Smashing Mr Thornton

I couldn’t believe my eyes  while I was reading a comment of one of my students to a post on Gaskell’s “North and South”. It was not a comment, actually, but rather, a deliberate attempt to pull apart piece after piece the romantic aura that surrounds Mr Thornton,  who actually shares the top step of the podium along with Mr Darcy for the most iconic and beloved male character of 19th century  English literature. He found faults in a man who has always been considered fault proof; he regarded weak the one who has always been the epitome of strength for any woman; he even found immoral traits in the uncontroverted  picture  and quintessence of  moral behaviour.

LADIES (angry): To the gallows!!!” “Blasphemy!!🤬🤬🤬

MRS TINK : “But, my dear ladies, calm down! I believe that even  this irreverent  young  man has the right to be tried first, so let’s hear what he has to say. He asserts that our minds have been clouded by the romantic charm of this character – well, that could be, especially since  Mr Thornton took the semblance of Richard Armitage, we must admit it –  and that, let me read, “the man appears systematically unable to take a single good decision in any field of his life”.

LADIES (super angry):To the gallooooows!!!🤬🤬🤬

MRS TINK : C’mon ladies, don’t rush into conclusion. He may have some good points! Let him speak his mind first and eventually we will decide what to do. Just cool down!(whispers) Ohhh, good ….so, he was just saying that some of Mr Thornton’s decisions were wrong…..

STUDENT (aside): All!😑

MRS TINK (To the student): Oh! Shut up! I’m m trying to save you from this angry bunch of ladies!🤨

STUDENT (boldly to the ladies): It is under everybody’s eye  that Mr Thornton’s business fails, can you prove the contrary?😏

MRS TINK and The Ladies: No, we can’t. But…..😧

STUDENT (more audaciously): Furthermore, he does not prevent the strike and hires the Irish in the mill provoking violent reactions.😏

MRS TINK🤨 : How could he have prevented the strike? He had no means to give the rise in salary the workers demanded and he was not alone in this, after all, there were other manufacturers.

STUDENT: “Yes,  but he was the most influent one, wasn’t he the magistrate of Milton? But, I have not finished yet. He proposes to Margaret even if he knows that she will probably refuse him and then he commits an abuse of power deciding not to investigate the same Margaret!😧

LADIES (in unison):  But he did it for love! He wanted to protect her! How insensitive!😮

STUDENT : I know, but that was actually a crime, or do you have another word to call it?😏

LADIES: We cannot listen to this nonsense any longer!😤😤😤

STUDENT (raising his voice): One more thing! He does not join his brother-in law’s speculation  and doing so, not only he loses all his wealth, but he also does not overcome the trauma of his father’s death. The very few good decisions such as hiring Higgins, for example, derive, directly or indirectly, from Margaret. Please forgive me ladies, but I did find hilarious seeing your romantic hero, the strong self-made man, the passionate lover with the endless sideburns, saved by a presumptuous 20-year-old girl from the South. Now I’m done. Thank you.😏😑😑😑

LADIES:(silence)😲😲😲

MRS TINK: (trying to break the silence). So you mean that Thornton is a loser .🤨

STUDENT: That’s what I mean.😑

MRS TINK: Well, I guess you should have thought about what makes Mr Thornton a loser first, in your eyes at least . To make you understand my point, I want to compare him to one of the greatest “losers” in world literature.

STUDENT: Who is it?🤔

MRS TINK: Hamlet. If you remember his story, we may say that Hamlet, to use your own words, appears “systematically unable to take a single good decision in any field of his life”: father, mother, Ophelia, the revenge plans etc.  He, actually, never truly acts, and if he does, it’s just because he cannot avoid it. Three seconds after talking to his father’s ghost, the initial flame of rage starts to put out and soon he feels unfit for his demand of revenge. Even in the last act, when he finally revenges his father’s death killing his uncle, he doesn’t even know how he found himself in that situation, as the duel with Laertes is actually his uncle’s trap in order to kill him. Have you ever considered Hamlet a loser?🤨

STUDENT: A victim maybe?🤔

MRS TINK: In a way he is a victim, but he is the victim of his conscience and conscience , he says, makes us all cowards, that is, unable to act freely, because we cannot avoid the burden of the moral implications of our actions. The ethical dilemma between what is right or wrong consumes our will, and thus “ the native hue of resolution, is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Undoubtedly, the name of the comet star that guides Mr Thornton’s action is: ethics. He always tries to do what is right, even if he knows that it will not end up as he wishes, as in the case of Margaret’s rejection or when he hires the Irish. Had he been ruthless, he would have employed them much before, it is also because of this delay in taking this decision that he loses all. It’s in this constant search for the correct thing to do, his attempt to overcome the trauma of his father’s death.🤨

STUDENT(puzzled): So you mean that ethics and success cannot go hand in hand?🤔

MRS TINK: Correct.🙄

STUDENT: And that Mr Thornton‘s comet star is ethics.🤔

MRS TINK: Exactly.🙄

STUDENT: So, he is a loser.😑

MRS TINK😒: If you measure a man by means of his profits, yes, he is. But a man is more than the money he can make. I’m talking about other qualities such as sensibility, reliability, courage, sacrifice, the capacity to love; Mr Thornton is all this and more. Hence, he could never be a loser for us all, my dear. Never.😍😍😍

LADIES: To the gallows?😡😡😡

MRS TINK: No…….Student, stand up! You are sentenced to watch the BBC series again twice and read the book. You will produce then another comment on the topic and if we can spot some evidence of your redemption, we might even let you live. Off you go!

