A Certain Something

Teaching is a profession of a peculiar kind. It is not only about the transmigration of data from one mind to another, but rather about educating new generations, moulding personalities, thus giving them the basis for future opportunities. If this is the delicate goal to be achieved, upon which criteria teachers ought to be selected? 

Here in Italy, for example, it is enough to have a university degree and pass a competitive  exam, where mostly the knowledge of the subject you mean to teach is tested. Then, after a probation year, during which apparently your teaching skills should be carefully verified, but practically nobody cares  – unless one day you screw everything up and yield to the impulse of strangling Pietro, who has kept annoying you for an entire semester, thus clearly demonstrating your inaptitude – you become a licensed teacher at last. But is this selecting procedure adequate?

Best education, best grades, don’t necessarily make you the the best of teachers, and even training courses, refresh courses, developing courses are of no use, unless you possess that something which truly makes a teacher, which is  a natural disposition you’ve been born with and that cannot be apprehended on books. Somebody might object that this could be the same for any job, but, of course,  I disagree. If you don’t search that sense of gratification that you achieve when you arouse the pleasure of understanding in others’ minds and if you cannot communicate your passion and the genuine intent to involve them, teaching will make you miserable for the rest of your life.The necessary effort of understanding those minds means being aware of the fact that, as students grow you must grow with them, thus accepting to re-invent yourself, your style, update your  language and ready to put aside what once was useful, as generations change and quickly. All this should not be felt as frustrating, as it often happens, but rather, challenging. But still, it is not on books that you learn it.

Teachers should be above all charming people, let’s use a more trendy word: sort of “influencers” and this is incontrovertible to me. Enchanters, mentors and leaders at the same time with the great ambition of making students enjoy what they learn rather than just do it. I dislike those pages on the web run by the same  teachers, where we are mostly described as ill treated, underpaid miserable bunch of people, in a form of a joke. I don’t mean they are telling lies, of course, a lot ought to be done and spent on education, but reinforcing the common idea that teachers are losers doesn’t make really any sense as nobody wishes to emulate a loser. We should set the example, but a successful one. 

We won’ t be considered more just saying we wish to be so, we must act, create another story telling, which is the truth for most of us actually, that is : even if there is neither big money or success, teaching is a privilege and a great one. And when we are attacked on our few prerogatives like, for example, having two months of holidays every year, rather than feeling guilty and be on the defensive, acting like losers in the effort of explaining how much time we spend on extra work, grading, burnout danger and so on, take my example and reply : ” I am sorry, but you are wrong, I have THREE months of holidays and even more, since our mayor has taken the habit of closing schools, when it is likely to rain!” This kind of explanation allows me also to kill two birds with one stone, as it could be for many a very good reason to choose another mayor next time; after all being a little subtle constitutes an essential part of being a teacher.

Hence, if you keep complaining and truly believe that what I have said so far is not required or essential, trust me, choose another profession,  if you don’t want to make yourself miserable for the rest of your life; if you feel underestimated, please change, you are still in time ; if you are hungry for money and success, go away, especially if you are young, the school is not the right place for you, if you are looking for popularity, why choosing the classroom as stage, when there is the vastness of the web; if you have all or only some of these ambitions and you still want to be teacher, your working life will be like hell.

So long the selection procedures of teachers will be focused mostly on knowledge rather than personality or attitudes, so long you believe that attending training courses may be a remedy to deficiencies in character, thus making a good teacher, I am afraid, you’ll only have a teacher. Schooling needs new life blood that only strongly motivated, passionate, brave educators can give, but those ingredients can’t be found on books, but in their hearts.

Austenland

I have to confess that I am in love with Mr Algorithm. I am fully aware of the fact that he is a sort of nosy, intrusive guy, irrespective of my privacy, but things are not always for the worst. As he knows me well, I dare say, more that I suspect, he often introduces me to new places or better, pages, I would never think of going myself. Not long ago, for example, while I was lazily scrolling some posts on fb, he gently caught my attention and said: “Maybe you may enjoy this”.

“This” was a page named ” Fans of Pride and Prejudice”. Well, I thought, I love Jane Austen in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular, if this makes me a fan, well, let’s take Mr Algorithm’s advice. As soos as I joined in, I understood that very likely the page I dropped by was addressed to a bit younger public, as the recurrent discussion was about who was the best actor for the role Mr Darcy and their choice fell incomprehensibly on Matthew Mcfaiden, which is a sort of heresy to me, as Mr Darcy is and will ever be Colin Firth. So, as I didn’t want to discuss the matter any longer, even because there was nothing else to discuss about, I soon quitted the group.

