How Do I Love Thee?

What are soul mates? In his Symposium Plato gave a very fascinating answer: a soul originally was a perfect sphere, which was cut in two halves. One half of the soul went to your body, while the other found abode in your soulmate’s body. Since then, we keep searching that missing part for our entire life and if we are lucky enough to find it: BANG! It is like two magnets ‘attraction: strong, irreversible.  For Plato any other relationship different from the bond which arouse from that natural attraction could not work, just because it was not meant to be. In fact, if you reverse the polarity of one magnet,  they repel. Despite your efforts there is no way to keep together those repelling  magnets for long : it is not in the laws of nature. At that point  you may choose whether to live hopefully  a satisfactory but empty life with the wrong partner or to keep searching for that special kind of connection, which you can experience only with your soul mate.

Of course the paths of love are the most unexpected.  Elizabeth Barret Browning’s path was poetry. Dominated by her possessive father, Elizabeth spent most of her time alone. She found consolation writing poems. This how her missing half, poet Robert Browning, found her. He had come across her writings and felt that power, that connection of the souls and wrote asking to meet her. They eventually fell in love and the intensity of their feelings can be felt in any line of the letters they exchanged before eloping to Italy, like in the following excerpt:

“For I have none in the world who will hold me to make me live in it, except only you – I have come back for you alone…at your voice…and because you have use for me! I have come back to live a little for you. I love you – I bless God for you – you are too good for me, always I knew.

In her famous sonnet “How do I love thee?” she means to define her intense feelings and the ways in which the love for her husband can be expressed. But how can love be explained when it stretches over the limits of reason?

“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.”

In fact, Elizabeth Browning  finds insufficient to measure it by means of a rational language – “depth”, “breadth”,” height”-  and chooses to express the immensity of their soul connection through words  such as  “soul”, “being” and “grace”. A spiritual, but passionate love at the same time which goes beyond the limits of death itself.

Also young Juliet knew well how the connection of two souls worked. Once she meets her  half in Romeo she finds herself in a whirl of emotions which transcends space and time:

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”

(Romeo and Juliet. Act II, Scene II)

The meeting of the two magnets lights up the sparkle of love , which darts Romeo and Juliet in a new overwhelming dimension , where they are no longer bodies , where time and the disputes of their families can’t affect them, where there is no fear; there they become infinite in Plato’s unique perfect wholeness again.

But, what happens  if  the two soul mates cannot enjoy their love despite the force of  their magnetic attraction, for any reason? In Wuthering Heights , Catherine finds her soul mate in Heathcliff. She is well aware of that, in fact, she refers to him saying :“I am Heathcliff” or even more: “He is more myself than I am”. Rules of society forbids a connection to somebody so below to her station, hence, she yields to those rules, marrying the best catch the marriage market offered, Edgar Linton, who is even a good sort of man, but he is not her half. The comparison between the two men is merciless: Catherine compares the intensity of  her feelings for Edgar to images like “moonbeam” and “frost” while her love for Heathcliff takes the form of “lightening” and “fire”. Marrying Edgar, the tension between the two halves Catherine and Heathcliff, who remain close but cannot complete each other, becomes toxic and will inevitably lead to a tragic outcome.

A soul marriage doesn’t provoke any such tragedies. It cannot fear anything according to Donne, even a long separation. It is steadfast love. In his poem “Valediction : Forbidding Mourning”, which was written for his wife Anne before he left on a trip to Europe, Donne tells his wife that theirs is not a real separation , because their love is spiritual and transcendent, they are soul mates, and soul mates are always connected: a connection of minds rather than bodies. So there is no need to cry. Those who believe that love corresponds to physical attraction, those “dull sublunary lovers” cannot admit absence, because they love the body. Hence, if the body has to leave they cannot any longer have love, so let them cry.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

But his leaving cannot alter their love, because as she loves his mind, his mind cannot go away. It is ever present. Then he introduces one of the most convincing metaphor to describe how beautifully connected they are:  a compass. One leg of the compass  must be grounded to allow the other one to spread and go out to make a circle. So, the poet  says to his wife that to make a perfect circle he has to leave  and that the only way he can make that trip and come back is that she stays where she is. Because she grounds him.