(Exeunt)

Progression or Regression?

I fell asleep. I fell asleep and for a couple of months I have been lulled by the sound of waves, sun  kissed. I fell asleep and fluttered every single day on leisure-land where a pleasant and reinvigorating breeze weakened  any  attempt of the few sensible thoughts left hidden somewhere in a synapse of my dormant  brain to make me quit that state of bliss. I would have slept even longer, in fact, but for that annoying bell, a school bell, actually , which forcibly brought me back to the dullness of the real world and duty. Good-bye leisure-land, I must go, uncertain of my fate.

When  you have to start afresh, it is advisable to begin with baby-steps, something effortless and pleasant, if possible, at the same time, to break the ice,  otherwise one always tends to postpone the initial effort, which is usually perceived as huge.  I thought that filing all the works, projects, power points I had left scattered on the computer the year before would have been a good start and so I did. While watching the screen, I couldn’t help but wonder how technology had actually helped me beat my natural disorganization ( and laziness); in fact , all the school years with papers, tests etc. . were there, beautifully ordered before me. It is memory. Whatever I needed , with a click it was at my disposal.

And I clicked. I don’t know whether it was an evil school-elf or just curiosity which induced me to do so, but I clicked on year 2015 first, 2010 then to get to the early twenties and then I stopped, a bit puzzled. Evoking memories, even working memories can be cruel sometimes.  What remained of that summer state of bliss and dizziness definitely faded away as the facts were plainly before me and needed to be assessed.    

What facts? To make myself clear let’s take a class as example: the third year of high school , average age 16 and let’s follow how learning and expectations have changed in these last 25 years. I have always enjoyed reading Romeo & Juliet at this stage, as the theme of love is captivating and it is a good starting point to get to know Shakespeare, but how has the way I do it changed in time and why?

LATE NINETIES: in those years I was a devout reader of the Arden Shakespeare editions with all those beautiful notes and explanations, hence, I wanted all my students to have one. Despite it was not so easy to find it as we are in Italy and there was no Amazon then, they found a way to get one eventually, all of them . As far as I can remember they enjoyed the accurate study of lines and sources of Romeo and Juliet. How do I know? Well, the following year they asked me for more, so I infer, they liked it. But, did it really matter in the late nineties whether students really enjoyed or not a lesson?

EARLY 2000s: all of a sudden it seemed  it had become quite hard to find the Arden edition anywhere, hence, I told them to buy whatever edition they could find, I would have provided them with the missing information . Of course,  there were always two or three students in the class  who managed to find the Arden edition, but the decline was now inevitable.

LATE 2000s: As in the last years I had found hard managing to read the entire play by the end of the school-year, I decided that they could have used a bilingual edition. We would have read and analysed the most important parts in class in English, while the rest could have been done even in Italian if they wanted, and they wanted .  After all, the knowledge of the main themes of the play was what really mattered I said to myself. It seemed a good compromise to me.

EARLY 2010s: These where the years when school started to be overloaded with projects of any kind, hence, as I was always running out time I decided that the reading of Romeo and Juliet would have been limited to the “Balcony scene” and the end of the play. I also made them watch the catchy “Romeo and Juliet version”  with Di Caprio. It seemed they truly enjoyed it. I was satisfied.

LATE 2010s: I thought it was I good idea to make them act  the “Balcony Scene” and shoot a video. I chose 6 couples e six directors, one for each couple, and gave them the lines. They shot from the balconies of their homes and eventually the films were assembled together with soundtrack, titles, backstage funny moments etc. . It was creative, it was fun. I was proud of them – and myself.

COVID YEARS: on-line learning has required a new way of communicating in order  to be effective. Words couldn’t but go hand in hand with images to be catchy. In this respect I have found useful GIMP,  a cross-platform image editor which I have adopted to embellish my power points. For Romeo and Juliet I decided to take and edit some shots from Di Caprio’s movie and create a sort of photo novel of the “the Balcony Scene” and make  William Shakespeare himself comment and explain the lines of the play:

It was fun, I have fun exploring the news frontiers of learning, I must admit it,  but looking back to what I used to do almost 30 years ago, I cannot help but wonder: what chances of success would my precious Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet have with today’s students? How should I consider all this process of continuous adaptation to new generations’ educational needs a progression or a regression in learning ? Are these needs real or I have simply surrendered, choosing the shortcut of light entertainment? Is it possible that eventually I am the one to be blamed?