However, Mr Algorithm didn’t lose heart and after few days got back in with another option : “Fans de Orgullo y Prejuicio”, a page in Spanish. I have to say that beyond being nosy, intrusive and irrespective, this Mr Algorithm is by no means stubborn. I just meant to give a quick look, but unexpectedly, I found this page quite interesting and I lingered on for a while. Still the Darcy mania was the main theme, but this group was not only about pictures of the best profile, or the most romantic moments of the many movies of Pride and Prejudice, but whatever had been shot about any novel of Jane Austen, in any language, in any part of the world could be found here: an immense romantic filmography to be fully enjoyed. I quickly subscribed. So, I left for a sort of Austen world tour.  I learnt that there are movies about Pride Prejudice set in Atlanta, Seattle, Botswana, Zombieland, the jungle of Tanzania and the North Pole too. I could comfortably watch ITV ‘s adaptation of Sanditon right after the day the episode was aired and lots more, till one day, I found myself in Brazil.

One of the girl of the group was thrilled, because she had found this: “Orgulho e Paixão”, a Brazilian telenovela of Globo TV, which is the dream made reality of any Austen’s fan . It is the story of the Benedicto family,  the equivalent of the Bennets: 5 unmarried daughters and an over anxious mother, but, and this is the surprise, it is not only the Brazilian version of Pride and Prejudice, but rather the tale of some heroines of Jane Austen’s novels all together. Jane and Elizabeth are the same but the other three sisters have the traits the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility, Caroline Morland from Northanger Abbey and, this was a stroke of genius in my opinion, Emma is Elizabeth’s best friend, a rich match maker just like in the original novel. The love stories interweave in the beautiful natural setting of the imaginary “Coffee Valley” and San Paulo of Brazil at the beginning of the twentieth century.

For a fan of Jane Austen, you may well understand, that such a production couldn’t but cause severe addiction. The rhythm of publication of one episode per day became soon unbearably slow for me, so, as I was hungry for more, I desperately started to search the web, till I got to Russia, where a certain Lucas had issued them all. A real lucky break. Do you want to know how many? Well, one hundred. I watched 100 episodes of one hour each in, let’s say, less that a month. Of course, my Spanish has greatly improved, my social life a little less. However, I found the “novela” really enjoyable and I have been even an enthusiast for the first 50 episodes, but unfortunately when the screenwriters left the path of Jane Austen’s narration to explore other solutions, the characters have become less plausible with the outcome of turning the final episodes into a farce.

The truth is that after more than 200 years Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines still charm the new generations of readers just like the old ones;and this makes me think that “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see”, the world will always be Austenland.

 

 

Sardines in the Ocean

Mala tempora currunt. These are desperate times and it has been so for quite a while. Too much. The outcomes of global politics of these last years has been so far only division, hatred, selfishness and it seems that perspective of erecting barriers, thus protecting our little world, makes everybody happy. Those who don’t find themselves in all this have been left alone, as that disruptive wave of populism with its simple but effective language has found the political antagonist forces unprepared and weakened, if not ridiculed, by the power of  their slogans and tones. So, we have become hopeless spectators of what to me is a cultural disaster, waiting fora someboby” that when the time comes takes us out of this mess. But, what if we imagined ouselves to be that somebody?

Mattia Sartori

Only a month ago Mattia Santori, 32, from Bologna, felt the urge of doing something. A couple of days before Salvini and his coalition partners, the smaller far-right party Brothers of Italy, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, were due to launch their campaign for the Emilia-Romagna regional election at an indoor sports arena in Bologna. Emilia-Romagna has been since ever the stronghold of Italian left wing and there is a real danger that Salvini might win the election. He sent an urgent message to three friends late at night telling them to meet the next day. Over lunch, the four friends hatched a plan to Salvini’s boasts about filling Italy’s squares with supporters. The sports arena had a capacity for 5,700 people, and so, via an announcement on Santori’s private Facebook page, the group invited people to a counter-rally at Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, with the aim of attracting 6,000 people. 15,000 people filled the Bologna square.

Sardines in Bologna

As Salvini’s far-right electoral alliance pursued its campaign, the Sardines converged in other Emilia-Romagna cities before spreading across   Italy, Turin, Florence, Naples and  yesterday they arrived in Rome. They call themselves “Sardines”, as they aim at filling squares packed together like sardines in a tin box, so sardines are the thousands of people who spontaneously gather to manifest their discontent towards the language of populism embodied  by former minister Matteo Salvini and his party.