And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home
.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.

The Labyrinth of Knossos

Have you tried to talk to an operator these days? One thing is for sure, you need a lot of time and patience, the patience of Job at least. In fact, when the recorded voice starts to speak with that gentle, hypocrite tone of one who pretends to be of help, while, in truth, means only to confound and make you give up, you are well aware that a very long journey is about to begin.

Press 1, press 2, 3,4,5….9, the numerous options are only a way to distract from the only and real object of your search, which they know well to be: a flesh and blood operator. Instead, if you are lucky enough, you may end up attempting to make useless conversation with a virtual dog named Toby, which seems to have been created only with the purpose to make you feel dummy.  Yet, we know, we feel, that the flesh and blood operator of our dreams is somewhere there and we keep searching in that labyrinth of Knossos, made up by the alternatives that we are generously given, but no way. Heaven forbids, that you press the wrong number!  You’ll find yourself with only two options left: starting again from square 1 or giving up. I often give up, I have to confess.

It is the very same story whenever you need to talk with your bank, insurance, hospital, principal : you always find a wall in the form of a switchboard before you. No need to say, all categories but one: teachers.Teachers are required to be available 24 / 7. We must be ready to  inform, listen, reassure, pacify, advise ( even on fashion matters in my case) any time. This happens as  the norm that regulates our duties in this matter is ambiguous. It generically says that we must keep the lines of communication with parents open, but they end up to be so open that, eventually, we can be reached through meetings, mail, voice mail, WhatsApp,  phone calls, even stalking if necessary; festivity included, of course. If a parent believes to have an  urgent need to confer with a teacher, the latter is expected to be at the parent’s disposal.

The point is that since the advent of the electronic register the lines of communications should have been open enough to limit such pressing requests only to extraordinary events. Families would be constantly informed about grades, comments about grades, lesson topics, school attendance, homework, activities and more, if they read the electronic register. But they don’t. In fact, I always have an endless line of people who want to talk to me anyhow.

Hence, I believe there is only a way to put an end  to all this : a switchboard for us teachers too, after all, I don’t think we are less deserving than other categories. Once skimmed our agenda from the unnecessary meetings, we should be able to focus only on the situations that really require our attention and effort.  I figure it might work like this:

Voice mail: welcome to Mrs Tink’s parent-teacher communication area; if you want to be informed about your son’s grades, press 1.

Mrs Tink’s voice (after pressing 1): Dear parent, check the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you want to get information about your son’s school attendance, press 2.

Mrs Tink’s voice( after pressing2): Dear parent, check the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you want to get information about course books and syllabus, press 3.

Mrs Tink’s voice (after pressing 3): Dear parent, check the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you want to talk about teaching methods, personal experiences and suggestions, press 4.

Mrs Tink’s voice (after pressing 4): Dear parent, you can book an appointment through the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you want to book an appointment  with Mrs Tink, press 5.

Mrs Tink’s voice (after pressing 5): Dear parent, you can book an appointment with Mrs Tink through the electronic register.😑

Voice mail: if you do really want to talk to Mrs Tink, press 6.

The line goes dead.🤭

A Modest Proposal

There has always been  a lot of talking  about how to reform the school system  since……ever, and I understand  that this topic is a major issue worldwide. If there is a debate, it means that there is a problem. I am also sure that nobody has a clue of how to solve it – sometimes I suspect even the will -.  I have experienced  in years the most insane, pointless reforms –  usually at no cost – with the only result of systematically taking down the old educational system – which requires to be modernized, no need to say  – without adding anything worthwhile, sensible, effective. The consequence? At  first an imperceptible crack was heard (and ignored) , then  a tiny slit became visible (and ignored), till, in one fell swoop, an endless chasm opened before us, the chasm of ignorance.

