The Dark Side of Talent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Make it Easy

Not long ago, while I was on a couch to the Dolomites, I was drawn in by a conversation between two sisters. As soon as the elder, who was I guess about twelve, caught a glimpse of the first snowy cliffs, she started to explain to her younger sister things like: how orogeny worked and why those mountains were so high. Since she wanted her to follow what she was saying, she tried to select her words carefully so as that even such a topic could sound appealing and be understood by a little girl of eight.Trust me, it was a formidable dissertation. The sign that she had been able not only to catch the girl’s attention – and mine – but also to involve her was that her feed-back was absolutely great: her little sister, in fact, kept on asking a lot  of questions which were actually quite pertinent. She was in. I couldn’t help but wonder if many of my much older students would have been able to reach that simple and effective clarity of thought, which is typical of those for whom studying means understanding rather than the dull repetition of something which has not gone beyond the level of dark matter yet.

I often mention this episode in class as an example of how I think students should approach studying, as, only when you are able to understand a topic to such an extent to make it accessible to anybody, particularly if that anybody is not that smart, you may say to have actually learnt it. That is why when I heard about the Breakthrough Junior Challenge I was absolutely fascinated. The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is an annual competition for students from all over the world, ages 13-18, which consists in submitting a 3 minute video that explains a challenging and important concept or theory in mathematics, life sciences, or physics in a very simple way.The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, therefore, Google, YouTube, Facebook .

The final prize, which consists in a scholarship of $ 250.000 for the winner,  $ 100.000 for the school he attends and  $ 50.000 for the teacher who has inspired the project of the student, is very appealing, for sure, but what I truly encompass is the message of the Breakthrough Challenge : pushing teenagers to use their creativity, technological ability and knowledge to make complexity simple in a new way or language is just amazing. So I started to wonder how I could have made the students of my school take part in the Breakthrough challenge, considering that there would have been a major difficulty for them, that is, the language, as they are Italian. At this point my beloved husband Mr Run came to my aid and decided to put aside his running shoes and turn himself into Mr Webmaster to create a brand new website for our own parallel competition, which we called “Make it Easy Challenge”)with the aim of selecting the contestants, very likely the first Italian contestants, for the Breakthrough.

The next step was to convince the students to join the challenge, and this, trust me, was the difficult part. The admirable colleague, who has supported me in this new project, and I had tried, at first, to captivate them showing the prospects they could have: being the first Italians to take part in the challenge or even, why not, winning the scholarship and go to Los Angels and so on. They seemed genuinely attracted by the idea, but, they eventually kept on hesitating. Something had to be done, so we resolved upon using the most effective weapon teachers and parents have in their hands: threat. Magically about 100 videos came out of the blue and I can proudly say, some of them are very good. Afterwards, the  videos have been watched and voted by the same students who had made them and the 25 chosen will be judged by the other students of my school, hoping that they will join next year edition, and a panel of Maths, Physics and Life Sciences teachers. The winners will the celebrated at the end of this month. So one thing I can say for sure: Mark Zuckerberg, watch this : www.makeiteasychallenge.it! We are coming!