That Sacred Closet When You Sweep

That sacred Closet when you sweep —
Entitled “Memory” —
Select a reverential Broom —
And do it silently.

‘Twill be a Labor of surprise —
Besides Identity
Of other Interlocutors
A probability —

August the Dust of that Domain —
Unchallenged — let it lie —
You cannot supersede itself
But it can silence you — (Emily Dickinson)

Every year, on the 27th of January the world observes the Holocaust Memorial Day. On that day we are called to remember how far can the folly and cruelty of man can go. We must remember; and teach our children that the privilege of being born in such a long time of peace and wealth, at least in this part of the hemisphere, is not for granted, it may not last forever as those dangers are always behind the corner. Peace must be defended by any attack ignorance and arrogance may launch.

Some students from a school in Palermo saw those dangers and on the occasion of the Holocaust Memorial day last January, they decided to put their thoughts in short video made of a few slides. The above poem by Emily Dickinson with its warnings was the elegant introduction to their work, just to say that they had actually swept that “sacred locket” with the utmost care and that in that “domain of dust” they had perceived the semblance of the same ghosts of the past still roaming in the present. Of course, they wore different clothes, their manners could seem more agreeable or even affable sometimes, but there they were. Hence, they proceeded comparing the Italian racial Laws of 1938 step by step, that is, those laws which restricted the civil rights of the Jews, to the first Security Decree of the Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini of 2018, which regulated the rights and protection of the immigrants in our country with the conclusion that they had similar traits. It wasn’t actually even a very original work, as a popular Italian magazine, “L’Espresso”, had already extensively compared the two measures a couple of months before. Nevertheless, this demonstrated that those students were at least well informed and displayed an uncommon poetical taste.

That article had no consequences of any kind, there is still freedom of expression as far as I know, but things didn’t work the same for what concerns those students in Palermo or better, their teacher: Rosa Maria Dell’Aria. The latter, in fact has been recently put off her job for two weeks. She was considered guilty of  having allowed her students to express their free point of view rather than censor it and require a disciplinary measure against them. Don’t rub your eyes, you’ ve read it right, she was requested to censor her students’ thoughts, thus ignoring the Statute of  Students, which in paragraph 4 of article 4 states very clearly that “in no case the free expression of opinions correctly manifested and not detrimental to the personality of others can be sanctioned, neither directly nor indirectly,  ” and in case somebody forgot:”The life of the school community is based on the freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion, on the mutual respect of all the people who compose it, whatever their age and condition, in the repudiation of any ideological, social barrier”. The video was clearly a free expression of opinions just like the article and the cover of the “L’ Espresso”. Hence, the teacher was punished for complying with the Students’ Statute and acting correctly.

What I find really alarming is the presence of the DIGOS (the police department dealing with political security) in a school of teenagers in Palermo. Does that mean that if a student expresses an opinion that the government dislikes, the police department that deals with political crimes or terrorism is allowed to intervene? So, am I to expect to find the police in my classroom if somebody says, that the second Security Decree, for instance, which should be approved tomorrow, goes openly against human rights, as everybody says, because it means at stopping immigration sanctioning those who go to the rescue of the immigrants at sea with fines between 3500 and 5500 euros for each migrant transported, thus condemning to death those who will try anyhow to leave their countries looking for a better future. This is but an intimidation. An attack on the freedom of students and teachers. An attack on the free and democratic school and teachers cannot be found divided or distracted this time.

At end of the video, those student asked a question: what is the point of celebrating the Holocaust Memorial Day, if we seem to forget everything, making the same errors of the past? But, they had an answer and a good one, in my opinion: commitment. Remembering is the key that should make us feel like committing ourselves more, learning from the errors of the past to create a better future, because if we choose only to be the spectators of life, we may not enjoy the show sooner or later and then it might be too late to change channel.

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Elena Lucrezia Cornaro’s Accomplishments

“Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband. (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.)”

