“The Best of Our Breed”

This year I have a brand  new class, let’s call it….5(I)D. It is the conclusive year, so when you take a class at this stage, it is like adopting a full grown up child: the room for action is quite thin. Nonetheless, I could not resist the allure of 5(I)D as soon as I learnt about its existence. Why? Well, because it is a small group, very small, a selected one, apparently. Hence, I did whatever it was in my power to come into possession of this rare gem. The reviews about the 5(I)D were not that inviting, actually, but rather ” bizarre” I would say, and, strange indeed, there was not a single voice to controvert them. Yet, I was not in the least intimidated, after all, for someone like myself who has had the fortune of working in both the best and the worst school in Rome and nearby, how could these young scoundrels be of any problem? So, even when fate seemed to have taken a different turn, as I was informed that the principal had planned to direct me to another class, I headed straight to her office and said decidedly : I WANT THE 5(I)D. And so, I had it. 

Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes, when I first saw them – we are talking about adolescents of 18/19 years old – as before me there was displayed the most incredible bunch of weirdos grouped all together as I had never seen before. Apparently,  they didn’t – and don’t – seem to respond to the norms of proper behaviour to be followed in class, or better, they do respond, till their basic needs come pressing such as: watching or even answering the cell phone ( “May I? You know, it’s really important”), eating ( “God, I was starving”), talking  loud ( “But , we were just discussing about what you’ve just said) , sleeping ( at least they are silent) , fixing makeup and…. having breakfast .

This is a typical scene at around 8:20 a.m.:

Curly boy : “Excuse me, Mrs Tink!”

Mrs Tink : ( while explaining and deluding herself into having caught his attention), “Do you have a question?”

Curly boy: “Yes, may I go to the bar? I haven’t had my breakfast yet and I’ m not feeling that well”.

Mrs Tink : “Of course”.

Yes, I say ” of course ” , which is of a caustic, sarcastic sort ( in the hope they will understand one day), of course you can go and have breakfast, of course you can a bite to your sandwich or fix your makeup along many other things while I am teaching a class. Of course. After all, do you think I should still explain what is right and what is wrong at their age, or sanction them? No way. All things considered, I never sense their way of behaving as a form of opposition, this is just what they are. If I may say so, this is a class where the “EGO” fails in balancing the urges of the “ID ”  and  the impositions of the ” SUPEREGO”.

So, when it was time to introduce  them to Freud’s tripartite theory of mind and apply it to the characters of Wuthering Heights, I decided to go just a little out of the box to catch their attention, thus using one of my tricks. 

On that occasion , I theatrically took my wallet out my bag and picked  a 50 euro note. I placed the note on the desk and I addressed them with the following words:

Mrs Tink:”Let’s figure that this note has slipped out of my bag. You know it is mine. You are alone; nobody can see you; I could never spot  you.  No cameras, no witnesses. Well, would you keep that note or would you return it to me?”

Curly boy : ( with no hesitation) “I would keep it! No doubt.

Ginger girl: “Well, it depends!”

Mrs Tink: “On what?”

Ginger girl:  “Well, it depends on whether I like you or not!”

Mrs Tink: “And…. do I meet you approval? “

Ginger girl (blushes, mutters something indistinguishable I can’t understand, but I feel I’d better not investigate further).

Curly boy: (while trying to convince the others) “I would keep it, if she can’t spot me, I would keep it.”

Mrs Tink: “All right, let’s say, and I want to include myself in this, that we all would share the instinct of keeping that note for ourselves, so, what would prevent us from doing it? As I am truly confident that eventually you would hand it back to me.”

Curly boy: ” I would not!”

Hooded boy: ( reawakening from his torpor) “C’mon! If you knew to whom it belongs, you’d hand it back!

Mrs Tink: “So let’s say that either a moral imperative, Kant’ s moral law, might press you to give me back my note, or simply fear, the fear of being caught, as somebody might have seen you and report it to me. This would not be a crime, to be sure, but if I knew it, I would eventually  see the “culprit” with different eyes, wouldn’t I? So, this is how the superego works.”

Curly boy ( decidedly): “I would keep it, no way!”

Well, at least I had gained their attention. Eventually the bell rang, I put my 50 euros note back in my wallet and while I was heading to another class, I realized that I had left on the desk something more precious than money, that is, my packet of paprika flavoured crisps. I turned back, but I saw one guy running towards me holding my packet. He handed it to me smiling: ” You see? The superego is at work!!!” 

P.S. When I said I would have produced an article about them, they seemed to be very pleased about it and one went: ” I am surprised, it took you so long to write something about us” . I guess I’ll have material enough this year to develop a series.

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The Ministry of Merit

It’s been quite a while since I published my last post and it seems that a lot has changed. Most important of all, Mr Run is back to competition and to victory too; another school year has started and we may say that on-line learning is definitely dead; it has been a never ending summer here, no sign of Autumn yet, and  let me think, what else, oh yes, Giorgia Meloni is the new Italian Prime Minister, a woman, would you believe it?  This predictable outcome has been a terrible blow, a shock, for both Italian and foreign press. Since election day, the ghost of fascism has been evoked on papers constantly and the constitution of a new authoritarian regime with it. Well, I would like to tranquilize my readers that there is no such thing, or at least, nothing I am aware of at the moment. You should remember that this is the country of “The Leopard”, hence, everything seems change so that nothing actually changes, and, mark my words, this is one of those cases.

