There is something moving when you see your students go right after the secondary high school examination. 5 years together, with ups and downs, for sure , 5 years during which you have seen boys and girls blossom and become adults . 5 years is too long to be indifferent. That is why I see what we call “Esame di Maturità” more like a ceremony, a rite of passage, rather than a real exam, where we, their teachers, let the students go to experience the world.

The “ceremony” usually ends with the final question: “ what are you plans for the future?”  That very moment we realize we belong to the past  and a sort melancholy clouds us . We would like to say one last word to the , something they can remember, a treasure to be kept.

We have discovered in time  that the language poetry on this purpose may be very effective. In fact, every end of the school year some of us enjoy playing the “Dead Poet Society” borrowing some touching lines from famous poets. Hence, poems are recited  with moved and broken voices to say the class goodbye, which sometimes for some student may sound quite disorienting,  especially if the day before they had seen you going nuts and turning into a yelling Cyclop eager not to spare even one of those rebel souls.

 I used to read a poem myself too, but I gave up as soon as I saw  everybody did it. I know, it is very snobbish of me, but if what you mean to be a magic moment turns into a habit, everybody’s habit, it cannot be magic any longer. By the ways , if you want to know it, I used  to read “George Gray”, from the anthology of “Spoon River” by Edgar Lee Master:

“I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

A  man, George Gray, is watching a tombstone, his tombstone . He is dead. On his gravestone there is a marble sailboat, a most befitting symbol for a life full of motion and adventure, which is a kind of ironic, as  his life had , actually,  been like a boat, but with its sails rolled in the harbour, under cover of the rough winds of Ambition, Sorrow and Love. He had always chosen the simplest and the safest route: no effort, no risk, but he couldn’t escape the uneasiness of such a life because each of us intimately “hungers” for meaning. To live is “lifting” the sails and “catching” the winds of destiny wherever they will take us, otherwise the sense of unrest will overwhelm and torture us. Only now he understands, now that it is too late, that he had never truly lived. My message for them , as adult woman, was to embrace life as it is, as Stephen Dedalus would say: “life is to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”, don’t be afraid to err, but rather learn from your mistakes and  move ahead . But I don’t read it any longer.

This year my colleague and writer Dario Pisano preferred the end of the exams as the appropriate moment to gift the students with a very poingnant poem:  “Ithaka” by Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:

As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,

wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind—

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Cavafy chose the most iconic journey ever as pattern : Ulysses’. The poet says, that each of us  keeps looking for his own Ithaca, that is the achievement of his personal supreme goals, every single day of his life. Of course, there is nothing  wrong with it, but  eventually, it is not the goal but the journey that matters, because it is the  journey that  makes us wise and gives people the richest prizes: experience, knowledge and maturity.

Yet, the journey of our students has just begun, and while I see one of them politely, but carelessly,  take the poem and leave, I cannot help but wonder: isn’t this but our final attempt not to be forgotten in their journey?


15 thoughts on “Goodbyes

  1. As a teacher I grew to constantly remember that anything and everything you do has the potential to leave a lasting memory, a lesson, an example with one or more students—you may never know and they may not realise what that memory, lesson, example is. If bad (a word, a gesture, a dismissal by word, deed or look) I’ll never be able to take it back; if good, that may rest in the student’s heart and be a guide to some their life’s decisions and an inspiration for their hopes, but the chances are I’ll never know unless our paths cross and they care to tell me.

    That’s happened on occasion in my career and has proved a validation, especially with one recalcitrant student who I met later — and that meant a lot to me, though subsequently I heard he’d died in an accident notong after. This is a long preamble but that leaving ceremony, whatever form it takes, I have always found moving. I hope it did, and still does, for you too, Stefy.

  2. I follow my old school on Facebook, just out of curiosity. They announced yesterday that one of my old teachers was retiring at the end of this school year, and there was a flood of comments, some of them from people who were there at the same time as me – and I left almost 30 years ago – wishing this lady well and saying what a positive effect she’d had on their lives. People never forget a good teacher.

  3. “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” Carl Sandburg.
    My dear Stefy, I know this “Esame di Maturità” with shedding tears by hearing to my wife. She tells me every year about this “Goodbye”.
    But you hit one of the most important issues in our lives. One must be able to read between the lines to understand it. I am so happy and honoured to have your friendship. 💖🙏💖

  4. Hi Stefy: This post is such a treasure: thoughtful, deeply felt, and inspiring. I am reminded of Henry Adams brilliant observation: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” A great teacher, like you, understands this and rises to the demands of this important task. And for many teachers, teaching rises beyond simply being a job, it is a calling. I hope your students keep in touch with you through your blog, so that they can continue learning through your insights and observations. Moreover, I hope they discover, as they set out for their Ithacas, that they have not done it along — through your lessons and encouragement, you have been traveling right there beside them. That recognition is one of the great lessons of life experience. And I hope they take a moment, to send you a note of thanks. Cheers. Alex

    • Oh, Alex, what a treasure your words are. Thank you.🤔I like the idea of affecting eternity😅. By the ways, it happens to receive thanks note after years, which surprises me, as when I was their age ,years after high school, the thought of my teachers never dented my mind.😀
      Once again, thanks. Your words are heartwarming.

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