Only one hundred years ago the admission to culture for a woman was not for granted. Virginia Woolf herself had received a different education from her brothers who were sent to prestigious colleges, while her sisters and she were mostly home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature. After all, nobody expected a woman at those times to become a scientist, run a company or simply be freed from patriarchical conventions to achieve her own independence. The famous passage from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice about the definition of an “accomplished woman” still fitted somehow the idea of what a woman should be like:

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” (Pride and Prejudice)

In short, a pretty monkey to be exhibited in society whose accomplishments aimed at attracting a man and make him eventually her husband. Yet, there had been women in the past for whom education had meant more than playing an instrument and embroidering a cushion and had struggled for their share of learning.  Actually, if we want to find the first graduated woman in the world, we have to go far back in time to the seventeenth century and, oh my god, in Italy. She was Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.

Born in Venice in 1646 , she was the fifth of seven children. Her father, Giovanni Battista Cornaro, was an ambitious and intelligent nobleman who was not afraid of going against the flow. He had chosen, in fact, to marry a woman much below his station, Zanetta Giovanna Boni, thus defying the gossipy and exclusive Venetian society. Such an unconventional father will have a fundamental influence on the girl.

Elena was only 10, when she understood how strong her passion for intellectual study was. At those times, when women were only allowed to choose between matrimony and the nunnery, Elena embarked on a new, solitary and in a way scandalous path. Elena showed a surprising ease in learning and her father could not ignore it, therefore, she received tutoring in Latin and Greek, as well as grammar and music. But that was not enough. She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic, so that her command of languages brought the title Oraculum Septilingue. Yet, Elena’s greatest love was philosophy and in particular that forbidden land  – for a woman –  which was theology. Therefore, in 1672 Elena’s father sent her bright girl to the distinguished University of Padua, which was one of the main and most celebrated universities in the world, but tied to ecclesiastical power.

Even if she knew that women were not allowed to achieve a degree in theology at those times, she really didn’t care much about it. She just wanted to continue her learning, but it was her father who wanted the world to recognize and celebrate his daughter’s incredible knowledge and insisted on her getting the deserved degree. So, Elena applied for a Doctorate of Theology degree, but her application met the resistance of Gregorio Barbarigo, bishop of Padua, whose authorization, as Registrar of the University, was binding.  He refused the idea of conferring the title of Doctor of Theology upon a woman, an act that, he believed, would have made them look ridiculous at the eyes of the world. Elena insisted again, but this time the Church compromised and allowed Elena Piscopia to apply for a Doctorate of Philosophy instead.

A woman with a university degree became soon common talk, so the day of Elena Piscopia’s examination there were so many spectators that rather than being held in the University Hall of the University of Padua, it was transferred to the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin in Padua. Throughout her examination, Elena’s brilliant answers amazed and awed her examiners, who determined that her vast knowledge surpassed the Doctorate of Philosophy. On June 25, 1678 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia received the Doctorate of Philosophy degree from the University of Padua. At age thirty-two she was the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate degree. In addition, she also received the Doctor’s Ring, the Teacher’s Ermine cape, and the Poet’s Laurel Crown.

Being a woman, however, she was not allowed to teach at university, yet, she became an esteemed member of various academies throughout Europe, and received visits from scholars from all parts of the world. Elena enjoyed debating, giving lectures in theology, and composing music. After successfully receiving her degree Elena Piscopia devoted her life to charity.  She will die in Padua on July 26, 1684.

Two more centuries will have to pass before women can enter universities. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia has been the first who initiated a long and very slow process of inclusion of women in the world of culture, demonstrating that intelligence and brilliance do not have gender.

 

 

On Beaters, Wooden Spoons, Belts and More….

More and more often I come across posts praising those instruments of torture which have characterized our childhood and early adolescence at least. I myself have clear memories of having experienced the entire set above and even more, as my mother – a woman half my size, who was in charge of my corporal punishments – used to throw on me whatever she found at hand, if she couldn’t have any of the above educational tools with her. I can still see the heavy, Murano glass ashtray flying towards me. She just missed me an inch that time.

The comments to those posts or pictures shared on fb are the most interesting part, as almost all of them detect a new phenomenology which is spreading among the parents of today who, actually, were the beaten children of yesterday. Those tools of awe, in fact, seem to have become in their memories sorts of magic wands in the hand of enlightened educators, who were our parents. The words are mostly  of comprehension and warm gratitude, even with a touch of melancholy.