The fact that the press keep reminding us, with ominous tones, that Giorgia Meloni’s election happened  exactly 100 years  after Mussolini’s “ March on Rome”  has had only one consequence so far, that is, making everybody remember an event  nobody cares about at all or it was almost forgotten.  Now, thanks to this continuous bombing, we are able to promptly answer that the above mentioned event happened on October 28th, 1922, displaying the same degree of certainty and precision we may have when we are asked about our birthday.

I have to say that in these first days the new government seems to have been very much more occupied on rephrasing the name of Ministries, rather than organizing black shirt troops waving truncheons or exhuming the old racial laws, if these are the fears. Words are important to define politics, hence, the Ministry of Agriculture has become Ministry of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty, the Ministry of Economic Development is the Ministry of  “Made in Italy ” too and last but not least the Ministry of Education has become the Ministry of Education and Merit. ” Yes, Merit, here is the rub.

This latter has become the object of a harsh debate as you have to understand that “merit” has been for long, a word just whispered along school alleys and with trusted colleagues only, as “inclusion” has been the only religion to be practiced these years. In this inclusive school, teachers, endowed with super powers, employ any possible strategy so that learning goals can be achieved by EVERYBODY and  NOBODY is left behind. NO ONE is supposed to leave the school system without the necessary skills, thus  making sure that  the  school does not contribute to increase the differences in the perspective of success among individuals.  Of course, all this should be done demanding students the minimum effort at home and in class, without forgetting to be entertaining. Well, all this educational conduct has had a cost, as, to include EVERYBODY, there is only one recipe : lowering learning standards and objectives. There is no other way. There is no magic; and in so doing, we will deliberately exclude those who can aspire to a more solid education and in particular those who belong to the lower classes. 

It is hard to believe that in our competitive society, the importance of promoting merit is denied right in the place deputed to prepare the new generation to the upcoming challenges. Merit has become synonym of unfairness. Hence, the school is just a huge pool where everybody is expected to jump in, but there are no lanes, no rules, no training or coaches only some lifeguards. Just stay in, then, when it’s time to jump out, we will see.

I chose the metaphor of a swimming-pool on purpose, as I used to be a swimmer, and a good one too; but I was not that good at all styles. It was the task of my coach, through the right amount of work, to understand where I was more competitive, where I could have my chances of success and, eventually, after years of hard training it was clear that backstroke would be the answer, actually, I was better at swimming 200 mt  backstroke than 100 mt . That was my natural talent and there I could have found my reward, hence, I had to accept that in all the other styles I was just ok and nothing more. In that pool the lanes were divided according to merit and everybody worked hard in the hope to succeed in being  included in that one with the best swimmers one day. Nobody ever thought that the best ones should have swum a little slower so that anybody could join in, thus avoiding the risk of undermining their self-esteem.

That is why I applaud the choice of word, but this was the easy part. To give consequence to what promised, thus succeeding in reforming an obsolete and gangrenous system would be such an incredible achievement that could make me even vote Giorgia Meloni one day. After all, if she deverves it, why shouldn’t I do it?

Perturbation

Love stories with a happy end follow more or less four/five main patterns. There are the fireworks of first sight love but also its reverse,  that is,  first sight hate,  in other words,  that kind of dislike that  grows into you and makes you forge a series of unmotivated prejudices on the object of your aversion only to discover  that aversion was actually love and you end up with the ring on your finger( Mr Run and I have been masters of this scheme). Then there are those who after  having been friend for long realize that that innocent feeling has actually turned into something more involving and completely new, or those who have lost, for some reasons, what they believed to be the love of their life and  fate gives them a second chance with the same person or another one. Think about it, these are the main patterns of the love stories  we enjoy reading, but what makes us prefer a novel to another with a similar storyline? What makes the difference? My answer is: nuances.  The ability of an author to understand and depict the nuances of characters thus showing with craft  their contradictions, weaknesses, depths, hopes and, of course, the accuracy of the context they are made interact in makes a huge difference. The multiple colours of those nuances are so marvellous that hook the readers’ minds forever. This is what  has made me, like many others, become  a “vestal “of Jane Austen and this is why I cannot stand  the way screen adaptations keep making havoc of those fine colours only to  produce dull grey  versions unworthy of such writer.

The peak in matter of screen adaptation quality for what concerns Jane Austen’s works was reached in 1995 with the release of iconic BBC Pride and Prejudice with the unforgettable couple Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle  and the movie Persuasion with a super manly Ciarán Hind and a convincing Amanda Root. After that I have observed a slow and inexorable decline,  which has coincided with the first attempts to give a modern take to old Jane. I have nothing against modern interpretations of old classics, but  there should be a reason,  a message to convey, something that should  justify the necessity  of overturning what to my eyes represents perfection. Tell me, what is the point of transforming Mr Darcy into a sort of Heathcliff in 2005 successful version of Pride and Prejudice with Matthew Mc Fadyen  and Keira Knightley?  What does that walk on the moors at daybreak add to the story and why is Elizabeth awake at six o’clock in the morning? This choice has a great impact, I admit it, but it is so pointless and in a way overlooks Darcy’s  true self-controlled nature who would have never showed up in such a state , no matter how overwhelming his passion for his Lizzie might be.  And  talking about workout, why did Sally Hawking,  who acted as Anne Elliot in 2007 version of  Persuasion, have to run up and down Bath in search  of her Captain Wentworth? I guess they must have taken into consideration the ratio: 10 minutes run and 1 minute kiss. The director, in fact, thought it was a fabulous idea  to make the camera dwell on the two reunited lovers’ lips, when they were on the point of touching, for an endless embarrassing minute. Well, an entire minute is not romantic, it is just unbearably long!  Yet, these versions were, as Mr Darcy would say ,“tolerable”.

