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    two sisters doing homework

    Serendipity

    Teachers expect the unexpected, but nobody expected this.

    Enrico Galiano

    August 31, 2020
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    • Barbara ford

      Please tell this wonderful teacher and writer that this article was magnificent. I will forward to two beloved teachers to let them know how greatly I value them and what they do. The article is so poignant, lovely and heartbreaking at the same time. Thank you, and for the words, serendipity and consternated, incredible descriptions of things in our lives.

    Translated by Alta L. Price

    One of my favorite words is serendipity.

    It was coined by the English writer Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter to his friend Horace Mann, he mentions an old Persian fable, The Three Princes of Serendip. Serendip was the ancient name for Sri Lanka, which is where the tale was set. It told of three princes who, thanks to a series of chance discoveries, managed to spare themselves from an accusation of theft. By extension, the word serendipity became a descriptor for anything discovered by chance or by accident that opens up new horizons or new ideas: Columbus setting sail for India and unexpectedly discovering the Americas; Fleming’s tear happening to fall into the petri dish he was using to study certain bacteria, leading to the development of penicillin. Countless scientific discoveries have been made thanks to serendipity: the post-it note, the microwave oven, French fries. Even Viagra.

    I love this word because it’s the diagonal that sends an otherwise straight line on a detour, it’s destiny revealing itself for a moment – just one brief moment – in its entirety. And in that moment it’s as if everything comes to a halt, like when you’re watching a movie and you hit the pause button: the image freezes into a still that gets stuck, motionless, in your memory. It’s the point at which a trajectory turns and takes an entirely different course, upsetting all plans, projects, and ideas.

    This is what happened to us a few months ago. We thought we were headed one way, and then something forced us onto a different path. Only there’s nothing nice about this particular diagonal. Today, as many of us barrel down it yet again, heading into the new school year, at least we have some idea what we’re in for – but then, it was past our imagination.

    One day they’ll ask us the question: “Where were you when you first realized the virus was coming?”

    I was in Legnago, just over six miles from Codogno, where they think the first outbreak in Italy started. I was driving home from a meeting with high school students. I had two passengers: the teacher who had invited me, and a young man – a visually impaired writer named Alessandro Bordini. We had discussed blindness, courage, and fear. Only now do I realize how these three words were to become so important. Blindness because we all suddenly became blind, just like in the novel by José Saramago, unable to see and understand what’s happening, forced to grope our way through the darkness inflicted by something we were wholly unprepared for; courage and fear because from one moment to the next everything became a matter of courage and fear. Even how you breathe. Even how you look at the heavens.

    Shortly after, chaos descends. School closures are announced, initially just for a week or two.

    At first I picture my students cheering, like they would at the stadium when a goal is scored, because when you’re twelve you cheer if someone says school is closed. But the party doesn’t last: a couple of days later, the worried phone calls start pouring in from parents whose kids are home all day without cracking the cover of a single book. I can almost see the scene unfolding:

    “Don’t you have homework to do?”

    And the kids, hands behind their heads, lounging in front of the TV with a sly sneer on their faces: “There’s nothing in the portal!”

    The school administration starts notifying teachers with formal memos: Inasmuch as we have received specific requests to start offering distance learning, teachers are kindly requested to begin preparing the necessary materials.

    Translation: “Guys, get going, these parents are on the verge of war!”

    Teachers’ WhatsApp groups fill up with endless threads, readily divisible into two clear camps:

    1) The great teachers, meaning everyone eager to show everyone else how they’ve already prepared ninety-five online lessons, sixteen exercises, and five livestream presentations (in all, a couple of teachers in each section).

    2) All the rest, meaning everyone at wits’ end who’s just hoping in-person classes resume soon.

    Initially, most of us turn to the same quick fix: we set up WhatsApp groups with our students. Just to reestablish contact, get them back to work, and make sure they’re okay. Five minutes, tops, and those groups are flooded with memes, GIFs, and links to videos of kittens, such that the coordinator has to jump in with a reprimand at the ready, reminding them all the group is to be used solely for school-related messages.

    The administration sends another memo: In order to ensure the continuation of the semester’s curricula, teachers are kindly requested to send parents all online learning material as soon as possible.
    Translation: “Guys, how’s your online class prep coming along?”