 Now, I understand that time alters the impressions that events leave on our mind – or skin – so that we remove the worst part of it, but I would like to ask a question to all those nostalgic admirers of past and stricter systems of education:  if you do believe they worked, that somehow they helped you find the right way or become stronger,  if it is so, well, what prevents you from using them? I’ m not suggesting that your wooden spoon should become again your educational totem, it wouldn’t work and you would look like nuts, besides, there are a lot of laws to protect your children in case of injuries inflicted and THEY know it well.

The point is that today’s parents seem to be at a loss. I remember a comedian, who effectively summed up their psychological state saying that they have been the first generation to have been slapped both by their own parents and their children too. This is not far from the truth, actually, but why has it happened? What have they done to deserve such a treatment? Modern parenting has given up the idea of punishment as educational instrument in favour of a milder approach, the “let’s be friends approach” and this is very likely the core of the problem, as this orientation – and here is the observer/teacher speaking – has generated lots of confusion so far.

Educators, whether they be parents or teachers, cannot be friends of those they mean to educate. We can be friendly and listen, encourage and help, of course, but we can’t be friends, because our role naturally prevents us from being so. I know that many of you may object to this point and are ready to tell me the hours you usually spend talking with your children with – you believe – great satisfaction and success. Sorry, but  I’m afraid you are deluding yourselves. There is a line between us, a line that we adults for many reasons often pretend not to see, but it is always very visible to them. Can students be truly friend of a teacher, that is, someone who eventually judges and grades them? And for what concerns parents, do you believe that your children forget, while you are endeavouring to talk to them choosing the kindest and most loving words, that you are the one from whom depends their chance of having a new smart phone, money, Playstation etc.? That’s the line.

Trying to be friend to avoid a generational, educational conflict is a great mistake, as that conflict has always been important for the definition of characters. Growing also means to question or fight those figures whose task is to guide and teach. It has always been so. And you know what? They’ll admire your firmness , eventually – not so soon, I admit – , just like we ended up thinking our parents like heroes, forgetting the effect of the weapons the used to be so on us. They were not afraid of their role. We should do the same, unarmed, of course.

Mrs Tink Did Not Win The Big Apple

We are going to New York. This is what my husband Mr Run texted me about three months ago. Why? When? I thought. It sounded all so strange, as we had never talked about it before and he is not the kind of man of sudden decisions, unless he has got everything under control. In fact, the text ended with a link. Ah, there it was. Again. It was a link to a brand new contest named “Italian Teacher Award” organized by Model United Nations and one of the major Italian newspapers: La Repubblica. One of my colleagues had already sent me that link a week before and I had promptly put it aside after a quick glance. It was about describing in a text of about three thousand  words characters one’s own educational project, or even more than one, afterwards, the projects of all the participants would have been examined by a Judging Commission, made up of personalities from the Italian culture and school, according to the parameters of didactic innovation, originality, impact on students, integration of disadvantaged students and repeatability. The chosen six would have won a didactic trip to New York.

Didactic trip to New York? It sounded like a sort of oxymoron to me. Didactic is not exactly the word that I usually associate to New York. The prize consisted in a tour of those schools which are renowned for fighting school drop-out, promoting integration among students or those which are active in terms of technological innovation. As for the accommodation, I had full board guaranteed in a SINGLE bedroom –so, WE I would have gone to New York. Now, let’s speak plainly, I belong to the Sex and the City generation! Had I been awarded with such a prize, I would have expected to enjoy whatever New York could offer in terms of trendy restaurants,clubs, shops  etc. and, as a winner of such a contest, to lodge at the Four Seasons. At least. Should I go New York to visit schools? It sounded more like a punishment than a real prize to me.Yet, how could I disappoint a husband for whom I am not a teacher, but THE teacher? So, I did take part to the contest, eventually, with the only aim of…. winning it. I am quite a competitive sort of person and I would have felt more than satisfied just winning it. But I did not.

I set to work and wrote a passionate text where I described my project, which was more or less a synthesis of some of the themes and episodes I have already dealt with in this blog. “What do you think about it? Can it work?” I asked Mr Run. After a while, he proudly replied: “Now there are just five prizes left…..only, it seems a bit too long!” “Too long? They said 3.000 words and I have not even reached 2.000” He was right. It should have been 3.000 characters long, spacing between characters and punctuations marks included. Certainly, describing an extensive and integrated project in 400 words rather than 2.000 and keeping the same effect, well, it is not such an easy task. After the resizing it sounded poorer – having, of course, the original in mind – so we decided to add an explanatory slide. As I couldn’t find a way to make it any better, I submitted the project and kept my finger crossed. It was November 30th 2018.