Nothing remarkable will I remember about 2020 Emma but the unnecessary scene when Anya-Taylor pulls up  her gown to warm up her butt by a fireplace. The cast was  wrong and  Mr Knightley too young. While watching the movie I couldn’t help but wonder: “have they read the book”? But in the case of the recent release of Persuasion on Netflix of one thing I am sure, if they have read the book – which I doubt, unless they got the abridged version – they have not understood it.

Anne Elliot is the most reserved  amongst Jane Austen’s heroines. Intelligent and endowed with  common sense,  a unique case in her family. At the age of 27 she is a spinster who  lives confined to the edge of society.  8 years before, Anne was persuaded  to refuse Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage as he was not her station or rich enough and she regrets it.  After all this time Captain Wentworth returns a wealthy man and has in mind a mild revenge,  but he can’t perform it as he is still in love with her. Persuasion is, actually, a delicate story of second chances rich in tension as the two step by step discover they still have feelings for each other. It is built up in a sort of crescendo, whose climax is the Captain’s famous passionate letter: “I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever………”Can you hear the sighs at this point?

Dakota Johnson’s Anne Elliot is nothing of the kind. She is playful, outspoken and speaks wryly to the camera. She is used to drinking straight from the bottle, speaks loudly  and her behaviour is often inappropriate, in short, this Anne Elliot is somebody I don’t know. This “Fleabag” style of narration has nothing to do not only with the character itself but also with the conventions typical of Regency time. Deprived of all her nuances I found myself unable to find this modern Anne interesting and be involved in the story. Much of the fault lies on this new Captain Wentworth too. The chemistry between Cosmo Jarvis and Dakota Johnson, in fact,  is of that degree possible between a fennel and a potato – I can’t say who was the potato and who the fennel, but I hope I gave you an idea – . The acting was so poor that it was possible to detect a  certain inconsistency sometimes between words and body language,  that lack of empathy I normally see in my students when I give them lines they don’t fully understand. 

None of the side characters has been fully developed. They have been reduced to the role of puppets who seem to have lost their function in Austen’s original framework , that is,  revealing Anne’s character and growth when they interact with her. Anne’s friend in Bath has been cut off from the movie, for example. Very likely they have not understood that the very moment Anne rebels her father refusing to visit their aristocrat relations to visit her poor and sick friend is the sign of her change, an important development in her character. She won’t be any longer persuaded by anybody and that episode marks this growth in self-awareness. Lady Russel, who should be like a mother to Anne and is responsible for having persuaded her to break up with Captain Wentworth , never shows a sign of  real empathy. As I said, a puppet.

Adding confusion to confusion, it has become now customary to see white characters played by black actors on movies, and this Persuasion winks at Bridgerton on this matter. I really can’t understand what is the point of depicting the society of the past  as perfectly integrated, it is not only a historical distortion but  it does not help raise the issue of ethnicity at all.  Do we really think we can make amend for racial  discrimination of the past (and present) giving white roles to black actors. Is it so easy, Shonda?

If this the best it can be done in adapting Jane Austen’s masterpieces, I would suggest to give a break and turn all the efforts to future seasons of Bridgerton and similes. There is no need of further profanations.

The Dark Side of Talent

There is one infallible and quick way to determine the language level of  non-native speakers, that is, detecting the way they more or less nonchalantly use bad words, but also their reaction when they become the object of that language too. Hence, when the most common Italian  swearword, for example, the one which begins with a “V…”  , to be clear, is translated into the equivalent in English which  begins with an “F…”,  well,“ its native hue of resolution is sickled o’er the pale cast of translation and loses the name of swearword” for an Italian. Of course, one understands the meaning, but somehow it is as if it were blunted in its effect.

So, when I accidentally came across an Instagram page with the name of my school preceded by that word which begins with the “F”, the options were just two: either the owner of the page wanted to soften the effect of the word, fearing the impact of the one with the “V” – and that would make this person an excellent English speaker – or simply, and more likely, only the poor knowledge of the language was the reason of  that choice, thus underestimating the inevitable consequences.

On that page there was also a sort of manifesto where the owner blabbed about the absolute necessity of changing the school system introducing new subjects  – those you don’t have to study, of course –  to replace the old ones, pleading also that this revolution should have been made with the teachers. One thing in particular really struck me: the core of those words was the necessity to speak and to be heard by adults, which could be a good thing but for the fact that the name of the page began with the word which begins with the “F” and the few pictures that had been posted represented all threatening people holding a gun.

Something had to be done. It was decided to give CSI Casalpalocco/Roma the charge of the investigation in order to quickly spot the rebel out of 1.300 students. Despite all the efforts, after weeks of inquests the crime division came up with nothing – actually, I have to say I was quite disappointed, as this Italian unit seemed to be much below the standards of the American ones. However, there is one thing I have learnt watching series, namely,  these kind of minds enjoy being tracked down just to demonstrate how smart they are in eluding any attempt to spot them , but in so doing they often make a mistake and this is what happened. Our rebel, in fact, yielded the temptation of sharing the shot of a note from the electronic register. Even if names were deleted, it was easy to identify the class, so, after some cross interrogations and a few threats we found our culprit.

