It is a Truth Universally Acknowledged

Never leave the old road for a new one, if you don’t want to take the risk of dealing with unexpected situations and this is a truth universally acknowledged for me. I’m writing this, as, few days ago I was about to introduce Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in one of my (many) classes, but I felt like doing it in a different way this time. I wanted them to focus on the opening lines of the book, so I assigned the homework to tell me which was a truth universally acknowledged for them in 200 words. Of course they didn’t know to whom this line belonged and I never mentioned the name Jane Austen. Just asking. The name would have been revealed only afterwards.

Of course, they were puzzled and attempted to understand what I was expecting. None of them was crossed by the thought that those words might belong to somebody and “google” them. I thought them smarter or maybe I was too good at hiding my purposes. By the way, after a little hesitation I started to receive answers. Some of them considered safe to produce the truths universally acknowledged of the world and the universe like:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the speed and position of a subatomic particle cannot be known.
This concept can be found in the “Uncertainty Principle” of Heisenberg……”(Umberto P.)

Is it really so? I don’t know and I didn’t mean to check it. Another one attempted to give a scientific demonstration in his way:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a  50 cc scooter  is slower than 125 cc  scooter…” (Vittorio F.)

Then all a sudden the answers took the form of universally acknowledged Italian truths, which mostly regarded pizza, pasta and family:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged  that when you cook carbonara pasta, a poor dish of the Roman tradition made with eggs, bacon, pecorino and pepper, you  ABSOLUTELY don’t need to add onions.” (Andrea R.)
Actually there has always been a dispute on this point and I agreed with him.
Even with the following truth I agreed:
” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that pizza and pineapple cannot be a good match … Pineapple is a fruit and YOU CAN’T PUT A FRUIT ON PIZZA!!!! . A good pineapple is sweet and juicy and I think that Italian people will never appreciate a taste like this.” (Flavio F.)
Fruit on a pizza is absolutely blasphemous, we do prefer mozzarella as topping. Ah, I’ve got one about it:
 
” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that mozzarella cheese, should never be kept in a fridge….as the low temperature alters its flavor”. (Fabio D.B.)
Words of wisdom indeed. And what could be said about the following one?
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you go to visit an Italian grandmother, you have to eat a lot. Even if you’re on a diet, you can’t leave that home without having swallowed whatever she has prepared for you. It has always been so and I think we all love it. When you arrive, your grandmother opens the door and you can smell all the food she has prepared for you. It seems impossible but even if you tell her that you’ll go to visit her only two hours before, she’s able to cook for an army. It is a grandmother’s power. Many of us go to have lunch at her home on Sundays, others go to visit her rarely, but it doesn’t matter. What really counts is her happiness when she sees you and her special attention that only a grandmother is able to give. Moments like this are the ones that describe better the word “family”. Moments like this make our adolescence amazing. Family is the most important thing in our lives.” (Eleonora R.)
This was more or less the tenor of their answers, do you think dear Jane would be annoyed by them?

 

 

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Few Tips that Will Make any Teacher Happier and More Relaxed

The web is flooded with pages of teachers who keep on complaining about how badly our category of workers is considered. We have lost our prestige, wages are low, we have become the favourite targets of scorn of both parents and their children, in a word: losers – with a university degree – . Let me tell you my dear friends and colleagues, that this is what we are, because this is the way we behave. In the desperate effort of gaining back the consideration we imagine to deserve, we have accepted to condescend to any form of compromise and customization of our profession. We try to be what they want us to be, with the only result of becoming all a sort of Monsieur Malaussène, that is, the scapegoat of any situation. Look at the above picture well; we don’t have to please them and beg for their approbation, we don’t need their compliments and gratitude, it’s our job, and once you have no expectations of this kind, you will be free to do as you please, according to the plans and targets the school and yourselves have decided at the beginning of the school year, of course. So, first of all, let’s close all those pages where we picture ourselves (we do it, pure masochism), as a bunch of beggars always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We are teachers. We are Gods.