Pizza Truce

In a comment of a previous post, where I “gently” showed all my happiness for the Italian victory at Euro 2020, I remarked  that no Italian would have ever sung a song such as “it’s coming home”, because being very superstitious, we would have considered it bad omen. By the ways, I have also learnt that in a certain way the English supporters had tried to build up a good karma practicing a national propitiatory act which took the form of topping pizzas with pineapple the days before the match, as they well know how much we dislike it (source Daily Star). The only reading about the blasphemous act performed by so many people should have put the Italian team off game. Well, it didn’t work, and you know why? Because it is blasphemous to put pineapple on a pizza.

The Daily Star did also some historical researches about it and found out that tourists struggle “to find the controversial toppings of ham, bacon and pineapple in Italy because it was not invented in the home of pizza but 4,000 miles away in Canada – by a Greek! Sam Panopoulos came up with the recipe at his restaurant in Ontario in 1962 inspired by his experience preparing Chinese dishes which mix sweet and savoury flavours”. Well, I’m sorry, if you put it that way, but it is not a matter of nationalism, only, it is not of our taste. That’s it. We are not even pineapple eaters, unless we are on a diet, let alone bacon. It’s just unusual and does not belong to our food tradition.

However, you should not believe that we keep eating the classic pizzas with tomato, mozzarella cheese, anchovies and basil only here. Pizzas come with a great variety of toppings or fillings and we have also many which are traditionally Italian despite a more international sweet-sour taste.

Let me suggest you my three favourite pizzas:

Number 1: Pizza, ham and figs.

This is a summer pizza as this is the season of figs. If possible, choose dark and ripe figs, because they are sweeter.  Just imagine: warm crunchy pizza, with sweet figs and Italian ( or Spanish) prosciutto on top. Taste it and you won’t allow any pineapple/bacon pizza ever cross your threshold. Never again.

Number 2: Pizza, mortadella and pistachio cream.

Mortadella is a large Italian sausage or luncheon meat made of finely hashed or ground heat-cured pork. It is pink, soft and delicious. It must be very thin sliced first, then you top the pizza with it, which had been previously spread with pistachio cream. Remember the pizza should be a little warm and crunchy to reach paradise.

These two pizzas belong to the Roman/Italian tradition, but the last and my favourite one,  has an English touch.

Number 3: Pizza, mozzarella cheese, Stilton and Porto reduction.

If you have a bottle of Porto, please spare a glass to make the reduction ( you can find the instruction here ). When the Porto has reached the consistency of a syrup,  pour it on the just baked pizza with mozzarella and Stilton. If you haven’t tasted it yet, try it and I am sure you will thank me.

Good food is always a matter of harmony of flavours. There is no such harmony in a pineapple and bacon pizza. Harmony always wins, remember.  

On Friendship and Solitude

I still remember a colleague of mine years ago, who boasted proudly that she had given as summer holiday read Joyce’s Ulysses to her students, Italian  students of about 17 years old, actually. “And….are you sure, they will read it?” was my dubious reply. “Of course”, she said. She had no doubts, good for her. I always envy such decided people. I moved to another school then, so I couldn’t check the outcome of that educational choice, but I would bet nobody had truly opened Joyce’s book. An easy win, I dare say. In fact,  how could half ignorant adolescents enjoy the read of such a bulky, complex novel, when I …………had not. It is time to confess that I skipped many parts of the masterpiece, read only the last pages of Molly Bloom’s famous monologue and that I have reserved the same destiny to Proust’s In Search of Lost time. Yes , I did it and I don’t mean to make amend for it. That does not mean, for sure, that both novels are not good enough for me, but rather, I am not good enough for them. The global literary knowledge I should have  – my edition of Ulysses came with  another book twice as big as the original to enlighten us mortals about the numerous literary references and interpretations – and the experimental syntax craft are just too much for my humble person.

Yet, when you allow yourself to be touched inadvertently and unprejudiced by their words, you can never be indifferent. Never. In fact, I was recently conquered by following the passage during a lecture,  before knowing it was actually Proust the source of the unexpected pleasure. I had to dive into the ocean of “In Search of Lost time” for a while, actually, before finding the passage I wanted to share with you, and here it is: so modern, so real, so thought provoking. This is how Proust deals with the theme of friendship:

“People who enjoy the capacity—it is true that such people are artists, and I had long been convinced that I should never be that—are also under an obligation to live for themselves.”

So far nothing exceptional. He was a decadent, so he shared the idea that the artist was the superior being whose talent should not be contaminated by the taste of vulgar masses, but he goes a little further here, as in those masses friends are included:

And friendship is a dispensation from this duty, an abdication of self.”

Hence,  we understand that it is  wrong for an artist to consider friendship as a dispensation from that duty, as friendship is a sort of partnership in which you self is not free to expand itself, but must “abdicate” for the sake of that friendship.