Yet, I am sure that had the name of the page started with the “V” rather than with the “F” the fate of our “hero” would have been a tad more trying, as, after all, everything ended with no much fuss: the page was deleted, one day suspension and not much more than that, as far as I can remember. This was four months ago.

After a few  weeks, while I was examining some videos, 253 actually, of the students who were taking part in a challenge I had organized ( https://makeiteasychallenge.it/) which aimed at selecting the best candidates for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, my attention was particularly drawn by one of them. The subject was not that challenging but that guy definitely knew how to nail the attention: he looked straight into the camera, relaxed, with a confident smirk, he definitely enjoyed what he was doing.

The video was extremely accurate, he had even subtitled it and that meant he had clearly in mind the effect images and words had to have on the viewers. He wanted to be heard and understood.  I had never seen him before, so I checked his name as it sounded, somehow, strangely familiar. I am sure you have clearly understood that it was our guy we are talking about. It could not be otherwise, in fact , I had not  noticed before, but even in that video there was the stamp of his rebellious nature, that sordid pleasure one must feel in daring break the rules, even for one second.

The second I am talking about is the one I resolved about censoring, as while talking about Dopamine effects, he had  thought necessary to mention and show  the name of a porn site. I  had not said anything to him, after all, it was just a second. “He’ll never notice it”, I was sure. Well, he did notice it. One day, in fact, he came to visit me, claiming his second back.  He did his best to explain his reasons. Apparently, without that precious second the balance of his work so meticulously achieved was lost forever. He was absolutely determined, and as he didn’t mean to listen to my reasons, so, I had to tell him that the price for having that second back was being out of the competition.

It was an effective argument, and you know why? Because he cared about it and a lot. He cared, and when he learned he was among the 25 finalists in the school, he soon shot the most amazing video demanding the vote of his mates, friends and relatives for the following step of the competition, showing a great deal of pride for his achievement. He cared, as when we eventually were in more friendly terms he helped me promote the final award ceremony. He cared, as in that ceremony I noticed he was definitely the most elegant among the finalists and eventually, no need to say, he won.

Few days after his victory in a video on TikTok he had made for other exciting plans he was pursuing, he mentioned these four crazy months of his young life . “We decide what we want to be” was the moral he had learned from this adventure and now he had decided that it was much more rewarding being constructive than destructive, that he could also be, nay, he was an “excellence” of this school and even more. Way to go, Gabriele!

A Glimpse of Truth

Back to school after Christmas break: new rules, old madness. Post-Christmas  on-line staff meetings  have reached unbelievable levels of senselessness this year. Here is a sheer example.

Principal (smiling): Welcome back to school. Can you hear me? Yes? Good. I have had some problems with my connection this morning……So, we are gathered here today to implement the new dispositions from the Ministry of Education which have just been dispatched……

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

(Maria) : Here is yet another scam! To be sure. Ready?😤

 ( Mick) : You bet!😤

Principal:  (keeps talking)….. the teaching activity will continue in presence, with the obligation to wear FFP2 type masks….

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

( Mick) : With 220.000 cases per day, in presence!!!😤

 (Susan) : They want us dead!😲

 (Maria) : Wear the mask and go to war, well, I mean, to work! 😆

Principal: (keeps talking ) …….yet, I am afraid  we have no such masks at the moment. We have piles of boxes full of chirurgical masks, actually, nobody wants to wear, but I am confident  FFp2 masks will be sent soon.

Mick: Soon, when?🤔

Principal ( a bit annoyed): I don’t know. Soon!

Mick : That means never.😤

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

(Marco): Good point, Mick!👏

 (Susan): So it is mandatory to wear masks we are not provided with!

 (Maria) : What did I tell you?

(Lory) : I have been wearing FFp2 masks since… ever, so  far nothing new .

(Marco) : If it is mandatory at work, I expect  my employer  to  provide for them.🤨

Pricipal: (still talking)“that is all………..Do you have any comment?”

Teachers (at unison) : Nope.😑

Principal: (hesitating) And…….there is the question  of  the recess. Starting from tomorrow students will be allowed to consume their  meals only  outside school. As a distance of at least two meters is to be  guaranteed……

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

(Maria) : Two meters?🙄

(Lory) : Can you figure the scene?

(Marco) : It may work only if we were provided with a whip too!!

(Mrs Tink) : We could make marks on the ground!

(Susan) : We could even play green light/red light like in Squid Game!🤪

(Mrs Tink ): I would like to be that doll! 🤣

(Mick) : A class a  thirty should require 150 square meters to keep such distance, multiplied by 26 makes……………3.900 square meters!😧

Principal (keeps talking): ………. the mask outdoors can  be  lowered only for the time strictly necessary to eat meals….

Mrs Tink: What if it rains?😒

Principal: In case of rain, students  will remain inside the school premises.  Of course, they won’t be allowed to have their meals, unless  the two meter  distance is  kept.

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

(Susan) : So now you need two meter distance to eat, after having  abolished school distancing. This is madness.

(Mick) : I will never be in class while they eat, for sure.

(Marco) : This is just ridiculous!😤

Principal (scanning the screen) Any questions?

Teachers ( at unison) Nope.😑

Principal: Yet.…we have studied  a way to save  recess………….😏

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

( Mick) : Have they? I can’t way a second more!🤨

 (Maria) : Are you ready for another chaotic procedure?