    I can’t help but smile, because I know exactly how it’s coming along: badly, really badly. It’s not like anyone expected that, from one minute to the next, a virus would come along and make it impossible to teach in person, and so, ta-da, here’s a hard disk full of lesson plans ready to go, like a well-stocked pantry, with a bunch of videos explaining the passive periphrastic or peptide bonds. Not to mention the fact that not all of us are exactly presentable on a webcam: indeed, most of us are among the chosen few who, hearing their own voice via WhatsApp, think: “What a terrible voice I have! Is this really who I am?”

    Lastly, there’s another fact that’s immediate cause for alarm. A quick search on WhatsApp turns up nearly all students, but not all of them: which means that some of them lack the means, and/or the desire, and/or parents willing to let them participate.

    So then what?

    Well, I can tell you what most of us do at first: nothing. We wait to see what’ll happen, or for someone to tell us what, how, where, when. But the only thing that happens is that more parents call the administration. I can almost feel the sensation winding its way through Italian homes, as if it were palpable – an utterly new sentiment, something never felt before; for the first time in history, all the parents of all the students are simultaneously thinking: “How I miss my kids’ teachers!”

    When will that ever happen again?

    A new memo from the administration: Teachers are kindly requested to implement distance learning as soon as possible.

    Translation: “Guys, it’s go time. Do as you see fit at first, then we’ll reevaluate. In the meantime: get a move on!”

    We teachers are used to facing the unexpected; it happens all day, every day. Our job is one big string of planning lessons you’ll never give, setting up exercises that have to be carried out in a completely different way. Teaching is one long game of Monopoly in which there are only chance cards. No straight lines, only diagonals.

    We’re used to class plans we don’t end up following, students who don’t have the book, computers that don’t even turn on. We improvise all day, out of sheer necessity – and thanks to that, sometimes the miracle occurs and that improvised lesson ends up inspiring the most unforgettable emotions.

    It isn’t that we’re being asked to do something unexpected. It’s that they’re asking us to do something unnatural.

    For us, serendipity isn’t the exception, it’s the rule.

    It isn’t that we’re being asked to do something unexpected. It’s that they’re asking us to do something unnatural. They’re asking for distance learning: but we know that teaching isn’t something you can readily do from a distance. It’s a bit like asking Lionel Messi to play soccer without a ball. Asking a star chef to cook without ingredients. Asking Oscar Wilde to write a comedy, but without actors.

    Teaching isn’t tossing stuff in, be it into a computer, a cloud platform, or a student’s head. Teaching is bringing out.

    Teaching isn’t just putting together a bunch of ingredients, a bit of grammar here, a bit of history there. Teaching is mixing. Moving energy.

    Teaching isn’t just turning on the screen of a desktop or cellphone, it’s turning on ideas, posing questions, rekindling doubts, letting light in.

    That’s why it all depends on presence, not distance: because it’s something you do, much like a roll call – dare I say an invocation? – where what’s being called isn’t just a first and last name, but an entire soul, who’s then asked to come out and yell: “Here!”

    Teaching isn’t so different from loving. Sure, you can try doing it from a distance. How many couples are there where he’s in New York and she’s in Milan? There are those who manage it well, and those who manage it not so well. But more often than not there’s a tinge of bitterness, silences you don’t know how to interpret, a feeling of nostalgia in front of the face speaking to you from the screen. And a whole lot of: “Hey, you there?! What’d you say?! Huh?!”

    In any case, it’s never the same thing.

    two sisters doing homework

    Public domain

    After countless consultations, we manage to find a platform that satisfies everyone. And once again we teachers line up into two clear camps:

    1) Those who, in a bit of a frenzy and afraid of looking lazy, take distance learning as a simple: “Hey you, do this and then this, and then that, and then that,” stuffing the kids full of exercises, homework, translations, and writing assignments (almost everyone).

    2) The others: those who just use the online platform to reestablish a minimal scholastic routine and try to converse with the kids (almost no one).

    I try my best to stay in the second camp: I come up with a new ritual, Una parola al giorno (“A Word a Day”), posting a three-minute video on YouTube in which I explain a word’s origin and ask the kids to use it to recount one of their own personal experiences. It strikes me as a good compromise, and in my mind I think: “This is doable, I’ll start with this easy-peasy little exercise and then move on to …”

    Nope.

    Within the first couple of days I realize that, if I thought I had a time-consuming job before, I was wrong. Doing it this way takes a lot more work than in the classroom.

