Together

In a previous post, at the beginning of this outbreak, I had stated  that the experience of disasters often promotes social changes and the coming together of communities in order to help one another, as the presence of a common enemy, like this virus, reinforces the impression of being an active  part a community. And, this is how it started: together. Despite the shock, fears and heavy lockdowns, we all gathered singing together from our balconies, showing our rainbows of hope, hands together, brothers and sisters from all over the world saying: everything will end well. We truly believed so. I did. However, after almost  two years, not only the battle against Covid hasn’t ended yet, but that feeling of brotherhood seems to be lost. What went wrong?

After such a long time it is natural to feel psychologically worn out and restless. We all have the impression to have been caged in an invisible prison unaware of how many years we have ahead to serve this sentence. Pandemics have been a constant threat  in the history of man, and for centuries they have been tackled more or less in the same way: quarantines, social distancing, lockdowns. It  has also been very  similar the growing sense of dissatisfaction and intolerance with which people endured those restrictions in the long run, as despite all those measures, future was still shaky. Vaccines have constituted  the only solid difference from previous pandemics, our wild card, but it is exactly on this matter that the most insane radicalization in the perception of reality has happened.

A war between pro-vaxxers  and anti-vaxxers, whose tones and fury remind me of the religious fights of the 16th century, has broken out most violently and I am talking about religion on purpose, as during debates I notice that dogmatic approach to the question of vaccines, which  is  more typical of faith rather than science. The means of modern communication, I have to say, actually help our natural propensity to polarisation. We have got used in time to grabbing meanings quickly stopping at headlines, which are impactful on purpose, thus avoiding the effort of going beyond  the first paragraph of an article. This is how information becomes misinformation. Such superficial approach, in fact, tends to a simplification of the reality, which offers no different interpretation from:  black or white, pros or cons . Yet, “A truth is rarely pure and never simple” warned Oscar Wilde, but it cannot be denied that this approach has resulted  into a radicalization of opinions: you are with me or against me.

Politicians have made their good part in radicalizing the situation even more. At the beginning of this outbreak governments couldn’t but navigate by sight, trying to avoid the rock of an economic crisis and protect the health of people at the same time. We were still all together on that ship then. When vaccines were made available, things changed. Hailed as the panacea for any problem: the end to the state of emergency, school openings, the saving of global economy, lives and more, vaccines became totemic. It was at that point that the most unexpected turn in the narration of this pandemic from almost all governments took place: all of a sudden we were not all together against the ominous virus any longer, but those who refused to be vaccinated and those who questioned the totem were the new enemies, the scapegoats of any possible future failure.

In short, I , Mrs Tink – fully vaccinated – was relegated to the side of no-vaxxers, flat-earthers, virus deniers and such, because I am unable to read the reality as either 0 or 1. I don’t want to discuss science, I am not qualified, but I want only to make a point on what we know for sure on how these vaccines work today and draw a conclusion:

CERTAIN OUTCOMES 

 1. After 1, 2 even 3 jabs I can still be infected and pass on the disease, as vaccines do not provide full shield.

 2. People who were previously protected because of a prior infection can now be quite vulnerable to getting reinfected and passing on the disease.

POSSIBILE OUTCOMES

1. The vaccines’ protection against severe disease holds strong .

At this point I don’t think it is blasphemous to state that vaccines have not worked as hoped. Reports suggest that large indoor gatherings of fully vaccinated people can become super-spreader events, but governments, and Italian government in particular, keep  passing off responsibilities to the small minority, who has refused to get the jabs. All the others, who have been provided with a Green pass or Covid pass which allows free outdoor/indoor  circulation –  without the necessity of wearing masks – , have been told to be bulletproof, therefore, as far as we know now, free to catch and pass the disease all the same. This measure is particularly odious in Italy, as, if you are not vaccinated you are suspended from work, hence, our constitutional rights are at stake here.

And now it’s about Christmas. Just in time to “celebrate” yet another variant , which , as far as we know, compromises the effect of vaccines and most antibody therapies . We have been recommended to stay at home, avoid family gatherings with more than 6 people, wear masks, keep distanced etc. again . This Christmas, the same as last Christmas and, if governments don’t understand than we must fight this thing together, educating people rather than blaming them, the next too. Alone.

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!