Principal: First of all, the rooms occupied by the students are to be carefully ventilated….

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

(Marco): nothing new, what have we been doing so far?

(Susan): there is more, for sure.

Principal (keeps talking) : ……………. student could  have  their  snacks  in turn….. in alternate rows,  and …. in each row………..every two desks . Of course, they will never  have to move from  the assigned station and they will be allowed to lower their masks  only for the time necessary to eat.

Mrs Tink: but as we have only 20 minute recess,15, actually, or less if you consider the time we need to have the rooms ventilated, they would have only 3 minutes to eat, more or less.😮

Principal: More, Mrs Tink,  as there are many of them quarantined  and follow classes from remote.

Mary: But they will come back from their quarantines sooner or later!

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

(Mrs Tink) : I don’t give a damn, I will let them starve .😈

(Susan)     : So will I. What have we become? Guardians? Cops? Janitors?

Principal (cutting short): ……talking about quarantines, I want to remind you that with two Covid cases in the same class, on-line teaching must be provided for those who have not had their booster dose yet . In  case more than  120 days have passed  since the vaccination cycle has been completed or virus recovery, the quarantine will last 10 days and it will be possible to come back to school only after being tested negative.

Mick: And what about the others?

Principal :  All the others will continue the  activities in presence wearing  FFp2 masks for 10 days . If the cases in the same class are three, on-line learning will be provided for ten days for the entire class.

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

(Mrs Tink) :More than 120, less than 120….I am lost!😵

 (Susan) : My head spins.😵‍💫

Mick: But what about the matter of privacy? We had been clearly told at the very beginning  of the school year that we were ABSOLUTELY forbidden to make enquires  in matter of vaccines, and now I am entitled to pry even  into the timing of their choices!😠

Principal: Things change!

Teacher WhatsApp chat (Mick): For worse!😠

Principal: One thing more….😇

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

(Susan): it’s not over yet!

(Maria): this is a nightmare!😲

Principal: Well, in case, you, dear teachers,  haven’t  had  your booster dose yet  and more than 5 months have passed since your last jab, if  you are quarantined (hesitates) …ehm… you  won’t be paid……ehm…. for the time you have to stay at home (coughs).

Mrs Tink: What?🤬 You mean that if a couple of these brats from one of my classes are infected, I  may end up quarantined  and unpaid, despite my booster dose has been scheduled for the end of the month,  because more than 5 months have passed?

Principal: It is the law.😑

Mrs Tink: it is the law of two days ago, nonetheless,  my Green Pass won’t expire before February.😠

Principal (smiling): Sorry I can’t hear you. There must be some problems with the line again. I see you want ask que…..que……..stions, but , really………. I can’t hear……………. you. (The image freezes. The principal vanishes).

Teacher WhatsApp chat:

(Susan) :This is outrageous!😤

  (Mick ) :This cannot be endured!😤

  (Maria) : This cannot be borne!😡

 (Mrs Tink )  : This …….ahhh…I see  there is a chance I might anticipate my jab on January 20th   6:15 p.m.!

  (Susan) : It’s today!

 (Mrs Tink) : So, I have only 20 minutes…. Byeee!!!🥺🙋‍♀️

 After all the show……oopss…… school must go on.

Kafka and the Travelling Doll

What is better that a good  story to make you feel in harmony  with the entire universe at least for a while? “Kafka and the travelling doll” is a beautiful story penned by Spanish writer Jordi Sierra I Fabra,  which, in a way,  throws a different light on Prague-born author Franz  Kafka (1883-1924). Kafka has always been pictured as a gloomy and pessimistic sort of  man, but Jordi Sierra  shows us his sensitive side narrating  an episode which  occurred to Kafka just a year before he died. It is not important to know whether it truly happened or not: it is just heart-warming.

At the age of 40, Franz Kafka, who never married and had no children, was walking through Steglitz Park in Berlin, when he met a little girl who was crying because she had lost her favorite doll. Kafka tried to help the little girl find the doll, but without success.

Kafka told her to meet him there the following day to continue the search. The next day, when they still hadn’t found the doll, Kafka gave the little girl a letter, which, he claimed, was written by the doll that said:

 “Please don’t cry. I went on a trip to see the world. I’ll write you about my adventures.”

That was the beginning of a story that continued until the end of Kafka’s life. During their meetings Kafka read the doll’s letters about her adventures and conversations that the little girl found adorable.

Finally, Kafka surprised the girl telling that the doll had returned to Berlin and handed it to her ( of course, he had bought a new one). But the girl was disappointed:

 “It doesn’t look like my doll at all!”

So, Kafka handed her another letter in which the doll had written:

“My travels have changed me.”

The little girl hugged the new doll and carried her happily home. A year later Kafka died. Many years later, the now adult child found a letter inside the doll. In the tiny letter signed by Kafka  there was written:

 “Everything you love will probably be lost, but eventually love will return in another way.”

Malaussène Scheme

Haven’t you ever wished to have a Benjamin Malaussène in your family or circle of friends? That is, somebody always willing to take all the blame, even if it is you who has been caught with your hands in the cookie jar? Well, in case you have never heard about him, Benjamin Malaussène, is the protagonist of Daniel Pennac’s  popular saga of crime thrillers, and he works as ……scapegoat. Actually, he is in Quality Control of  “the Store”, but de facto he is the person called upon to take the rap when customers come in with complaints. It works more or less like this: Malaussène manages to assume all the blame, confessing his guilt in such an affecting way that customers take pity on him, so, “the Store” doesn’t have pay for any refund, and everybody is happy.