“ Even conversation, which is the mode of expression of friendship, is a superficial digression which gives us no new acquisition. We may talk for a lifetime with-out doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute,”

These words may induce you to believe that Proust was a snobbish, solitary man, but he was not. He was a man who enjoyed society and much. In fact, Proust began very young to frequent the refined circles of the upper middle class and the aristocracy, thanks to the social and economic position of his family. He met illustrious writers, like Paul Valéry and André Gide, nevertheless, he found all that time spent in the habit of conversation useless and vacuous, an unpardonable weakness especially  in an artist:

whereas the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic creation proceeds downwards, into the depths, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance—though with more effort, it is true—towards a goal of truth. And friendship is not merely devoid of virtue, like conversation, it is fatal to us as well.”

Only in the “bliss of solitude”  the artist can proceed into the depth of thought and avoid being kept at the surface by the  vacuity of light conversation and friendship works the same :

For the sense of boredom which it is impossible not to feel in a friend’s company (when, that is to say, we must remain ex-posed on the surface of our consciousness, instead of pursuing our voyage of discovery into the depths) for those of us in whom the law of development is purely internal….”

I was wondering, how often have you felt this sense of boredom at a dinner with your friends, for example,  even if you are not one for “whom the law of development in purely internal” or experienced that “vacuity of the minute” which repeats itself ? I am sure that you have and often. Hence:

that first impression of boredom our friendship impels us to correct when we are alone again, to recall with emotion the words uttered by our friend, to look upon them as a valuable addition to our substance, albeit…”

Here lies the danger, we tend to believe that  what a friend says, just because he is so, may in a way enrich “our substance”, but according to Proust this is impossible:

 “we are not like buildings to which stones can be added from without, but like trees which draw from their own sap the knot that duly appears on their trunks, the spreading roof of their foliage.”

No matter how clever, poignant or true the words spoken are, they are just like bricks and bricks cannot make a tree  grow. They are made of  different substances, after all. The living, creating sap may only come from within, and that must be the focus of an artist in particular and maybe men in general.

In short, the time used to cultivate friendships is not only useless but also unproductive. In the company of others we cannot be our real self  and constantly remain chained to what is superficial rather than go into the heart of things. It is a dynamic which does not allow the growth of a human being. I don’t fully agree with him, but if it is so, is  this monstrous society of “friends” connected worldwide in the never-ending practice of conversation allowing the growth of any sensible human being?

P.S. There is another question I would like to ask you and please don’t lie to me: “Is  there anyone out there who has truly read Ulysses from page one to page “too many” and enjoyed it?”

The Handmaid’s Tale

Western civilization has been influenced by Aristotle’s vision of the world for centuries.  In short, God had structured all matters of life in a sort of hierarchy were  God was at the top of the ladder while right under him there were the angels and human beings. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order. Everything and everybody had they exact place and , according to this perfect organization, women ranked right after men. Women were meant for reproduction after all, and apparently,  this was believed to be their main task  as all the other more important matters concerned men only. Therefore, man’s place was the world, while women had to remain confined in their houses.

This patriarchal vision of society was the consequence the divine vision of the world and for this reason  it was regarded to be primary duty of men to tell the subordinate gender what was right or wrong and to behave accordingly. Men have accurately controlled their education over the centuries focusing a woman’s training mostly on her accomplishments: sewing,  playing , dancing, drawing etc.…. still, when we get to the nineteenth century, the running of a house and family was everything that should matter to a woman. This scheme started to crack during WW1, when women replaced men at work while they were at the front. Women started to earn their own living, to gain independence and have access to a broader education. When the war was over, the taste of freedom had been too sweet and exciting to go back to home seclusion, furthermore, with independence the right to vote had arrived. The door house was now wide open and the world tantalizing.

Hence, women had eventually rebelled to what had been designed for them by God himself but, can all this be without consequences? As I said before, it is incontrovertible that we have a reproductive biological function, but it is likewise incontrovertible that the women that belong to the more advanced and wealthiest part of the world make less children. My great grandmother had six children, my grandmother four, my mother just me and I chose to have none. If this is the trend, we are doomed to extinction. Hence, if we want to keep stuck to the metaphor of God’s hierarchy, the world is out joint, as Hamlet would say, what if a totalitarian theonomic state would form to set things right? Would it be so impossible?

This what “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a dystopian novel by Canadia authoress Margaret Atwood, is about. We are in a not too distant but nightmarish future: a radioactive disaster has devastated the Earth and the wars that have followed have changed the face of states and governments. In the United Stares, a theocratic sect, called the “Sons of Jacob”, has come to power and has upset the social order. In this new Republic of Gilead, as it is now called, it is possible to confess only one religion, the one decided by the state, and absolute power is in the hands of the Commanders. Below them, the Angels are the armed militia, the secret agents called the Eyes, while the men of lower social class are employed for the humblest jobs. But , where are the women?

