I hadn’t heard in a long time. Gentle.

“Yes,” I explained my situation.

“We are going to Lake Albano this morning. Can you take a taxi here?”

The secretary called a taxi for me and off I went.

Hopping out of the taxi, I saw the gigantic coach just alongside the narrow street, its engine rumbling. I saw the number of the address, ‘126’ and opened the front door. Just as Phil had explained, there was a tiny foyer and a winding stair. I climbed up, wondering what to find in this mysterious school, hidden in plain sight.

A head appeared in a doorway as I was immediately greeted by a man with tossled brown hair, twinkling eyes, and a warm, if somewhat shy, smile. He extended his hand for me to shake.

This was already quite an auspicious beginning.

The process for admission included writing an application and the students had to vote whether to allow me in.  Classes didn’t start for another two weeks, so I wouldn’t miss any school. The rules were simple: students were required to attend all classes, to study Italian and to obey Italian laws. That was it. There were no dormitories. Students either lived in a pensione, with their parents’ permission, or lived with families who were friends of the school and took on boarders. Yes, Yes, Yes!

It all felt like Divine Intervention. It was another couple of weeks and a meeting with my father to get everything sorted out. “I hope this school works out for you,” my father stated quietly. Although I knew I’d disgraced myself and disappointed my father, all that paled by comparison to what I sensed was to come: enjoying the richest part of my life in a great school in Rome.

In no time, I was settled in and enjoying my walk back and forth to school. I lived with a family in a lovely neighborhood, Trastevere-the name means, “across the Tiber.” I took the elevator from the fourth floor apartment that was the entire top floor of the building. Popping out, I waved “Buongiorno” to the portiere as he buzzed the gate to unlock it. Down the street I came into Piazza di S. Cosimato, on through Piazza di S Maria in Trastevere, winding along the Via del Moro into the open Piazza Trilussa. Waiting for the traffic signal, I skipped over the Ponte Sisto, then turned left onto the Via Giulia. Near the colossal mask fountain, I skipped right to enter Piazza Farnese, crossing by its proud and austere palazzo and pair of fountains with their massive tub-like basins. I continued down the Via di Monserrato. My school was about a quarter kilometer down the street.” This was my wonderful new home, my amazing new life– I just knew it. How did I ever come to deserve this?

Blessings follow setbacks.

I was proud of myself for following my inner boldness to have found this school. The best things in life are never a matter of “worth” and certainly not a matter of “fairness.” It is all in the asking: this was where I was meant to be.