Being the scapegoat is Benjami’s fate outside “the Store” too. Even if the situations he finds himself are caused by a series of interests and precise logics which have nothing to do with him, he ends up hopelessly guilty. This scheme, which I would like to call Malaussène scheme, is fun on books, but when you realize that what you call fiction is nothing but the reality, you start to look at it with a different eye. In short, the scheme in constituted by the following 3 main steps : 1) spotting a problem, 2) finding the scapegoat, that is, demonstrating that somebody/something else caused the problem, 3) using the scapegoat as means to go back to the status quo ante or simply to upset the status quo, as scapegoats can be used both ways. The field of application I want to use to demonstrate how this pattern works is the one dearest to me: school.  

Step 1: PROBLEM. Every year in Italy there is a learning assessment that we call INVALSI.  It is aimed at measuring the level of competence in Italian, Mathematics and English of different groups of students: in essence, it photographs the state of health of our school system.  Well, it seems the  Italian school system is far more than sick, it has a foot in the grave, actually. Just to give you an idea 44% of high school students do not reach satisfactory levels in Italian , 51% in Mathematics, 51% in English-reading and 63% in English-listening in 2020/21. The figures for Italian and Mathematics are shocking, as for English, well, everybody knows there are no good English teacher in Italy, so, no surprise.

Step 2: THE SCAPEGOAT.  If data were  taken seriously, after such an outcome new strategies would have been studied, and quickly, but, of course, effective strategies have a cost,  particularly, if we think that there have been no investments on the school for decades here. Furthermore, I wonder whom the strategist might be, as I detect no such mind capable of drawing the guidelines of the new school or somebody who is not  in the pay of political forces. As it was crystal clear that there was no intent for a change and , of course, no money on the table, a scapegoat was necessary to justify such a downfall.  It  was not so arduous to find one, but  quite the opposite, it was handed on a silver  platter.  Since these were the first tests after the outbreak of the pandemic, the designated scapegoat couldn’t but become what had characterized education in the years of Covid 19: on-line learning.

Step 3: THE  SCAPEGOAT  EFFECT. Hence, on-line learning has become the source of any ill regarding school and more. Is a student depressed? It’s because of on-line learning. Anorexia or bulimia? On-line learning. Demotivation and frustration? The same answer. Even when talking to parents, on-line learning has become the perfect justification to any behaviour and achievement below the expectation, thus demanding indulgence on my side. The consequence? On-line learning has been banned. We are about to go back to school with more than 200.000 Covid cases per day, in small classrooms with about 30 kids, with no ventilation system working and with the most absurd plan to follow in presence of  Covid cases in class. In short, 6 months of on-line learning in two years have caused a drastic drop in the levels of competence of Italian students and mined their psychological stability. Is it to be believed?

THE VARIABLE. Scapegoats cannot always work, as sometimes significant events, let’s call them variables, happen.  These variables contradict mainstream narration so manifestly that they can neither be overlooked nor hidden.  The fact in questions was the selection of magistrates held from July 12 to December 2 2021: out of 5,827 candidates only 88 passed, and most of them were “rejected” because of the written test. The writing skills of the aspiring magistrates were regarded poor, as there were not only technical but also grammatical deficiencies . We are talking about candidates who have a university degree and a master at least and, this is no small detail for what I want to demonstrate, they must have been in their early thirties, so they could not be the product of on-line learning, but rather the clear effect of years of policies made of cuts only and reforms at zero cost. For years all the methods concerning education have constantly converged to one main goal: inclusion. What’s wrong with inclusion, some of you may ask? Absolutely nothing, it  is a very daring objective, but the only way we have to include all, and avoid what today is considered a mortifying selection, is by lowering learning standards. There is no other way, no other miracles can be done, unless governments decide to invest on education.  Hence, in order to avoid depopulation, universities couldn’t but lower their learning standards too. And this is the result.

You may now object that all this talking didn’t but demonstrate that scapegoats are ineffective. Quite the contrary. In case of variables, strategies have only to be integrated a little: you overwhelm means of information with contrasting data, thus creating chaos and wait till the event is forgotten. And this is how we keep proceeding to nowhere.

Propaganda, Mysteries and Slip-ups

“Art. 36 .It is necessary to prevent direct or indirect discrimination against persons who are not vaccinated, for example, because of medical reasons, because they are not part of the target group for which the COVID -19 vaccine is currently administered or allowed, such as children, or because they have not yet had the opportunity or chose not to be vaccinated. Therefore, possession of a vaccination certificate, or the possession of a vaccination certificate indicating a COVID-19 vaccine, should not be a pre-condition for the exercise of the right to free movement or for the use of cross-border passenger transport services such as airlines, trains, coaches or ferries or any other means of transport. In addition, this Regulation cannot be interpreted as establishing a right or obligation to be vaccinated”( REGULATION (EU) 2021/953. 14 June 2021).

“The habit of thinking ill of someone/something is a sin, no doubt, but very often you guess it right” was of the most famous mottos of Giulio Andreotti, who was a shrewd protagonist of Italian politics for more than half a century. So, yes, I am a sinner because I thought ill, when I read the Italian translation of EU Digital COVID Certificate Regulation, published in the Official Journal of the EU, and I realized that the reference relating to the choice of not being vaccinated was missing. Yet, that part was not missing in the translations of the other EU countries and this makes me an awful sinner even more. It was just a slip-up, we were told. Nothing more.