    The kids send you their files. You open one of those files. It’s a photo of the text they wrote longhand. Sorry, can’t you write your homework on the computer?

    Sure, teach’, tomorrow I’ll send it on the computer! XD
    Meanwhile you correct. Using Microsoft Paint. Trying to decipher those strange graphemes that, if they’re tough to decrypt in real life, onscreen they become a bunch of Rosetta stones poorly reproduced on graph paper. By the third one you’re tempted to toss your PC out the window.

    But in the end you manage it. You underline mistakes, write out suggestions. You send it back with a note: Send it back to me corrected, please.

    Multiply this new process by the total number of students you have.

    Around eleven at night, as your eyelids have already begun their inexorable descent toward sleep, they send it back.

    Here you go, teach’, sorry it’s so late XD

    You open it, and it’s pretty much the same as before, with maybe one in ten corrections.

    What about the other mistakes?

    Oh, was I supposed to correct everything? XD

    Next day, once again, the file is a photo of the text written longhand.

    Didn’t I ask you write this on the computer?

    Ohhhhhhh yeah, true, sorry teach’, I’ll do it right tomorrow XD

    The whole rigamarole repeats itself. Times twenty, for each student.

    Day three. The file comes in. In the main message, the student writes: This time I remembered, teach’, I wrote it on the computer, see what a good student I am? XD

    But you don’t understand why on earth the attached file is, again, a photo. You’re already about to lose it when, after having opened the file, you’re overcome by a hysterical fit of laughter that lasts all the way from your desk to the bed, as your head hits the pillow and you curl up into the fetal position for a good long cry.

    Sure, he typed it up on the computer, but then he took a photo of the screen of the computer he wrote it on.

    In the meantime the days pass and, even if it’s through the cold plastic of a monitor, a few emotions begin to filter through, in their messages, in the exercises they write; as spring goes from idea to reality and the neighbors’ peach tree decks itself in pink, I sense a subtle undercurrent of nostalgia in my students: the nostalgia of being together every morning, of the constant chatter, of the laughter, and even of the long hours spent watching the clock tick. I feel their nostalgia reflected in my own. Like a soccer player keeping the game going without a ball, just moves – shoot, dribble, run – we’re trying, we’re diligently doing our best to show up, but we know it’ll never be the same thing. Now, more than ever, I understand what a difference a teacher can make in a student’s life, and what a difference a student can in a teacher’s life, how much we ourselves can be that diagonal affecting that straight line, the event that changes fate, with nothing more than a word, a glance, a pat on the back at the right moment, a “you can do it” when everything seems to be going badly.

    Some even write to say as much: Teach’, I miss school, and the first thing you do is take a screenshot you already know you’ll pull up – in beautiful, big block letters – the day that same student tells you he hates coming to school.

    And anyway, you know it’s fair payback, because the moment you made that first video lesson you had a sneaking suspicion – more like a constant certainty – that every single video still could become the basis of a meme they’ll circulate forever and ever, up to graduation and beyond.

    One Monday morning I wake up early. Outside the sky is a cloudy white, the air is cold. I hear my daughter breathing deeply, sleeping peacefully in our room. And I think: I’m afraid. It’s rare that you realize such a thing, that you hear it loud and clear. Fear is a bit like happiness: you just feel it, it’s not like you’re conscious of it. The reason doesn’t much matter, but this time it’s big, something looming before me, speaking to me from the absurd silence outside, not a single car, no hustle and bustle, just, at a certain point, the sound of an ambulance, and then another.

    This, too, is a key moment, because the question immediately follows: Do I tell them or not? Do I tell that three-year-old girl sound asleep in the other room, and those twelve-year-old kids I’ll meet onscreen at nine? Should I let them know what’s crossing my mind, my eyes, my hands? Should I let them see this strange sense of powerlessness and fragility I feel not knowing what will happen in the next hour, this entirely new anxiety that, until today, I only remembered while listening to the stories my grandparents told, or imagined while reading books? Or do I stuff it back down, swallowing it like a bitter pill, masking it under a big smile with the kids during our videoconference, under a big tickle and hug with my daughter?

    You can’t fool kids. If you try, they immediately catch on. The same kids who take a solid month to understand how a direct object works, the same ones who send a photo of the file they wrote on their computer, are the ones who take a millisecond to understand how you’re doing when you walk into class, and they manage to pick up on it even here, from afar.

