There is something moving when you see your students go right after the secondary high school examination. 5 years together, with ups and downs, for sure , 5 years during which you have seen boys and girls blossom and become adults . 5 years is too long to be indifferent. That is why I see what we call “Esame di Maturità” more like a ceremony, a rite of passage, rather than a real exam, where we, their teachers, let the students go to experience the world.
The “ceremony” usually ends with the final question: “ what are you plans for the future?” That very moment we realize we belong to the past and a sort melancholy clouds us . We would like to say one last word to the , something they can remember, a treasure to be kept.
We have discovered in time that the language poetry on this purpose may be very effective. In fact, every end of the school year some of us enjoy playing the “Dead Poet Society” borrowing some touching lines from famous poets. Hence, poems are recited with moved and broken voices to say the class goodbye, which sometimes for some student may sound quite disorienting, especially if the day before they had seen you going nuts and turning into a yelling Cyclop eager not to spare even one of those rebel souls.
I used to read a poem myself too, but I gave up as soon as I saw everybody did it. I know, it is very snobbish of me, but if what you mean to be a magic moment turns into a habit, everybody’s habit, it cannot be magic any longer. By the ways , if you want to know it, I used to read “George Gray”, from the anthology of “Spoon River” by Edgar Lee Master:
“I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”
A man, George Gray, is watching a tombstone, his tombstone . He is dead. On his gravestone there is a marble sailboat, a most befitting symbol for a life full of motion and adventure, which is a kind of ironic, as his life had , actually, been like a boat, but with its sails rolled in the harbour, under cover of the rough winds of Ambition, Sorrow and Love. He had always chosen the simplest and the safest route: no effort, no risk, but he couldn’t escape the uneasiness of such a life because each of us intimately “hungers” for meaning. To live is “lifting” the sails and “catching” the winds of destiny wherever they will take us, otherwise the sense of unrest will overwhelm and torture us. Only now he understands, now that it is too late, that he had never truly lived. My message for them , as adult woman, was to embrace life as it is, as Stephen Dedalus would say: “life is to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”, don’t be afraid to err, but rather learn from your mistakes and move ahead . But I don’t read it any longer.
This year my colleague and writer Dario Pisano preferred the end of the exams as the appropriate moment to gift the students with a very poingnant poem: “Ithaka” by Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:
“As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.“
Cavafy chose the most iconic journey ever as pattern : Ulysses’. The poet says, that each of us keeps looking for his own Ithaca, that is the achievement of his personal supreme goals, every single day of his life. Of course, there is nothing wrong with it, but eventually, it is not the goal but the journey that matters, because it is the journey that makes us wise and gives people the richest prizes: experience, knowledge and maturity.
Yet, the journey of our students has just begun, and while I see one of them politely, but carelessly, take the poem and leave, I cannot help but wonder: isn’t this but our final attempt not to be forgotten in their journey?