Hence, as I promised, I am going to give you, some tips which have made my life as a teacher happy and relaxed so far. First of all, knock on the door of your principal’s door as little as possible. Whatever your reasons might be for asking personal admittance, unless it is strictly necessary, refrain from doing so. Very likely you would like to make the principal acquainted with your problems and this is exactly what school managers don’t want to hear about: problems and in particular your problems. Theirs are enough. They want solutions. It would be a very good thing, for example, if your principal forgot about you existence. Think how many things you could do, if you were an unseen presence in the school.

Excuse me, you are?”
“Mrs Tink!”
“Oh, yes! Of course.”

Another moment of great frustration in a teacher’s life is the P/T conference. We expect this day to inform in particular those parents whose children have manifested some difficulties and find solutions together. It seems all for the good, but it is not. The point is that,once again, we come with a load of problems they, actually, don’t want to hear about. First of all, because they already know them, even if they pretend not to and also because, in way, we judge them through their children’s effort and behaviour. They feel uneasy about it and I can understand it. So, every time a parent like Mrs Mother of Riccardo comes to talk to me, her attitude will be like the one who is just preparing herself for an ultimate duel. The air of someone who has just a little time to dedicate me and that inevitable scowl on her face. Now, if I attack her, making the list of my complains, she will defend herself and her son, thus the meeting will turn into something useless and disappointing for both. But if I start with some positive remarks, and if there aren’t any, conceive one, trust me, a harmless, sweet lie, just like this one:

“Well, you know, Mrs Mother of Riccardo, your son is……..very nice and…….I like him very much”.

You’ll see soon her face brightening and that scowl disappear in a second. In the following minutes you’ll be able to tell her whatever you like about her son. She will accept it with a smile.

One paragraph cannot but be dedicated to our relationship with students. Please stop to befriend them on Facebook, Instagram or text them on Whatsapp. They are not  your friends, you may have a friendly attitude with them, of course, but they can’t be your friends and you know why? You grade them. They see that invisible line between you and them and whenever you feel like ignoring it, encouraged by their seeming cordial attitude, and decide to cross that line, you will become their object of scorn in their secret pages, where the access is denied to you. You may befriend them one day, if you do wish it, when they leave school.

As philosopher Umberto Galimberti says:

“If a student  becomes are a friend of yours, you no longer have any authority on him. And what about the teachers who go to have a pizza with their students: are you kidding? I have taught for 51 years, I have never gone out for a pizza with students. Because if you are God and eat pizza, you are no longer God! God is famous because no one has ever seen him!If you are there at the table with them you are one of them! That’s enough! It’s over, your authority is dead! How can you go the following day to your class, after having spent the night talking nonsense at a table with a piece of pizza in your mouth. You cannot anymore!”

I want to be God, what about you?

 

 

 

 

 

Peering into Young Minds

I’ve recently come up with the idea of  having my students write some stories. I’ve always enjoyed to stimulate their creative side and I have never been disappointed, whatever the request has been, with the products of their inventiveness. I thought about organizing it in a the form of contest, according to the spirit of the previous post, so I decided that each student of one of my classes (average age 15) had to write the beginning of a story of about 100 word length. After having chosen three (or more) among them, the students would have written their sequels adding a minimum of 100 words. No student was allowed to write the continuation of the part he had written, he had to skip a turn, but he was allowed to add new material to the other stories.
In the end, groups of students would have worked on the stories for the editing and to provide them with the necessary structural cohesion.