Women are completely subservient to man – again -, and according to a rigid and aberrant interpretation of the the Holy Scriptures, they are considered useful only if the are able to procreate. Deprived of any kind of freedom, access to their goods, the possibility of receiving an education, women are divided into different categories: among these, the “Handmaids” are those who, being fertile, are used for the purpose to father the children of the Commanders.

All women of Gilead are classed socially and follow a strict dress code: the Commanders’ Wives in blue; the Handmaids in red with white veils around their faces; the Aunts (who train the Handmaids in brown; the Marthas (cooks and maids) in green; Econowives ( the wives of lower-ranking men) in blue, red and green stripes; young, unmarries girls in white; widows in black. Some women are sent to work as prostitutes in brothels called Jezabel.

The novel is told from the point of view of June, now called Offred, a Handmaid. Before the coup that brought the Commanders to power, the girl led a normal life: she had a job and lived with Luke, with whom she had a daughter. But when the Republic of Gilead is founded, her life is completely turned upside down: she loses her job – women in fact cannot work -, her bank account is cleared and she is persecuted as an immoral woman, because Luke and she are not married.

The two then try to flee to Canada with the child, but are captured: the child is given up for adoption, Luke disappears and the girl is transformed into a Handmaid, thus taking the name of Offred. In fact, the maids do not even have the right to their own name; since the only purpose of their existence is to generate children on behalf of the Commander to whom they belong, they take their name: “Offred” stands for “Fred’s”, the name of the Commander to whom the girl is enslaved. So now Offred is nothing but an object in the Commander’s hands.

Atwood says she wrote the novel in 1984 when she was in East Berlin, and that she was inspired by seventeenth-century American puritanism. So the crazy drifts described in the work are certainly the result of invention, but certainly the atmosphere of the Iron Curtain and the religious radicalism, real and historical facts, contributed to the genesis of the novel. In fact, as the writer explains, “every totalitarian regime does nothing but exasperate trends already present in society to consolidate its power”.

This is perhaps why the story of The Handmaid’s Tale is a truly disturbing, even if engaging whether one decides to read the book or watch the series. What is disturbing is that, in the midst of the inventions typical of a science fiction novel, you always feel that there is something potentially close to us, from misogyny to attempts to control the woman’s body. Atwood says, in fact: “My rule was that I would not include events in the book that had not already occurred in what James Joyce called “the nightmare of history”: nor any technology that was not already available, no imaginary law, no atrocity that was not already been committed. God is in the details, they say. So is the devil. “

Do the Right Thing!

In  24 hours there will the quarter-final of the European football championships, but our major concern here has not been the match with Belgium these days,  but rather whether tomorrow the Italian national team players will “ take the knee”.

The Azzurri ( this is how we call the Italian players) haven’t really showed to have a firm opinion on the matter, assuming they have one, of course. In fact, they did not kneel before the kick-off of the match against Austria,  while in the previous match  against Wales, the symbolical gesture was made only by 5 Italian  players. By the ways, it seems that in tomorrow’s match against Belgium, Italy will not remain standing as a sign of solidarity with……. the other team. Hence, since Lukaku and his comrades have joined the Black Lives Matter campaign against racism, and  there is no doubt that they will “take the knee”, the Italians  will do the same. The valorous captain of the Azzurri, Chiellini,  the graduated  one, claimed – in case somebody doubted it – that  the fact they didn’t feel like endorsing the Black Lives Matter campaign  does not mean they  are racists , in fact they are firmly against “Nazism” ( it is not a typo Emilio, he actually said that. The Captain. Graduated).

In short, the Italian team  has decided to be sympathetic with the opposing teams rather than with the anti-racist cause. I  wonder even  if they know why the Black Lives Matter protesters kneel, as,  if they knew it, they would understand that it is not a gesture of weakness, as the act of kneeling would seem,  but of strength. This gesture is a  bridge that spans American history, from Alabama in the 1960s, through a 2016 football game, to us.

On February 1, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. rallied the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama, after police arrested 250 activists who advocated the right to vote for African Americans. King approached Ralph Abernathy, leader of the movement in Selma, and together they knelt on the sidewalk in prayer. On March 7, Martin Luther King and 600 other activists marched from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, to gain the right to vote. But the police, armed with batons and tear gas, stopped them on the Alabama River bridge and charged the peaceful march. The world called the US Bloody Sunday that day.

In 2016, 51 years after Selma, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to remain seated during the national anthem in protest. At the third game, he got up and joined his companions and then knelt down as Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy had once done.