Propaganda is a truth devoid of facts, some useful omission here and there, which makes the narrations of events slightly, conveniently different, but still remaining a truth. Words, images are chosen carefully, so that to impact on the irrational part of our brains, evoking fears or sometimes a sense of emergency. This new “emotional” truth is so effective that we are prone to accept it just the way it is. It does not mean to be discussed. A recent example? The narration of the  lockdown of the unvaccinated in Germany.

In Italy we have been bombed by all media for weeks and weeks on how effective the lockdown of the unvaccinated in Germany was, so effective, that after few weeks the rate of infected people had dropped drastically. So we were told. A miracle. No article actually explained in what this lockdown of the unvaccinated consisted. That was omitted. Everything was let to one’s imagination and my imagination associated the word lockdown to the very first lockdown, when queuing at supermarkets was one of the few chances to be in the open air, as we couldn’t even move further than 200 meters from home for a walk. Those were the days when at 6.00 p.m. we all gathered together to sing our frustration from our balconies, as if we were part of a propitiatory rite. This is what the word lockdown evokes to me, and many others have interpreted it the same way too, as more and more articles and comments started to claim to do as in Germany, that is, to lock all the rebels in their homes and throw the keys away. This is what we believed. For a while.

Germany is not that distant from here, so it has been inevitable in the long run to get reports which mined the authenticity of mainstream information. Different voices stated that in Germany the measures were similar to those adopted in Italy, although modulated in a different way, concretely in three levels, which overall offered more flexibility than the Italian system. Hence, there was no such lockdown for the unvaccinated. It had been proposed by parliamentarians in Austria, but rejected in Germany. Furthermore, the reported drop in the number of infected was incorrect and mostly due the a reduced number of tests.

At this point, whom should I have trusted? My thirst of truth brought me to disturb Aladin, who blogs at Lampmagician and lives in Germany (he was on vacationwhen I called him, actually), and he confirmed that such lockdown never existed there. This means that whatever we read should be subjected to intense investigation before being accepted as real, as today’s information is nothing but an endless ocean made of truths and lies, which are presented to us with same aura of credibility.

Hence, not only Italy and Germany adopt similar measures, but, and this is not a small detail, in Italy, the unvaccinated are not allowed to go to work, even if they make a test every other day. Vaccines are not mandatory, they say, only, you cannot work without the pass which proves you have had your two -and now three – doses. When I booked the booster jab, it clearly appeared on my screen, I was acting by my “free” choice, which was pretty annoying, as for teachers full vaccination has been mandatory since 15th December 2021. The article n°1 of our Constitution says that: “Italy is a democratic republic, founded on work”, but you may lose that Constitutional right if you refuse to be “voluntarily” vaccinated.

So, yes, I think ill and I am a sinner. Pretty soon the obligation of vaccination will be extended to all working categories, which could also be a good thing, I don’t mean to discuss vaccines here, but my fear lies in the fact that we have legitimized a method, that is, if you don’t do what it has been decided you lose your freedom and constitutional rights and, in my opinion, the word which better explains what’s going on here ends in –ism.

That’s How Schools Become Covid Super-Spreaders

Schools are  Covid super-spreaders and this a truth which could be universally acknowledged if there were not so many attempts to deny it. Why? Because schools cannot stay closed for long, no matter how fast the virus spreads. On this purpose, we are given the most extraordinary procedures on a daily basis, which, however, underestimate one question: those who are in charge to think and plan believe that students observe rules in the same way North Korean parliament does, when Kim Jong-un attends sessions,

while they should likely reason more on the Italian parliamentarian model of behaviour to get something right.

For example, making the use of  masks mandatory for students is a good thing, but it would be really effective only if they kept them stuck on their mouths. This means that those teenagers should never move from their seats and pull their masks down to make themselves heard by the nearest mate sitting 50 cm far as soon as you turn your back or nibble food when unseen. Only in this case this measure has a chance to work. The perfect scenario school advisers have in their mind cannot happen, because it is not in the youngsters’ nature to be diligent statues and I am not Kim Jong-un. Those thinkers don’t have a clue of what happens in a school and how difficult it is to deal not only with adolescents, but  also with  their families, who are overwhelmed by a great deal of issues these days.

Let’s take one of those families as example to make myself clear. It is seven o’clock of a December morning and the silence of Mario’s home is broken by an: ” aaaachooooooo!!” It’s Mario. Mario’s mother hurries to see her boy and realizes that he has a cold. Yet, he does not look unwell, but she does not dare to take his temperature: if Mario were 37,5 , he should remain at home as school procedures recommend. She has the entire day scheduled. Her husband has already left for work. What can she do?  She decides to read the horoscope: “After 3 years Saturn is aligned with Jupiter again”. “Uhmmmmm, it must be a good thing”: she thinks. Mario is sent to school.

It 9:30 a.m. and Mario sits right in the centre of a classroom with about 30 kids and myself. The boy looks sick and pale and has a pile of tissues on his desk. He must have a cold, but I realize he is not the only one. I feel surrounded by the invisible enemy, which must house in at least one those visible kids, I am sure. Then, my attention is caught by Mario again. To my horror, I see the boy take off his mask and” aaaaaaaaaaccccchhoooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!”

Mrs Tink 😱😱: Mariooooooooo, what the heck are you doing? Why did you take your mask off while you were sneezing? Why do you think are masks for? You didn’t even put your hand before your mouth! Are you nuts?