Lady Bracknell’s Wisdom

II do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound.” (The Importance of Being Earnest)

Far-sighted  Lady Bracknell had wisely identified the virus which would have endangered her world made of privileges one day: education. Masses could not constitute a problem so long they were kept ignorant, hence, untouched by schooling which was spreading in the 19th century. Just  like any other virus, Lady Bracknell thought it needed to be circumscribed otherwise: 

“… it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” (The Importance of Being Earnest)

Hence, if education  were effective in England as elsewhere,  it would threaten the established order, Lady Bracknell feared. And the grand lady was right to be worried, because this is exactly what happened in the following decades of the early twentieth century. Education actually tampered worldwide ignorance  making no distinction amongst gender, social class and colour of the skin, thus providing access to that “social elevator” thanks to which anybody could be allowed to reach a station different from where he was placed at birth. Till something changed. Lady Bracknell, as conscience of the advanced “Western civilization”, made her voice  be heard again: “ Are you really  sure that increasing to such extent the number of educated people would result into an improvement of mankind? Can’t you see the dangers of giving anybody the tools to fully understand the schemes on which societies are founded?  You mean to fight ignorance, and this is commendable, but then, in such world of cultivated people, who would accept to stay at the bottom of the social ladder– unless you admit  immigrants in your “advanced countries”, who, on the other hand, once part of the democratic educating system you planned, would also expect to advance socially eventually? “

When these kind of doubts started to surface towards the end of the twentieth century, it was too late to  go back. The right to education  for anybody could not be discussed or circumscribed again to station, gender etc. , hence, other ways should have been found to satisfy that conscience with its ominous speculations.  Eventually, three strategies were detected : a) re-defining the objectives of education and educators; b) proving that education was not the only “social elevator”; c) lowering learning standards.

If the sacred fire of teaching placed you in a school, because you romantically thought to educate, forge personalities or simply to  give the basis for future opportunities, I am sure you have grown a bit disappointed, like myself, as today  a teacher is mostly required to be an entertainer. The quality of courses is measured on how lively and fun these are perceived . That is why we are kindly suggested  to get a degree at the Barnum Circus Academy , which we eagerly do and you know why?  For fear of being labelled with scarlet letter “B” of boring. If you demand neatness, correctness, insight you are BO-RING. And what about the knowledge of dates and rules? SACRILEGE!!!! Knowledge has no longer reference points such as time or space, it ..floats in the air.  After all, is it really important to know when  the French Revolution  took place? Isn’t all the effort to memorize dates a waste of  time ? It seems it is, underestimating the fact that, for example, while memorizing you could notice that the date in question is  a sequence of 789 (1789), thus stimulating the neurons which rule associations and being able even to create nets of knowledge. In fact, I could also venture to say  that 100  years before another important revolution had taken place: the Glorious Revolution and compare the two. With one effort, two dates and two revolutions.  But it seems I am obsolete in having such expectations and this why the majority of our students roams in “meaninglessland”, as they  have grown unable in time to give the necessary  time and space frame to what they apprehend. Those dots of knowledge, if not connected, end up inevitably engulfed  by the abyss of ignorance.

Of course, any measure of learning,  such as tests or more, must take into consideration the sensibility of the student, who must never perceive that measurement as too oppressive or frustrating . Homework is mostly seen unnecessary and pointless and should never conflict with the truly useful time our students spend in their many activities. When I try to make my point asking if Usain Bolt would have been such a champion anyhow without training , they are all aware that talent is not enough to reach such goal. “Well, learning is the same”, I reply . “What did you say?” Ah, BO-RING.

Maybe they are right. I am boring. After all, our society has opened to a myriads of “working” opportunities which are not strictly connected  with schooling. The new “professions” such as youtuber, influencer, footballer, tiktoker etc. provide this generation with what they believe to require : money and visibility. Here in Italy, for example,  being a “tronista” has been one the most craved “positions” amongst the youngsters these last 20 years. A “tronista” is a young  man or a woman  who sits on a throne for weeks till she/he decides to pick one among the many suitors who are, episode after episode, eliminated. If this is what they have in mind, how many chances do I have to make them be interested in what and epiphany is, for example? Epiphy…..what?

That is why, we teachers have given up in time. We have given up tilting at windmills preaching effort and dedication  and accepted to do what we are demanded : lowering learning standards and we did it, no need to say, with the approval and great satisfaction of parents or at least the majority of them. Those parents believe that the aim of education is just getting the diploma, what we call here contemptuously “a piece of paper”. That diploma is nothing but a toolbox ,and what makes the difference is the number of the tools you have collected during the school years, rather than the box itself. If the toolbox you are given is just an empty box, unless the student in question is a youtuber, influencer, footballer, tiktoker, “tronista” or any other excellence of this “social” era , he’ll need money and time to obtain those tools, in short, those who have means and connections can anyhow manage their way in the world , while all the others will be left behind to follow their dreams of effortless success.  So, after more than one hundred years it is reasonable to say that Lady Bracknell’s fears have been crushed: the privileges of the upper classes are secured today more than ever. The wise lady can look at the future with great confidence.