After I read all the students’ pieces I found myself in trouble with the selection of the three best, as they were somehow very alike. As I was looking for three different topics I chose for the following beginnings:

“On a cold and windy December day. Nothing was going as it was supposed to be. Jacob was tired of his work and he just wanted nobody to bother him, therefore; he quickly changed himself, put on his running shoes and went for a run in the park. He was running thoughtlessly when suddenly…”

I thought there were many hints: Why was nothing going as it was supposed to be? Why didn’t he want to be bothered? Was he a runner too? Here comes the second one:

“The girl ran. She ran blindly through the forest, with only the light of the moon to guide her, alone and afraid, cold and hungry. She ran fast, as fast as she could, even though she had nowhere to go. She ran, her bare feet cut and bleeding, her hair streaming behind her, a flash of bronze and reddish tangling in the bare branches overhead. She ran without stopping, and each time she fell she got back up, once, twice, three times, again and again and again, more bruised and battered than before but still alive, still breathing. Still running.”

Once again somebody was running. The wood had become a forest here, but this time she was escaping: from where? Why? I thought it interesting as it could have turned into a sort of fantasy story. The last one was a little different:

“Gary, a police inspector, arrived at home after an endless day of hard work. As soon as he opened the door, he noticed something weird. He saw two notes on a table. On the first piece of paper there was written the name of his wife and a strange picture of a padlock. On the second one there was a telephone number. He was shocked. After a few seconds the phone started to ring.”

That could have become a sort of thriller, I guessed, but I was wrong. Whatever the start was, mysterious creatures, dark presences, strange women filled the following episodes becoming thus all a sort of fantasy stories. I even wrote an episode myself in order to make it all more realistic, but no way.

So I decided to publish a fourth story. I had discarded it at first, as I thought it too complicated to continue it. Here it is:

“I didn’t exist. A moment later I was there. I couldn’t know how it was possible, but I was alive. The first thing I saw was a white marble table in front on me.
I tried to move myself, but I couldn’t. I tried to shout, but nothing came out. I was full of fear, but I couldn’t tremble. A couple of minutes later, a human being came toward me. He touched me. Suddenly in my mind there were billions of
numbers. In that moment I understood : I was a
computer.”

It was Kafkaesque in a modern way, maybe that’s why I liked it. By the way, I was right, only one episode more has been added and nothing more (Do you have any ideas?).

I decided to make this project in another class too, but even if they were a little older the setting and characters were the same: woods, forests, islands, deserts and to the list of the characters above mentioned, I could add even a torturer.The world they pictured in those few sentences was gloomy, peopled by strange creatures and dangers everywhere. Nobody thought about subjcts like family matters, friends, school or even love. Not a word. But why?

On one side I may guess that at their age they are rightly ashamed to speak openly about feelings like love, for example, but on the other that depends on what they watch and the series they are fed with. They mostly enjoy fantasy stories and their scary, threatening atmosphere which is full of anxiety and distress. The gloominess of that world seems to have affected them in some way, so that they apparently are no longer able to imagine positive emotions, the beauty of nature, the light.

I’m resolved about writing myself a beginning of a short story and it will be about love. Let’s see what happens.

The Patience of a Fisherman

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.

On the Importance of Storytelling

Alexander III of Macedonia, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was 22, when he landed in Asia Minor with an army of 50.000 soldiers. Once he put his foot on shore, he symbolically stuck his spear on what for him was Asian ground and said: this land is mine”. This is the incipit of one Alessandro Baricco’s memorable lectures on the vital importance of storytelling and, of course, he chose a great story to tell in order to get his point, so let’s keep on with the narration.

First of all: why did a Macedonian king claim those vast Asian territories named Persia, the greatest empire of the time? It could seem like madness at first glance, but he had a powerful reason: to save the honour of the Greeks. Long time before, the Persians had invaded Macedonia and Greece, a war which was won eventually by the Greeks, but at great expense for the people. Everything had been destroyed: villages, houses, temples. As the Persians had come there and burnt their temples, hence it was his right to conquer their land and burn theirs. Alexander had inherited this pan-Hellenic project from his father, who had hired Aristotle himself for his education. When his father died and he was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch the campaign for the conquest of Persia.