Tomorrow, January 14th 2019 the award ceremony will take place at Auditorium della Conciliazione in Rome  and we don’t even know when/if it starts and the names of the winners. Actually, the other 715 participants and I have understood to be among the losers, as nothing has been communicated to us so far. Nothing has appeared on the web page of the contest, which has been dead since December 7th, nor have we received an informative mail. I guess it shouldn’t have been that difficult – if we consider that we are talking about United Nations and La Repubblica – to write a mail, the same mail, to the other 716 teachers, kindly informing them on the result of the contest: “Thanks for joining in. Try again” would have been enough, if you really didn’t know what to write. We have not even been invited to the ceremony, but surfing the internet I have found an invitation card directed to the Italian association of principals, thanks to which I could be acquainted of the fact that everything will start at 5:00 p.m., while originally we were told that it was at 8:00 p.m.. As I live in Rome, had I decided to go the ball, like Cinderella, I wouldn’t have found anybody in.

Teachers matters, recited the contest notice, but as always, the devil is in the details. If we mattered, we would be treated with the respect we deserve. I prefer facts to empty words. Yet, who is to blame for all this? My husband, of course. That’s why I told him that I will never recover from such bitter disappointment till he takes me to New York himself. Next summer would do. In the meanwhile let me see, if I can book a room for two at the Four Seasons!

 

 

It is a Truth Universally Acknowledged

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is a truth universally acknowledged  that when you cook carbonara pasta, a poor dish of the Roman tradition made with eggs, bacon, pecorino and pepper, you  ABSOLUTELY don’t need to add onions.” (Andrea R.)

Actually, there has always been a dispute on this point and I agreed with him, no onion in a good carbonara is required. Even with the following truth I agreed:

” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that pizza and pineapple cannot be a good match … Pineapple is a fruit and YOU CAN’T PUT FRUIT ON PIZZA!!!! . A good pineapple is sweet and juicy and I think that Italian people will never appreciate a taste like this.” (Flavio F.)
Fruit on a pizza is absolutely blasphemous, we do prefer mozzarella as topping. Ah, I’ve got one about it:
 
” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that mozzarella cheese, should never be kept in a fridge….as the low temperature alters its flavor”. (Fabio D.B.)

Words of wisdom indeed. And what could be said about the following one?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you go to visit an Italian grandmother, you have to eat a lot. Even if you’re on a diet, you can’t leave that home without having swallowed whatever she has prepared for you. It has always been so and I think we all love it. When you arrive, as your grandmother opens the door,  you can smell all the food she has prepared for you. It seems impossible, but even if you tell her that you’ll go to visit her only two hours in advance, she will be able to cook for an army. It is a grandmother’s power. Many of us go to have lunch at her home on Sundays, others go to visit her rarely, but it doesn’t matter. What really counts is her happiness when she sees you and her special attention that only a grandmother is able to give. Moments like this are the ones that describe better the word “family”. Moments like this make our adolescence amazing. Family is the most important thing in our lives.” (Eleonora R.)
This was more or less the tenor of their answers, do you think they would annoy our dear Jane?

Few Tips that Will Make any Teacher Happier and More Relaxed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As philosopher Umberto Galimberti says:

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

I want to be God, what about you?

 

 

 

 

 

The Patience of a Fisherman

Subiaco is a charming little town on the top of a hill. The perfect place to go if you want to escape the noise and the confusion ( and the dirt) of such a big city like Rome and feel like living in the contemplation of those beautiful surroundings for a while. There is a rich, flourishing nature and amazing views, which make it fit for walks; you can also enjoy a visit  to the spectacular Abbeys of Santa Scolastica and St Benedict. It sounds like heaven, I know, but that heaven has always been the bugbear of any substitute teacher living in Rome and in its surroundings. Being very distant from the capital, it means you need to move there and live in that sort of holy hermitage for a year. And it snows heavily in winter. Apart from the distance, the point is that I am a sea creature, accustomed to the warmth of the sun and immensity of the sea, how could I have endured an entire year alone on the top of a hill, surrounded by snow?