Kaepernick claimed to have made this act “take a knee” in honor of the African-American victims of the police. His gesture caused a sensation, was imitated by many other athletes but also attacked by many Americans, such as US President Donald Trump. At the end of the year Kaepernick terminated his contract with the San Francisco 49ers and, although he was a very good player, he was no longer able to work. In 2017 he sued the NFL for bullying and in 2019 received almost  $10 million to settle grievances with the league

But Kaepernick’s legacy has transcended his sporting career. The rediscovery, perhaps unconscious, of that simple and powerful gesture by Martin Luther King, changed the world. Today, half a century after Selma and four years after Kaepernick, the “take a knee” has become a symbol of Black Lives Matter along with another historical memory made famous by two sportsmen: the raised fist of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

One may say that kneeling is  a political statement and that politics should not meddle with sport, but I can vouch that this is not the kind of thought that dented any of the Italian players’ mind. At least I hope their feet will work tomorrow.

P.S: The obtuse refusal of UEFA to move European matches from cities where there is a serious risk of contagion is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable that sovereign countries permit it, putting the health of their citizens at risk.

In Our Own Flesh

The act of writing is not often that smooth. Sometimes  you don’t have much to say, sometimes you don’t have much time, but it may also happen that even if you don’t have much to say or much time, you feel compelled to write few lines, as now. Nothing exceptional , nothing new,  just the necessity of setting few things right.  The origin of this disquisition has come from the perusal of some papers that my students  wrote for the secondary high school examination on the theme of “progress”. The  following  statement caught my full attention :

“ … this is what we have  experienced just this year, in our own flesh, with the pandemic:

despite the new technologies, the school was not  fully prepared

to change the teaching system…”

Whoever reads my posts may ask: “well, what’s wrong with this? Isn’t  it exactly what you keep on saying?” True, but it has been claimed by somebody else. I mean, I may say, for example,  that a type of skirt does not look good on me because of my large hips and I am fine with it , but  if anybody else asserts  that I have large hips, well, it is annoying.  Hence, reading my same thoughts  from the “pen” of one of my students,  I have to confess , bothered me a little. The point is that I know  that with “ in our own flesh “he meant , actually,  the students’ flesh only and  by using that expression he had  justified  the lack of attention, involvement  and results of an entire school year. You did all this “ in our own flesh”  and you are to be blamed for this. I/we are justified. That’s all.

Well, that is not all. Actually, his words made me ponder about the contribution these teenagers gave to endure these exceptional times in terms of ideas, cooperation, innovation; they are young , after all,  and should able to infuse the “system” with new ideas, but I could find…..none. They have played or have been made play the role of the victims (“in our  own flesh”, in fact), therefore justifying their apathy. I firmly believe, now that my student makes me think of it , that if I should choose a word to define their generational attitude, that word would be:  reactionaries.

Since the very start of this pandemic, with hundreds of dead every day , they have kept waving the “ school only in presence” flag,  without caring  much of  the virus diffusion . Nothing was to be changed. They claimed that the process of learning had to be empathic and it could  happen only if you had  their schoolmates around , and this is one of the reasons why, there will be a remote  secondary-school graduation examination tomorrow  for many, as entire classes and teachers  have been recently infected  by too much empathy.

As for technology, I have already written that this generation is less technological than what we may suspect, unless  we believe sharing  videos, photos  and liking a picture to be a technological skill. The majority of them has no clue of  how to download, save, rename and upload a file and has found tremendously hard to learn it.  Furthermore, if it is true that the remote teaching effort has often been a mechanical pouring of the same things done in the classroom  through a video , it is also true that the students have made any development in teaching , learning and even in empathy, as I believe that even in a remote class there is room for empathy, very difficult . More or less  these were the main activities in which they were mostly involved:

  1. DISTURBING: sound effect , freeze effect
  2. PRETENDING (1) disconnection and  audio problems when necessary;
  3. COPYING entire pages from  most common websites, as if they were not accessible to teachers, who have actually  learnt the great power of  “copy “and “paste” commands to find the original source.
  4. PRETENDING (2) to answer questions, while actually reading something on video (easily detected as their face all of a sudden seemed like being affected by paralysis,  while the eyes move sideways. You may even hear the  gentle clicking of the mouse, if  a change of page is needed sometimes).
  5. DENYING whatever has been written above.

Therefore, we have, actually,  experienced the very same old pattern of teacher/students relationship, that is,  the mice which attempt to fool the cat, remote style of course. I have no other significant contribution to the learning cause to record. Many generations of adolescents have experienced tragedies “ in their own flesh”, worse than this one, that’s part of life.

1300s: I’m dying from the Black Plague

1800s: I’m 9 & work in a coal mine

1900s: I’m off to fight in a war

2020s: Remote teaching and the pandemic are robbing me of my youth (source Twitter)

Hysteria and Farce

It’s over. This school year is virtually over, before than expected, actually. It is about to end in the same hysterical way it started and progressed. Truly hysterical, as at first the great thinkers who are in charge of this ship called “School” meant  to prolong our sailing one month more, only to make it end eventually a week before. Why?  Well, it seems they ran out of provisions and had to disembark some young cabin-boys  who were recruited just to be able to finish the journey. To cut a long story short, they had no money to pay the substitute teachers – I wanted to stick to the metaphor, I do apologize -. By the ways, a trip to “Summer School” land was still in their plans with an investment of about 561 million euros, but when they understood that this plan would have been deserted by both students and teachers – whose only thought at the moment is to cut and run as soon as possible –  they steered to “Summer/Autumn School” land , where they had more chances to find somebody more receptive. After all, it is part of human nature to forget the past after a long vacation and be more responsive.