By the way, it was a crazy enterprise. He arrived with “only” 50.000 soldiers, a small bunch of men if we consider that the Persian empire was inhabited by millions of people who could be recruited any time by Darius, the King of Kings. Wherever he went, the Persians could have put together an army three times his. Something more had to be done, that’s why Alexander’s story of conquest and revenge took necessarily the form of legend. He wanted his people to see him more like a God than a king. That is why he started his conquest of Persia with three symbolical actions. First of all, he went to pay homage to the tomb of Protesilaus, who was the first  to leap ashore at Troy, and thus the first to die in the war. That was the destiny of any “first” man who put his foot on Persian land according to a prophecy. Alexander, wanted to be the first to touch the ground, but he didn’t die, thus proving that predictions didn’t work on him as he was a God.

Then he went to visit the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus along with Hephaestion, his life mate. Achilles was among those legendary figures of the war of Troy, the one and whose values he identified himself the most and he was a demigod, after all. Finally, he felt the urge to do something apparently nonsensical. He risked his life and that of the comrades who followed him to reach the Libyan desert to ask the oracle of God Amon  the following question: ” Am I Amon’s son”? Alexander must have had a monumental ego, this is a matter of fact, but all this was to make his story more appealing. They were about to fight a war, which would subdue Persia under the Greek dominion and the only one who could lead them to victory couldn’t but be a God. Gods are no losers.

Well, they won. Alexander won because he had an appealing story to tell, made of dreams, legend, conquest and his people followed him to victory. He had understood the immense power of storytelling. Can we give a definition of storytelling to make all this clear? Of course. Reality = facts + storytelling, namely, it is the reality devoid of facts and a fact without a storytelling does not exist, it is not real. Only those facts which are part of a narration are true.

At this point of Baricco’s lecture, I understood. Those large movements, which are growing worldwide, are fed with storytelling and they will never be stopped by facts. The facts of the unattainability of electoral promises or the evident incapability of this or that politician, these are facts, but they can’t be a barrier to what is mostly irrational and emotional. It is a sort of collective automatic response, an indomitable stream. It follows man’s animal instinct, the one which makes you believe to absurd things. Alexander wanted to conquer Persia, as they had destroyed the Greek temples 150 years before. Never mind if they were not exactly your temples, as Alexander was Macedonian, it is a meaningless detail compared to the power of the storytelling.

That is why, as long as we want to oppose those movements taking the evidence of the ineptitude of leaders or the folly of some election programmes, with facts, we are in the wrong. Facts do not appeal masses. We need to find a new storytelling; and soon.

Leviathan

 

“What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals..” (Hamlet Act. II Scene 2)

Angels“, “Gods“, “the beauty of the world“: is this what men actually are? If it were so, the societies we have built in time should have been able to express such perfection or at least some of them and we know it has not been so. If we were thus “noble in reason“, “infinite in faculty” the “piece of work” of creation, for what reason would we lock our doors at night? Thomas Hobbes believed that any idea of modern society should start from a realistic, rather than idealistic, analysis of the nature of man.

His vision of mankind, in fact, takes the form of a sort of anthropological pessimism where human beings are all dominated by passions, greed, vainglory and distrust. These are the conditions that throw humankind into a permanent state of war, which is for Hobbes the natural state of human life, the situation that exists whenever those natural passions are unrestrained. A war where every individual faces every other individual as an enemy; the “war of every man against every man.” The consequent total absence of collaboration cannot but make us miserable and renders life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hence, rather than angels, it seems we act more like wolves: aggressive, violent, mean, selfish.

In such a world where everybody struggles to preserve his life and goods and where violence at the hands of others is the greatest fear, the only possibility to live in peace together for each individual is to give up his natural right to acquire and preserve everything in whatever manner he chooses. It must a collective endeavor, of course, since it only makes sense for an individual to give up his right to attack others if everyone else agrees to do the same and he calls this collective renunciation: the “social contract.”Of course, how can it be trusted that everybody keeps his words? Hence; a system needs to be instituted, a “visible power to keep them in awe,” to remind them of the purpose of the social contract and to force them, for fear of punishment, to keep their promises. The power necessary to transform the desire for a social contract into a commonwealth is the sovereign, the Leviathan, or the “king of the proud.”