I teach to students from 14 to 19 and whenever it is time to meet the new young classes , my  colleagues and I always end the first week in shock, as every year we believe to have seen the worst and every year we realize that the worst has yet to come.  It has now become customary to refer to students of 14 years of age, who have “ freely”  decided to join the family of the   “Liceo Scientifico” ( which is a high school whose main object should be to train for university) as “not schooled” yet. That is : a 14 year old scholar, after  8(!!!) years spent in the educational system circus, can barely know how to behave properly or develop any  learning method and, more recently, even produce an intelligible writing. You can imagine my amazement when few days ago I asked one boy  to write some words ordered in a column on the blackboard and to see that he was, actually, organizing them  in a sort of “cloud” rather than in a column. Words scattered here and there with no logic or any logic I could decipher, let alone his handwriting: cursive, capital and  small letters were all displayed before me in a hypnotic dance.😵

It seems, in fact,  that the latest generations are no longer used to holding a pen in their hands. They are so disoriented and naïve in a certain way, that dialogues as the one that will follow have  become routine:

Mario: but Teach… why did you mark this word?😕

Mrs Tink: because it is wrong. The correct word is “pet”.😏

Mario: This is what I have written.😇

Mrs Tink:  No Mario, you have written “cet”, the first  letter is something between a “c” or an “i”… but it is not a “p” for sure…🤔

Mario: but Teach, had it been an “i”,  I would have dotted the “i”!😐😇

Mrs Tink: Mario…..do you know what an alphabet is?🤨

Mario: Yes , of course,  a,b,c……….?😇

Mrs Tink:  Mario wait, I need to rephrase the question:   do you know what the function of an alphabet is?🤨

Mario: (no answer)…🙄

Mrs Tink: well, an alphabet is a sort of  convention, by which we agree that the sound at the beginning of these words, for example, like: “Pub, Police, Pop and Pet” , takes the form of this graphic sign: “P” in the written form. This sign cannot be changed at one’s pleasure or state of mind, otherwise,  we could not understand one another. In fact, if I rewrite those words with the sign you used, they might become : “Cub, Colice, Cop and Cet”, and this is what I assume. So, as long as I have to grade your tests, you’d better  make sure I understand what you  write……. because you want me to understand, don’t you?🤨

Mario: of course, I do!🥴🤕

Mrs Tink: good boy!😏

Assessment board (a child neuropsychiatrist , a psychologist  and a speech therapist in a reproaching tone) Mrs Tink ! Have you ever considered that Mario might be suffering from dyslexia or dysgraphia?🧐🧐🧐

Mrs Tink: (annoyed)😖😤 I have, and, if I may, it should be none of my concern at this stage, because,  as far as I know,  the assessment of graphic competence should be performed after the so called “ learning phase” which is usually at the end of the second grade and Mario attends the ninth grade. Hence, Mario could be either the victim of a system which has not been able to assess his learning needs or he is simply lazy, just like many of his peers, who are no longer used to seeing  neatness and correctness as a value, as it requires time and effort, effort they wish to direct somewhere else ( with the support of their families), of course.  When they get to the ninth grade in such conditions, it is almost a lost battle.😑

Assessment board: Mrs Tink, we believe it is urgent that you take a training course on learning disorders of 25 hours starting from tomorrow!😑😑😑

Mrs Tink:😭😭😭 if you think that yet another course will solve the question, all right, let’s take the course, but allow me to say a few words more. Don’t keep burying the school under loads of useless projects or “prodigious”” reforms,  if you cannot imagine beforehand  to what  those plans will take. As for now, their effect on teachers – on me – is only cultural frustration and paralysis of creativity. Before thinking of something grand, I would suggest you to start with something  apparently small, but more effective.  Any school reform should start from the beginning, that is, the “elementary “ school. It is in the first five years that you lay the foundations  of an effective  learning process even through the aforementioned diagnosis, which would have positive outcomes, as done in due time. Otherwise, if  we keep building on clay, we cannot but sink in that chasm and I am sure many – you?- would not be displeased about it.