Hence, if the initial idea was  to extend the school calendar to recover, in a more relaxed way, the time that the pandemic had “stolen” from school, we have come to the conclusion that, after all, it is right to take away precious time from students. Just hysterical. The usual farce.

This year we have been asked to experiment everything and its opposite, without a clear goal, always navigating by sight . We have ended up crushed by a school system which has never been able to interpret the exceptional circumstances, keeping the old bureaucratic structure, typical of the nineteenth century school, intact, despite the many lockdowns, despite the quarantines, despite 100%, 75%, 50%,25 % on-line classes and  despite all this, we have found the same heap of useless papers at the end of our journey.  So, here we are, squeezed between the anxiety of evaluation and the rush towards  the secondary-school graduation examination scheduled for June 16.

Flying towards different solutions has been impossible, as we systematically crashed against the same big rock: the immobility of the school.  Italian school is a muscular, non-adaptive system  and even if the world around it changes drastically, there is  no way of reacting and curls up like a hedgehog. The maximum flexibility the system has been able to imagine has concerned staggered entrances or to extend the school year until the end of June, and – how I could  have forgotten this – one seater (useless) desks . Nothing more. School has turned up to be a place with no imagination and vision of the future and this gives an idea of the degree of the structural agony in which it has slipped into.

It is understandable that in these conditions many have called for a return to face-to-face teaching, because it is more reassuring from a professional point of view – for teachers – and from a social point of view, for students and families. The only true novelty that the school-system has forcibly introduced is remote learning,  which is not a small thing, unless the remote teaching effort is reduced to mechanically pour the same things that were done in the classroom into the container of digital devices, as it has actually happened in the majority of cases.  Not a changed schedule, not a changed program, just the blind obstinacy in seeking the same results with a technique completely unsuitable to obtain them. Only systems which are under a spell of some obtuse forces can think of transporting physical education hours into remote without even thinking about it. That is why teachers are not victims in this story but accomplices of the system.

In the never ending complaining for what we have been demanded to do in these circumstances, the majority of teachers have kept looking back to an ideal past rather than working for the future. I feel like we have missed the chance to take charge of the school system and demonstrate we were able to make it sail to more interesting and modern destinations. This pandemic has been a great opportunity for all of us to experiment new teaching techniques, but rather than putting them together and discussing all the best practices that many colleagues, I am sure, have developed, I fear most of them will be buried to be forgotten as bad dreams in order go back to a school where chalk and eraser must be always at hand.  At that point, we will be happy, safe, old.

There is always a bright side……

Pastiera Napoletana

White, green, yellow, orange, dark orange, almost red-orange… red. Red is the colour of Easter in Italy this year. In the whirl of colours which determine what it is possible to do and what it is not during these vacations, the colour red has been drawn by lot: red = maximum restrictions possible. Allow me a little bit of  sarcasm, as, actually, here we don’t understand any longer upon what ground colours are decided and for sure it is not the number of infected or Rt or whatever more to determine it.  Just to understand, with more than 20.000 infected per day, 500 dead, we were orange yesterday, but red a week ago with the same figures and we will go back to orange next Wednesday to allow schools to reopen. One thing more, when schools were first closed at the end of October last year, there was an average of 10.000 infected and 200 dead per day, hence, I am firmly convinced that the choice of colour must be due only either to the alignment of planets or the powerful winds which arise from those who shout the most. For this reason we Italians are not taking these colours so seriously any longer, in fact,  whatever nuance is announced, you see a lot of people indifferently strolling around.

For those who miss social life so badly, any colour downgrading is nothing but the chance to give way to their old habits. Repressed by too many claustrophobic months, you see them darting out at the first occasion, as if they were running out of air. I can understand them, but I have to say that this is not my case. I don’t see why I should fret to do things I can’t fully enjoy. Why should I go to a restaurant? To jolt any time somebody sneezes or stations too close my table? No, thanks. Where is the fun? Actually, I have to say that I have never felt claustrophobic all these months at home, but rather, I have found out that there are a lot of positive sides in this lockdown matter. First, I spend less money, I wouldn’t use the word save, but I do not need to squander all my money in clothes and shoes  any longer, as I have no occasion to exhibit my fancy trophies, which is good. I have also had the  time to practice GIMP, an image editor, which I use to manipulate the images for my power points. I have become addicted to it, it is even slowly  replacing Candy Crush ( I have reached level  8437 in the meantime), if you understand what I mean.