How Do I Love Thee?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Romeo and Juliet. Act II, Scene II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Labyrinth of Knossos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The line goes dead.🤭

A Modest Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

Mario: This is what I have written.😇

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

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

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

Mario: Yes , of course,  a,b,c……….?😇

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

Mario: (no answer)…🙄

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

Mario: of course, I do!🥴🤕

Mrs Tink: good boy!😏

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

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

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

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

456

What was that line like? “The man is the head of the family and the woman is the neck, so she can turn him wherever she wants”. Well, nothing is more fitting especially when it comes to stubborn Mr Run.  The man in time has developed a very interesting strategy  – which I am often satisfied with, I have to say –  that is, whenever I propose something he is not pleased with, he offers something in return, he is sure I would not say no:

Mrs Tink: “What about going with Mario and his wife to their friend’s  restaurant Saturday night?”

Mr Run: “Saturday? Oh, I’d thought about spending the week-end in Florence!”

Of course, he knows how much I adore Florence, hence, in this way,  he is able to skip what he believes to be an unpleasant night for him.  But it’s not always so easy to find a comfortable way out. He had been trying for weeks to ignore my wish to watch “Squid Game” on Netflix,  forcing himself to enjoy romantic series set in the Victorian Period in exchange. He was even open to watch all the six seasons of Downton Abbey plus the movie again. Since I didn’t mean to wait that much, I decided to act as the “neck” this time using my wild card:

Mrs Tink: “But Love, even Baricco says it is a remarkable series”

Mr Run: “Baricco?”

Mrs Tink: “Indeed”

It wasn’t Baricco, actually, but Gianluca Vacchi, a well-known billionaire , who has become famous for his crazy dances on Tik-Tok  and with over  20 million followers on Instagram.20 million! What is  Baricco  compared to Gianluca Vacchi, he can’t even reach 30 thousand on Instagram !  So, it happened that one day I came across one of his videos, whose theme was one of the games of the show and I was absolutely impressed:

Mrs Tink : “10 minutes, only 10 minutes and if you don’t like it , we’ll switch to something else!”

Mr Run: “Only 10 minutes!”

Mrs Tink: “Ok. Ah, I forgot……………..it’s in Korean”

Mr Run: “Korean!!!”

After those 10 minutes we were totally hooked and I couldn’t imagine but watching it in any other language but Korean.  Squid Game is about 456 people who choose “freely” to participate in a series of competitive games in which the alternative to winning a prize pool of 45.6 billion is “elimination”.

The last to be recruited is Seong Gi-hun,  a lazy but well-meaning man who’s living on the back of his elderly mother’s meagre income. Because of his betting habit, he loses his family, constantly disappoints his young daughter and  is even  forced to sign a physical contract promising his organs in case of any more delays in payment by some debt collectors.

All the other 455 contenders share stories of failure, desperation , exploitation, loneliness and they believe the game to be their ultimate  chance  of social redemption. They are taken to a distant island  and secluded in  a sort of alienating labyrinth  which has clearly  the form of Esher’s staircase. The  players always proceed in line, like Dante’s defeated souls of the Purgatory.

They are under the control of  workers/soldiers  who are dressed in red and wear black masks with 3 signature symbols: circle, square and triangle.  A circle means a straight forward worker, who is at the lowest level of the hierarchy, those with a  triangle are soldiers with weapons, while a square refers to managers with the most power. The presence of such a strict hierarchy  and the  idea of  identifying the rank  and the task of the workers through a symbol seems to be borrowed  by Edwin A. Abbot ‘s “Flatland”, which was, actually, meant to be a satire against the oppressive hierarchy of Victorian England which reduced lower classes and women into submission.

In fact Squid Game’s target  is  clearly the capitalistic system and  its rules . The contests are nothing but metaphors of our competitive society, which is unpredictable, unfair and deceptive.  No game is ever explained to the competitors before they may choose the means (or companions) to play with and  first time the protagonists of  Squid Game choose to take part into the competition,  they do not know the consequences of the defeat.

But the second time, even though they are no longer unaware, they feel “forced”  to go back to play.  Why? Because the labyrinth  of  their life has just one way out possible: that game. This is how they feel. Despite the organizers  do not miss an opportunity to point out that the competitors have “freely and consciously” joined the competition, we know that  that freedom  is just illusory. In fact,  are  we really “free” to choose when we have to accept an underpaid  job,  or to end up into debt, because we made an investment without knowing the conditions and consequences?

The awareness that only one of them will be destined to grab that chance makes the game more violent and ruthless. The competitive and selfish side of human nature  takes over  any form of cooperation and compassion.  Men turn  into those Hobbes’s wolves who move circumspectly  according to the saying “mors tua vita mea“.

In this moral downfall,  there are beautiful lyrical  moments when those half buried sentiments of piety, compassion, friendship,  brotherhood and love  surface  intensely  in a last desperate fight between hope and disappointment. It will fall on  Seong Gi-hun  – our picaresque hero, whose number 456 symbolizes, according to numerology,  the need to take steps forward to reach a new level – the task to take us to the that level offering a sparkle of hope.  I can say no more, otherwise I would reveal too much; but it is truly a great product and it is worth watching it. If don’t trust me, trust picky Mr Run.

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.