Subiaco is a charming little town on the top of a hill. The perfect place to go if you want to escape the noise and the confusion ( and the dirt) of such a big city like Rome and feel like living in the contemplation of those beautiful surroundings for a while. There is a rich, flourishing nature and amazing views, which make it fit for walks; you can also enjoy a visit to the spectacular Abbeys of Santa Scolastica and St Benedict. It sounds like heaven, I know, but that heaven has always been the bugbear of any substitute teacher living in Rome and in its surroundings. Being very distant from the capital, it means you need to move there and live in that sort of holy hermitage for a year. And it snows heavily in winter. Apart from the distance, the point is that I am a sea creature, accustomed to the warmth of the sun and immensity of the sea, how could I have endured an entire year alone on the top of a hill, surrounded by snow?
A call came to my aid. I was offered a one year contract in a school nearby. It wasn’t exactly kind of school I was used to teaching, but one whose majority of students is not fully aware about what they ought to do and why. Literature was not of much use there, apparently. By the way, I had escaped Subiaco.The afternoon I came back after my first school day is still impressed in my mind. I went straight to my bedroom, I laid on my bed staring at ceiling wondering: ” What shall I do ?” “An entire year like this?” I had bartered the exquisite, holy permanence in Subiaco with the chaotic, undisciplined noise of that school. I did deserve to rot in that hell. What would I do? I have to say that in that period I felt a sort of a Roman Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie “Dangerous Minds” and just like her I needed time to be familiar the overall situation and understand the primary law of teaching : never count on the support of principals.
In a school there is always a boss among students, a leader who is respected, intimidating and very popular and that student was in one my classes, let’s call him Riccardo. I guess Riccardo must have been 15 then, a plumpy boy with lots of earrings and spiky hair. He always looked at me with his black, defying eyes and often made me the target of his mockery. Of course, every time he did something annoying ( let’s say 5 times in two days if I was lucky), I wrote a disciplinary note on the school register and proudly took him to the principal, who happened to be a former English teacher. The last time I took him there, she scolded him once again and sent him back to his class. I was about to follow him, but she made me a sign to stop. When the door was closed, she said: ” Do you mean to fill the entire register with your disciplinary notes, Miss Tink?”
Since that day I knew I could not count on the principal’s support, and having learnt that disciplinary notes are a sign of weakness rather than of strength, I thought: had I made Riccardo respect me, I would have gained the respect of all the others. Maybe flattery could have worked.I started to talk to him in a more friendly way and tell him about all the marvels and the importance of learning English. I told him how his life would have changed, he would have found a good job and travelled; he could have seen the world and escape his harsh reality, he could have been, why not, a steward ( after a good diet, of course), Fiumicino airport is very close from where we live and……as I kept telling him this sort of things, he kept on looking at me with his interrogative eyes and put an end to that flood of nonsensical words with this statement: “But, Miss Tink, I will never leave Ostia!” Ostia! I was prospecting him a grand future, I was offering him the world and he had said he would have never left Ostia, as if his real world began and ended in Ostia – an area of Rome – ; he couldn’t even think of Rome or Italy. Humbled and defeated,I understood that if I wanted to survive that school year, I could only rely on my imagination, breaking the schemes, just like Michelle had done.
So, one day I came up with the idea of dividing the class into two groups, or better in two teams and give them the glorious names of universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, for example. I appointed a team leader for each group, and told them that every grade, every activity would have been turned into points to be added day after day. At the end of the school year, there would have been a big party to celebrate the winning team and the best students with cups, medals, diplomas. As soon as I turned myself into a teacher referee, I realised I had gained an immense power. Everybody wants to win and once you accept to be part of a team you are no longer responsible for yourself, but for the team as well, that was my trap. If you miss one test, for example, your team will score less and that might be decisive for the final defeat. Therefore, I soon noticed that nobody skipped tests any longer, but above all everybody wanted to take part in the competitions/tests I did every day. They could be the heroes of the day. Effort had turned into fun.
Riccardo had become a burden for his team and had lost much of his influence over his mates. He wanted to have their attention back, of course, but unfortunately (for him) by means of the most unheroic deeds. One day, for example, while their mates were working on negatives and questions, he decided to zip up his parka so that his head could not be seen and yelled: “It’s hot in here!” Noboby said a word or attempted to laugh for fear of having points deducted. It was my triumph, but I wasn’t satisfied.
One day Riccardo arrived a little late. Before he could reach his seat, I attempted to set the bait one more time and said: “Riccardo, come here. If you can write the conjugation of “to have” on the blackboard, I’ll give you……..20 points”. It was a very generous offer for that challenge and he knew it. He took the piece of chalk, advanced to the blackboard and gazed it for a while. Nobody said a word. There was a solemn stillness in the air. It took him almost five minutes to write it down and every time he seemed to be on the point of doing wrong, I could feel the tension among his mates. He did it; eventually.The entire class burst into a loud applause. He was moved, happy, stronger in a more positive way this time.
Riccardo failed in all the subjects that year, all, but English. Today, when I think about those episodes, I cannot but thank him for having inadvertently contributed in making that school year was one of the most memorable of my entire career.