Mario 🤧: I didn’t want to spoil the mask, I have only this one with me.

Mrs Tink 😠: but we have thousands of masks, you can get as many as you need .

Mario😥: But Teach ! I don’t like them, they look like underpants and are smelly! Couldn’t I have one of yours? Yours look different .

MrsTink🙄 (lying): Ehm, this is the only one I have got. Mario, you look feverish🤒, go and have your temperature measured.

I call a janitor who takes Mario to the Covid room. The janitor comes back:

Janitor : Mrs Tink, Mario has a temperature of 38,2, but he swears he is absolutely fine and wants to come back.

Mrs Tink🤯: Good heavens, lock him in! Get someone to call his mother, so she can take him home.

Mario’ s mother comes to get her son. She is quite annoyed. Parents are always annoyed when they are called in, as if we were not taking care of their children’s health, but acting out of spite. The kid was fine the morning she says 🤥. The following day Mario is not at school, and we are informed he is Covid test positive.

Last year in such a case remote lessons would have been organized, but this year things have changed. For worse. If there is one case in a class the entire group is to be tested as soon as possible and then again after 5 days, but they are still admitted to attend lessons in presence. Only if there are 3 cases in the same class the lessons will be from remote. In the meanwhile panic is generated, some parents prefer not to send their children to school to skip Covid tests and the risk of being quarantined too. You have also to take into consideration that these days, after the new Covid surge, being tested, means a queue of hours and hours here. 

Christmas queue in Rome

Thank God, Christmas has arrived  to give us a break or this is what I thought. On Christmas night, exactly at 0:05, an email has informed me that Piero, who was seated next to Mario, has been tested positive. I will be sent the procedure to follow soon, as the very last day of school I was heroically with them to play “tombola” 🥳( a Christmassy Italian Bingo). What did that song say? No more heroes anymore!!!

On Flashbacks and Flashforwards

I don’t know about you, but as tv series addicted,  I have grown annoyed with the massive unnecessary use of flashbacks and flashforwards in storytelling. “ How to get away with Murder” drove me absolutely crazy because of the exaggerate use of this technique, thus making the narration somewhat predictable and BO-RING. Let alone “How I met your mother”.  After yet another flashforward in season six I had to wait till season eight to finally know who married who. Two entire seasons! Even a couple of days ago, while watching “Harlem”, the black, LGBT version of “Sex and the City”, the most unnecessary flash back –  an entire episode which meant to give light to some absolutely superfluous truths – was placed in the midst of the story. I understand that they want us to be glued  to the screen, but if these interruptions to a chronological narration are not skilfully planned, the outcome is just boredom rather than revived interest.

Flashbacks, in fact, help  find  the sense of a particular situation of the present, revealing  details  or  secrets from the past. While flashforwards provide anticipations. Their function  is  to enhance curiosity, as you are allowed to see a small fragment of the future, but as it is only a small part of a whole and being devoid of its context, it  is meaningless, but intriguing enough to make us want for more. Yet, their use should be dosed, pondered, otherwise flashbacks and flashforwards cannot but be downgraded to useless special effects.

The point is  that if you mean to write a story breaking here and there the chronological order of narration, there must be a good  reason to do it and you should figure the impact on the watcher.  On this purpose, I would humbly suggest to these screenwriters  the reading of a masterpiece of literature where there is an excellent use of flashbacks and flashforwards: “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte  .

When the novel begins 95% of the story has already taken place. The first narrator, Mr Lockwood,  is “hired” only on the purpose of arousing our curiosity, but  as he is a total stranger to the events, how can he perform his duty? Just telling what he sees. In the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights, in fact,  Lockwood only describes people and tells us his impressions about his neighbours: the atmosphere of Wuthering Heights, his meeting with his rude, hot landlord named Heathcliff, the bunch of sullen, mysterious people who live there, whom  he can’t detect  how they are connected one to another, the night visit of a ghost and more. It is the detailed report of  his experience there, that triggers a great quantity of questions in the reader, but this narrator won’t be allowed to give the answers. This is the reason why Emily Bronte calls him Mr Lockwood, as to remark  that “unlocking” mysteries is not  his function here, but quite the contrary.

As Lockwood cannot tell us more than his impressions, a second narrator is needed. Somebody  who knows everything and can unravel the thread of the story, and Emily Bronte’s choice falls on Nelly Dean, a witness of the events. Being the governess of Thrushcross Grange , where Lockwood resides, Nelly is able to satisfy all his curiosities, therefore, she tells him the entire story starting from the beginning. From this moment a long flashback  begins, which stretches from the arrival of Heathcliff when he was a little boy to the present events.

I have to say  that the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are so rich and extremely powerful  in narrative tension that after the initial fireworks the chronological  narration proceeds in a sort of slow “diminuendo” rather than “crescendo” in emotion, despite the many twists in the story.  It is very likely that the necessity to enliven the end of  the novel  could be the reason why Emily Bronte employs the flashback stratagem in her the last three chapters too. Lockwood, in fact, comes back after six month absence and he is told the latest, shocking  news by Nelly, which includes: Heathcliff’s death, his reunion with his beloved Catherine after death – as their ghosts have been seen wandering in the moors – but also happier outcomes. Hence, Emily Bronte not only manages to engage once again her –exhausted – reader, but also balances the structure of the novel providing it with and effective “finale”.  

Read the classics, dear screenwriters, read the classics!