A call came to my aid. I was offered a one year contract in a school nearby. It wasn’t exactly kind of school I was used to teaching, but one whose majority of students is not fully aware about what they ought to do and why. Literature was not of much use there, apparently. By the way, I had escaped Subiaco.The afternoon I came back after my first school day is still impressed in my mind. I went straight to my bedroom, I laid on my bed staring at ceiling wondering: ” What shall I do ?” “An entire year like this?”  I had bartered the exquisite, holy permanence in Subiaco with the chaotic, undisciplined noise of that school. I did deserve to rot in that hell. What would I do? I have to say that in that period I felt a sort of a Roman Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie “Dangerous Minds” and just like her I needed time to be familiar the overall situation and understand the primary law of teaching : never count on the support of principals.

In a school there is always a boss among students, a leader who is respected, intimidating and very popular and that student was in one my classes, let’s call him Riccardo. I guess Riccardo must have been 15 then, a plumpy boy with lots of earrings and spiky hair. He always looked at me with his black, defying eyes and often made me the target of his mockery. Of course, every time he did something annoying ( let’s say 5 times in two days if I was lucky), I wrote a disciplinary note on the school register and proudly took him to the principal, who happened to be a former English teacher. The last time I took him there, she scolded him once again and sent him back to his class. I was about to follow him, but she made me a sign to stop. When the door was closed, she said: ” Do you mean to fill the entire register with your disciplinary notes, Miss Tink?”

Since that day I knew I could not count on the principal’s support, and having learnt that disciplinary notes are a sign of weakness rather than of strength, I thought: had I made Riccardo respect me, I would have gained the respect of all the others. Maybe flattery could have worked.I started to talk to him in a more friendly way and tell him about all the marvels and the importance of learning English. I told him how his life would have changed, he would have found a good job and travelled; he could have seen the world and escape his harsh reality, he could have been, why not, a steward ( after a good diet, of course), Fiumicino airport is very close from where we live and……as I kept telling him this sort of things, he kept on looking at me with his interrogative eyes and put an end to that flood of nonsensical words with this statement: “But, Miss Tink, I will never leave Ostia!” Ostia! I was prospecting him a grand future, I was offering him the world and he had said he would have never left Ostia, as if his real world began and ended in Ostia – an area of Rome – ; he couldn’t even think of Rome or Italy. Humbled and defeated,I understood that if I wanted to survive that school year, I could only rely on my imagination, breaking the schemes, just like Michelle had done.

So, one day I came up with the idea of dividing the class into two groups, or better in two teams and give them the glorious names of universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, for example. I appointed a team leader for each group, and told them that every grade, every activity would have been turned into points to be added day after day. At the end of the school year, there would have been a big party to celebrate the winning team and the best students with cups, medals, diplomas. As soon as I turned myself into a teacher referee, I realised I had gained an immense power. Everybody wants to win and once you accept to be part of a team you are no longer responsible for yourself, but for the team as well, that was my trap. If you miss one test, for example, your team will score less and that might be decisive for the final defeat. Therefore, I soon noticed that nobody skipped tests any longer, but above all everybody wanted to take part in the competitions/tests I did every day. They could be the heroes of the day. Effort had turned into fun.

Riccardo had become a burden for his team and had lost much of his influence over his mates. He wanted to have their attention back, of course, but unfortunately (for him) by means of the most unheroic deeds. One day, for example, while their mates were working on negatives and questions, he decided to zip up his parka so that his head could not be seen and yelled: “It’s hot in here!”  Noboby said a word or attempted to laugh for fear of having points deducted. It was my triumph, but I wasn’t satisfied.

One day Riccardo arrived a little late. Before he could reach his seat, I attempted to set the bait one more time and said: “Riccardo, come here. If you can write the conjugation of “to have” on the blackboard, I’ll give you……..20 points”. It was a very generous offer for that challenge and he knew it. He took the piece of chalk, advanced to the blackboard and gazed it for a while. Nobody said a word. There was a solemn stillness in the air. It took him almost five minutes to write it down and every time he seemed to be on the point of doing wrong, I could feel the tension among his mates. He did it; eventually.The entire class burst into a loud applause. He was moved, happy, stronger in a more positive way this time.

Riccardo failed in all the subjects that year, all, but English. Today, when I think about those episodes, I cannot but thank him for having inadvertently contributed in making that school year was one of the most memorable of my entire career.