Sardines in Rome

Yesterday’s square, Piazza San Giovanni in Rome, was not a tight space, it was enormous, an ocean.  Nonetheless, and immense crowd of sardines, young and old succeeded in filling a landmark which has hosted memorable rallies. All of them demanded another way of doing politics, a different storytelling, which is not only a never ending political campaign on twitter or fb, which feeds itself with fears and the rethoric of hatred. The only way which leads to a future of peace is that of anti-fascism, anti-racism and solidarity.The full squares are a clear message to politicians, both left and right.

Sardines in Rome

Very interesting so far, but what comes next? This is a movement, and movements only dent the so called political system or they may end up being swallowed by it, if they just aim at agitating waters. As after a while, sediments, having recovered from the unexpected tides, settle comfortably again, so nothing changes. Our recent history has already undergone the effects of another movement, the so called “five star movement”. They believed they embodied the revolution in politics and would have opened parliament just like a can of  tuna –  fish metaphors seem to be very en vogue and effective here – , but when they turned into a party and got the majority of votes with an incredible 34%, they actually upset the political balances of parliament, only, they didn’t understand that that was the easy part. Once elected and comfortably seated in the can, the destructive phase was now over and  should have been replaced by the constructive one. Their effective slogans crashed against reality and furthermore, being totally inexperienced, they paved the way to a much more skilled shark named Matteo Salvini.

Sardines in Naples

So I ask again: what comes next? Pietro Nenni, an Italian politician, long time ago warned that full squares don’t fill ballot boxes, as the recent history of Brexit demonstrates, so we cannot hope that the “sardines” will stop Matteo Salvini and friends, for sure. However, the people in  these squares showed us that we are not alone, we are many and in our small way we can react to the populist wave.  It is good to talk about politics rather than empty slogan again, it is good to see anti-fascist and anti-racist squares, it is good to see a positive attitude in all the people who joined the rallies and this gives me hope. From Piazza San Giovanni, together, we may start to make a better future.

The Sisyphean method

The last runner in a relay is the one who takes on him a great deal of responsabilities about the success or failure of a race. No matter how good or bad his mates have been; when he catches the baton, he knows that it is his face that the everybody will remember, when he  eventually crosses the line. It might be a moment of glory, of course, but of  bitter disappointment too, as he has not been able to give his contribution to take the team to success. This truth concerns not only relays or sport in general, but also many episodes of our lives. Whenever we find ourselves in the uncomfortable situation of being the “last runners”, we are often ovewhelmed by the weight of the new responsabilities and tasks, which we do not completely feel as our own. That’s why I always try not to find myself in this position, but this year, as I haven’t been smart enough to avoid the dart, here I am, holding a baton.

I actually have “inherited ” a class, a bunch of nice people, in truth, but I have to say that after a couple of months I feel like a “last runner”, who has not started to run the last part of the relay yet. I am just holding a baton at moment going nowhere. The point is that apparently  the great majority of these students, average age 17, seems to have learnt one, only one, I swear, learning method: Sisyphus’s method. In case you don’t know, Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades for his general trickery, by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit. This for eternity.

So, the “Sisyphean way” consists in making the effort of studying and forgetting the second after a test or an activity has been accomplished. Hence, the next time they need those rules or concepts to understand another topic, they start afresh, and on and on and on. In this “rolling up” process, apparently, the thought of developing and risking another learning strategy has not crossed their minds yet. The greatest danger of  this method, in my opinion, is: boredom. Even if Camus imagined Sisyphus smiling and happy too, while pushing up the stone, as he assumed he had accepted the punishment assigned to him, I am sure he was bored to death, as nobody is able to love any subject in this state of frustration.

Of course, they delude themselves remarking that the “hill” is too high, the “stone” too heavy or that they have not properly been trained in “stone rolling” and that is why they are so fatigued and would like somebody to share the effort with (parents, teachers, private tutoring). The fact is they don’t realize that, while Sisyphus was punished by Zeus to repeat the action for eternity, they are free, they can choose how to roll up the stone and even how to prevent it from rolling down again. They could break the stone in smaller pieces, for example, or try to flatten the top of the hill or even find a simpler path. Of course, in all those other activities they would find a teacher ready to help them, because that means they are struggling to find a way, their way. At end of this new effort, I am sure they would be even surprised to find out that they could like, after all, “rolling stones” and it is also fun.