    So I tell them, without mincing words. I tell them fear might feel bad, but it can also be good, as long as you don’t let it get to you: it keeps your reflexes sharp, and reminds you how even when you thought you had nothing, it was precious. And, in turn, they tell me about their fears: some are afraid they won’t be able to go back to school, others are afraid they won’t be able to have a birthday party. And then our fears begin to go away. Not completely, but at least our fear of being afraid does.

    I have two students I never hear from at all. I have the phone number for one’s mom, and the personal number of the other. I text, I call, I reach out – to no avail. What should I do?

    I hear the same from many of my fellow teachers. There are students who really don’t have a smartphone. Who don’t have a computer or internet connection. And there are those who have all these things, but no parents there to give them even the tiniest bit of encouragement.

    A few hours after the schools closed, I saw two social media posts: Now we’ll see who can really teach and who can’t, and C’mon, it’s time y’all get moving, too, it’s the twenty-first century!

    These come back to me now because I’m now realizing: No, what we’ll see better isn’t who can teach. What we’ll see are the differences – all of them. Between who has the means and who doesn’t. Between whose parents are present and whose aren’t. Between who has books at home and who doesn’t. And I feel a mixture of rage and sorrow.

    I picture those two kids home all day, doing who-knows-what, staring at the ceiling, with no one there to provide stimulation. Even if it’s just two or three per class, or even just one: in any case, it’s too many. Because the truly unique thing school aims to provide is equal opportunity for all. But these difficult days have placed the many differences that still exist squarely in front of our eyes.

    A new day. Harder than the others. I was up all night looking at pictures of military vehicles carrying coffins out of Bergamo because the city had no room left, not even to cremate them. At six I got out of bed and looked to the sky, wondering: what word should I do today? Is there a word capable of expressing what we’re feeling right now? My first answer: No. Today we should only have silence. Out of respect. But then it occurred to me maybe there is a word.

    Consternated.

    Consternated is an important word – everyone should know where it comes from, and what it really means. Because it’s entirely likely that, at some point in our lives, we’ll find ourselves in the presence of someone who’s just gone through something painful, or is in mourning, or has suffered a great loss, and we don’t know what to say. But staying silent would leave us with the doubt that we weren’t able to be there for someone in their hour of need. And so there’s this word, which comes from the Latin cum-sterno, where sterno means “I’m down, I’m laid low,” and the cum on front means “I can’t be there exactly like you, but I can be there with you.” It means: “Hey, if you want, I’ll lie down here at your side, and keep you company. ” In silence, maybe, but I’m here with you.

    As an exercise, I ask the kids to just express their consternation in this moment. Toward whomever they want, with whatever words they want.

    Consternated means: “Hey, if you want, I’ll lie down here at your side, and keep you company.”

    And after a few hours the files start coming.

    Oh, what they write. The words they use. The tenderness of those voices I can almost hear, in my own housebound ears, as they express their grief for those who’ve died, for the doctors, for the families. Staying home under lockdown when you’re twelve isn’t the same as when you’re forty: and yet everyone – every single student – says they’re willing to do so in order to protect the most vulnerable.

    And that’s when I start seeing it: serendipity.

    It’s something that’s always been here, but that we were forgetting about. It’s Aeneas hoisting his father Anchises onto his shoulders. Pinocchio with Geppetto. An entire generation trying to carry another, to save it. If this virus has given us anything good, it’s the ability to say, if you want to save yourself, you’ve got to save your fellows first.

    It’s having reminded us, by stealing it from sight, how blue the sky is. How tasty a beer with a friend is. How special that “normal” life was.

    It’s having reminded us all how important what teachers do is. It’s having reminded us teachers how empty we feel without our students.

    It’s having begun to ask one another “How are you?” again and, above all, having done so because we really care about the answer.

    It’s having gained clarity within our own minds, now that the fog has cleared and we can see who’s here and who isn’t. Because it’s precisely amid all this absence that you can see and hear who’s really present. Now that you miss them you also know who is, truly, here.


    This translation from the Italian has been lightly abridged.

    Contributed By

    Enrico Galiano was born in Pordenone in 1977, and has received the distinction of being among Italy’s 100 top teachers. His books with Garzanti include Eppure cadiamo felici (2017), Tutta la vita che vuoi (2018), Più forte di ogni addio (2019), and the forthcoming Dormi stanotte sul mio cuore.

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