Church in Carate Brianza, Italy. Wikimedia Commons

A Method at Work

“The art of the educator is to make a proposal so that the young person may be in a condition to grab onto it.” Emilia relates her experience in education at the In-presa Center–an outreach center for disadvantaged youth–in Carate Brianza, Italy.
Emilia Vergani

The young people with whom we deal usually have very difficult family situations, compounded by negative experiences at school, so their self-image is “nil,” and their ability to grasp onto reality and positivity is very shaky. When we initiated this experience, the challenge was to enact an educational method that made it possible to recover these kids. By educational we mean that each one of them–whatever their degree of capacity for affection and relating to reality–could take a step forward toward maturity. In other words, educating, according to what we have learned, is enabling the person we are dealing with to make some progress. Thus, the art of educating is to make a proposal so that the young person may be in a condition to grab onto it. If a young person is at a certain level of knowledge and affective maturity, for example, it is useless to propose to him something six feet over his head. This educational method has given us the possibility to put into practice some principles that had already been tried out in our experience educating our own children, using Fr Giussani’s text entitled The Risk of Education as our starting point.

I’ll try to say what this method is, as it has been put into practice at the In-presa Center. But first, we have to clarify that the method is one thing, i.e., the foundation that makes it possible for the person we are educating to take the step forward I was talking about earlier; and the techniques by which this method is made present in our work are another matter.

With regard to the educational method: the first condition, always and in any case, for an educational process to take place is that in front of the person who has to take this step there be an adult who says, “Follow after me.” This is the fundamental condition, because it is the condition imposed by nature. For a child to learn to walk and to eat by himself, the method is that someone says to him, “Watch me, lean on me.”

The experience of a journey
We understand in this way what tradition, having a tradition, is. For Giussani, tradition is a person who stands in front of you and says, “Now you follow after me.” In our Center, this methodological principle means some precise things: in the morning, we send the kids to work; we have a group of artisans whom we ask to be a presence for them, and this entails a great deal of work both with the artisans and the kids. When the kids come to the Center at noon for lunch, they find a certain kind of atmosphere. The afternoon is organized around courses or activities, where there is always the presence of adults with precise tasks for each one. I have had some kids as foster children. I remember that the first one was impossibly anxious and agitated, and the only way to help him was to say, “Calm down; I can handle your anxiety. I am firmly planted here on steadier ground than you are. If you hold onto me, I’ll pull you to where I am.” When a kid feels this security, he starts to put the little bit of energy he has–which we call freedom–into action, so that his capacity to begin to be positive in constructing enables him to experience educational progress.

Always being there
The second thing is that this experience must always take place in the present; in other words, educating is a job that never ends. We see that our kids are constantly provoking us, and we cannot pretend to take one in hand and educate him by saying, “You can go this far and no more.” The other day a social worker called us and said, “We found that boy a job and did everything we could, and now that’s it.” It is as though I said to my children, “Now that’s it.” In education, the moment never comes when you can say, “Now, that’s it.”

I think that for me, for us at In-presa, the greatest satisfaction comes from reminding ourselves and verifying constantly that for us, it is not like for an institution or a public agency that can say, “I’ve gone this far and now that’s it.” For us, it is a different matter.

A businessman told us that M. was not coming to work any more. M. had a job, but his older brother used his motorbike at night and in the morning he didn’t have enough gas to get to work; so we gave him $5.00 for gas, but then his mother didn’t wake him up in the morning…. Being there in a situation is a whole complex of things that truly never ends–either you take a kid in hand completely, or it is as though you were pretending.

A new social fabric
This totality has another aspect: it is as though the kids we meet were with me forever, not in the sense that I will always run after them with $5.00 for gas, but forever in the true sense of the word. The greatest satisfaction in educational work comes when it is the kids who seek us out. After internships and apprenticeships, they are hired for eight-hour days, but they still come back to the In-presa Center (we are set up for this, too). The fact that they come back says that it is as though we were together on a journey, during which new people arrive, other situations are faced, and more and more a domain of education and proposal is created, which, in Carate, where we are located, contributes to shaping a new social fabric.

A criterion for judging
The third condition for enacting an experience of real education is that the kids constantly critique what they are doing. Experience is not trying out lots of things, but becoming aware of the progress one has made; being able to verify what has happened and saying, “This is good, this other is not right; I need this to go forward, I should drop this other thing. I think this about youth gangs, I think that about my friend who steals…,” etc. This systematic labor is incredibly exhausting, and every week we hold a session to work on this, which we call “raggio.” Like most kids, ours too live according to the judgments of TV, fashion, and what others think, so that getting them to the point of asking, “Does this respond to you, to your heart, to your needs? What do you want for you?”–leading them to reflect on the fact that everything that happens has to be compared with their own needs–is a laborious task, but if we do not go through this process we do not root them in a critical position that gives them a criterion by which to judge everything, even if during the “raggio” we no longer talked about gangs or their father who drinks too much.

Working the puzzle
On this journey, we go forward an inch at a time, and then suddenly it seems like we’ve covered a mile.

Here’s an example. P. says, “I feel like I’m a puzzle. My mother is always depressed. My boss exploits us on principle. And then, you here at In-presa. How can anybody go on like this?” In our opinion, this question is the fundamental one; when a kid asks it, it means he has come a long way, that the work during the “raggio” and everything we do has led him to this question. The answer is, “If you have an alarm clock in lots of little pieces like a puzzle–you have the hands, the clock-face, etc.–in order to put it together again so the clock can mark the time (which is like saying, you are placed together with others so that you can fit in well where you are–that you can like working, can help your mother in her depression, can earn the money to buy a motorbike), the pieces have to be put back together not by another piece, but according to an order of things that is outside the pieces of the clock. That is, you have to have a sense that enables you to put them together. The kids understand these things immediately. We grasp that they may not understand the right things, but they understand that they are right. So another kid asked me, “What is the sense of this?” “The sense is the meaning of things.” “Well, then, you have to tell us about this sense.” Talking about this sense means that talking about all the rest–overcoming a handicap, finishing the required years of school, getting an internship–has to become a proposal in this direction, in this sense. I don’t know if I would work this hard in order to obtain results. The reason I do this is that, for me, the answer is the discovery of this sense.