Certainly, transforming  our “Neverland” into “Carbs-land” is the occupation that has taken much of our time, as since the very first lockdown, more than a year ago, we have developed  our cooking skill to a level which borders on perfection. By the ways, I believe that the usage of “we”and “our” may be quite misleading for the reader, so, I need to give a further explanation, as “we”, actually, means that my husband Mr Run cooks and I eat.  In particular the purchase of the Kitchen Aid has helped a lot in this transformation and if you don’t believe me, I’m about to give a sample of some our, ehm, his recipes in the jolly field of Carbohydrates.

Let’s start with bread. We make bread every week and this is what it looks like: tomato and oregano bread on the left and healthy walnut bread on the right.

And this is our super pizza:

If you like Italian home made pasta, here is a sample of what Mr Run usually makes: pappardelle with wild boar sauce and tagliatelle with mushrooms and sausage sauce.

And if you like cakes, here is a Bonet:

More cakes:

And this is what we have prepared for Easter lunch: spinach and ricotta cheese ravioli and special Easter cheese cake (it is still warm) :

I fear, I’m putting on weight only looking at these pictures.

So, this is all from “Carbs- land”. I wish you all a very Happy Easter. This is no the best of our times, I know, but it will end sooner or later, won’t it?.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple”

 

Everyone, who has been teaching for many years now,  knows how learning has changed, since we started. We are now requested to be entertaining, dynamic, technological and on this purpose we are continuously overwhelmed by new educational theories in a sort of didactic frenzy. Another thing I keep observing every year is that school books have become way less extensive than they used to be with a great deals of patterns, photos  and alluring covers. When I was a high school student, schoolbooks were made of words only, dull and the very few pictures were usually/unfortunately placed  at the very end of the book, so when we had a daily assignment of twenty pages, twenty meant  twenty, no discount.

 Books nowadays are 50% made of pictures. Learning must have a visual and quick impact to catch the students’ interest, who actually strain in being focused for more than 20 minutes. One of the most recent learning theories is to segment the lesson in 3, 4 different moments in order to keep their attention constantly alive. But, is this what we have become ? Comedians who seek for the audience’s clapping by means of a good laugh or the wonder of a magic trick? As, there is another thing I noticed. There has been  a growing lexical gap between me and them in time, and I don’t mean in English, but in our language: Italian. Not long ago, I remember translating the word “bedside” into “capezzale” and they looked at me as if I had all of a sudden started to speak German. We are talking about  18 year old teenagers who have never come across a simple word like that and  which they understood only translating it literally from the English: bed= letto,  side = lato, “ al lato del  letto”= “capezzale”. They are of age and can vote.  What has become clear to me is that the outcome all our endeavors in order to keep them away from  the  “boredom-land”  of activities like reading, writing etc.  has only brought to a dramatic impoverishment of their language eventually.

Several studies have demonstrated that the outcome of the decrease in lexical knowledge and the impoverishment of the language consists not only  in the reduction of the vocabulary used, but also in the linguistic subtleties that allow to elaborate and formulate a complex thought. The gradual disappearance of tenses, for example,  gives rise to a thought almost always in the present, limited to the moment: incapable of projections in time. How is it possible to capture a temporality, a succession of elements in time, whether past or future, and their relative duration, without a language that distinguishes between what could have been, what has been, what is, what could be, and what will be after what might have happened, actually happened?

The use of capital letters and punctuation has become on option of late. An increasing number of my students (who theoretically  are supposed to  be used to studying  Latin, philosophy, physics..) are absolutely refractory to start the sentence with the capital letter , for example,– due to the extensive usage of WhatsApp, I know -, but,  every now and then,  they use it with some nouns, like “ Book”, for instance.  Why? Are you German? No useful answer is produced, but distraction. Let alone punctuation. They master “the stream of consciousness” technique without having read a single line from Joyce’s Ulysses;  it just comes natural.  These “deadly blows” to precision and variety of expression  are but symptoms of the difficulty in organizing thinking,  which affects not only learning, by the ways.  Fewer words, fewer conjugated verbs, lack of speech organization mean less ability to express emotions and process a thought. Without words to construct an argument, complex thinking is made impossible. The poorer the language, the more the thought disappears. If there are no thoughts, there are no critical thoughts and  there is no thought without words.

The historical moment we are living, dominated by mass medias way of communicating, reflects exactly what we have said so far. What is this constant polarization in any matter : vaccines, masks, politics, football, but the consequence of the habit of simplification, which leads to the rarefaction of critical thought? We are no longer used to seeing or better understanding the nuances of a question; everything  is black or white, and you know why? Because it is the simplest thing to do, but “ the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.

School should give the tools to understand what is complex, rather than yielding to this process of simplification. Let’s start from words again. Let’s make read and practice the language in its most diverse forms, even if it looks complicated, especially if it is complicated, because in this effort there is freedom. Everything that creates complexity is the real architect of the improvement of human mind. Without complex thinking there is not any truth.