“For by Art is created that great Leviathan called a Common-wealth, or State, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended” (Leviathan. Introduction)

Therefore; the Leviathan is but an artificial man, made in the image of its imperfect creator. The Sovereignty is its artificial Soul and gives life and motion to the whole body. The Joints are  the Magistrates and other Officers of Judicature and Execution ; Reward and Punishment which are fastened to the seat of the sovereignty are the Nerves, The Wealth and Riches are the Strength of all the particular members ; the Counsellors are the Memory; Equity and Lawes are an artificial Reason and Will; Concord, Health. By the way, as any other man, the Leviathan is vulnerable and it experiences Sickness if there is a Sedition and a Civil War brings it to Death. We can feel Hobbes fears in these last words, in fact, the Leviathan was published in 1651, few years after the Civil War which had ended with the trial and execution of Charles I.

By the way, the Leviathan must not necessarily be a king. Hobbes makes clear that the sovereign power can be composed of one person, several, or many—in other words, the Leviathan can equally well describe a monarchy, an aristocracy, a democracy or even that republic made by Cromwell which rose from the ashes of the Civil War. The only requirement that Hobbes sets for sovereignty is that the entity has absolute power to defend the social contract and decide what is necessary for its defense.

Just few questions: is Hobbes only a pessimist or did he get it right? Does only a Leviathan, whatever political form it takes, make us safely stay together and restrain our animal, aggressive nature? What would happen without such control? Well, just check  any social network and as its presence has not been clearly outlined yet, you will see millions of hungry wolves running wildly, free and happy to have found a place to unleash  their repressed nature at last.

Another Brick in the Wall?

Since the dawn of humanity, when the first men started to colonize this planet , there is one thing that we have never ceased to do: move. Peoples have always moved from one place to another, driven by the need to find better areas where to find or grow food or even by that innate curiosity to explore and break any limit reason places, whatever its nature might be. Peoples have always moved; and whether you like it or not, they’ll keep on doing so, despite the walls short-sighted government mean to erect. These walls will be destroyed, this is what any history book has taught us.

Even the strongest wall cannot resist the blows of the most powerful, dangerous drive: survival instinct. If we, western cultures, accustomed to live such a pampered life where it has become hard for most of us to distinguish our needs from our wants, weakened by the certainty of our welfare, dazzled by the superiority of our technology, believe to keep our status erecting walls, I’m afraid we are just deluding ourselves.Think about the Romans, for example, they had power, armies, technology, a very refined culture, but their rich, sophisticated world fell under the blows of the rude, illiterate tribes of the barbarians, who were driven by stronger needs.

It cannot be denied that immigration is a great issue of our times and for this reason governments had better avoid selfish policies and work hard on shared solutions.The majority of those who eventually manage to land on our coasts are driven by that kind desperation that makes them stronger despite their physical weakness and slight statures, as they are ready to defy any danger even death to change their lives. We, fortunately, have lost memory of what that means, but this makes us vulnerable. Furthemore, they are many and they will be more as they make children, so in a possible conflict among races even mathematics is on their side.

Hence, what can be done if we don’t want to end up just like the Romans? Since walls are no effective solution, I can only see two possible reasonable ways:

1. developing genuine integration policies thus making of immigration a resource;

2. helping them make a productive system in their own countries. Very difficult to be achieved in the short-term, by the way, as it should be planned with the local powers.

However, now that I think of it, there would be another way to go in the case the two solutions I mentioned above could not be effectively pursued, only, that would not be a choice, but a consequence of myopic policies. As immigration cannot and will not ever be stopped, the only thing left to do it to “exterminate the brutes“. (Conrad, Heart of Darkness)