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The Heart of the Matter: A Relationship

What is the heart (and who is the protagonist) of the challenge of education? We present here some stories of the first weeks of school from across Europe and America, to discover what’s gained by those who accept their responsibilities without cheating.
Fabrizio Rossi and Suzanne Tanzi

Like Fr. Giussani once said, one can reach old age and be “empty.” How does this happen? It happens when a person “misses” what fills life up, what fulfills him. We can all gage the risk of such a thing happening in our own lives, but we must admit the existence of the risk. How can we diminish that risk for ourselves and for those we love? We can do so by seeking out one who can introduce us to what fulfills life. In other words, we can seek out an education. Fr. Giussani tirelessly reminded us that education is an introduction to the whole of reality, with all that makes it up. And what aspect of reality could possibly carry more importance than what fulfills us? Allan Bloom expressed the problem beautifully in his seminal work, The Closing of the American Mind: “The teacher… must constantly try to look toward the goal of human completeness and back at the nature of his students… Attention to the young, knowing what their hungers are and what they can digest, is the essence of the craft. One must spy out and elicit those hungers. For there is no real education that does not respond to felt need” (New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 19). What need can we feel stronger than that of our own fulfillment? This provocation lies at the heart of Fr. Giussani’s concern and so ours.

This month in Traces we will focus on education in a special Close-Up section, taking a look at it from three different angles. First, we attempt to give a glimpse “from the trenches” with some passionate educators in an article that relates a bit of the day-to-day reality of teaching. Next, Professor Brad Gregory of Notre Dame University shares his thoughts with us about the status quo of education in America and addresses the importance of responsibility, risk, and freedom. Third, we also present an article on the recent gathering of adult Responsibles for the high school communities of CL, known as GS. In the end, though, the problem of education cannot be pigeon-holed as a problem for some particular group. No person can avoid the constant need to deepen his or her familiarity with what nourishes life. For who cannot identify with Tennyson’s Ulysses’ ridicule, “As though to breathe were life” (24)? We constantly need to educate and to be educated because, “What does it profit one if he gains the whole world and loses himself?”

(Chris Bacich)

“What’s going on in 5B?” “They have the substitute teacher.” The staff couldn’t believe it: thirty kids excited and hanging on every word of a man three times their age, who’d just written on the blackboard: REALITY. He asks, “What does it mean for you?” They start out with definitions, memories of authors they’ve studied.... Reality is complex… subjective… objective... “Let’s set aside the philosophers. What’s reality for you?” The discussion warms up as one observes, “When you put yourself before reality, you discover yourself.” Another admits, “I realize that often I’m not fully present in things.” The bell rings–“What? Already over?!”

This episode describes an “I” at the teacher’s desk, and many “I”s answering him from their own desks–something that never would have happened if that substitute teacher hadn’t first put himself on the line. He bet on the fact that the challenge of education is always possible and that it concerns everyone: the young people, who seem to lack the curiosity and desire to learn, as well as the adults, often skeptical and incapable of awakening the interest of those in front of them. While some teachers hesitate in putting themselves on the line, it is clear that those who take this adventure seriously stand only to gain.

Usually, you don’t find this climate during lessons with substitutes, but this substitute is the school principal who does his best to have at least an hour of teaching per day. “If I don’t meet the students, how can I get to know them?” asks Angelo Lucio Rossi, who, in Pescara, Italy, directs one of the region’s biggest high schools. “The point isn’t to exert control or act a role; even within the bureaucratic context, you can always live the challenge of education to the full.”

It begins with a relationship. Says Monica Ciantia, teacher at a prep school in New York City, “What makes teaching beautiful is the relationship with the kids. It is not easy; I get attached to my students and have to face their problems as my own. For example, three of them (13 or 14 years old) were not in class one day. I was told they had been kicked out of the school for dealing cocaine–the parents did not realize that their own children were spending $300 dollars a week for drugs! Once, a student of mine asked me if he could do his homework after school in my classroom because his parents didn’t get home until 8 pm. And at my second parent–teacher conferences, two men came to see me. One introduced himself as Chris’s dad, and the other said, ‘I’m Chris’s mom.’ It is painful to see how troubled some kids are: their families are disasters; they don’t know what it means to be friends; they cannot study; they feel imprisoned in school.... Nevertheless, their hearts are the same as mine: in front of something beautiful and true, their faces glow and yearn for that same beauty and love that I want and have met.”

Taking the risk of having a real relationship with the students and fully engaging oneself in the class subject matter isn’t always simple. Hiding behind the difficulties of school–the reform that doesn’t come, the problems with bullies, the peeling walls–means avoiding it, deep down, cheating. “It’s easy to start out from there,” says Luisa De Luca, Italian teacher at the high school of Civitanova Marche, Italy. “But just ask yourself, ‘Is this what I want? Do I prefer to complain about what doesn’t work, or to be happy?’” Toil and irritation are par for the course. “Just a minute ago, I was quarreling with the vice-principal. Other days, I clash with a class that doesn’t respond as I would like. But count me in; no difficulty can be an alibi for not living to the full.”

Surprised by Unexpected Fruit
“On a school trip, some students gave me a rose. ‘This is for you, Mrs. De Luca.’ I thought it was for the chaperoning. Instead, they told me, ‘It’s for the enthusiasm you show in the class and in what you explain.’ There’s a dialogue, and I am called to put myself on the line.” This is the “willingness to learn” that Silvia Riccobelli, Latin and Greek teacher, recounts: “I don’t have in my hands the knowledge, defined once and for all for everyone. I’m always rediscovering my subject matter, even in what are called ‘dead’ languages!”

Accepting this as a personal challenge, you discover yourself along with those you teach. This is the experience of Francesco Fadigati, who teaches third grade in Bergamo, Italy. “We read a story in which the sound of an accordion at night re-awakens the questions of the protagonist. When I said, ‘Now let’s review the fundamental points,’ they all raised their hands.” One of them recounted, “Sometimes I can’t sleep, and I ask why we have to die, and so I try to think about clothes or TV. But my question remains.” And another, “Science describes everything for you. The heart stops beating, and the cells die. But this isn’t what I want to know.” And they call middle school years just a “transition age”! “If I had not expected anything else, I would have just stopped at a summary of the lesson,” recalls Francesco. “Instead, I couldn’t remain the same. They laid out the truest part of themselves, and so I answered, ‘These are my questions, too. For me, too, life is a mystery, as is death.’ It’s always in the impact with the discipline you’re teaching that what they are emerges.” Pepe Rodelgo of Miami, Florida, further affirms the place of the mystery in the adventure of discovery that each subject brings: “I left my position as a Eurofighter for the classroom, because teaching is far more fascinating than the Air Force. Education in the USA is about academic standards, success, and preparing for the best college, but that kind of education leaves our students unprepared for the greater challenges that life inevitably brings. That is why I try to make my class a passionate place of discovering the link that exists between the things that we are studying and their origin and destiny. There is a factor in my students, in me, and in class which is a mystery. The class can become the great adventure of learning the true meaning of everything, including our lives.”

I am the reform. This point seems clear when studying Dante or a Van Gogh painting, but what about more arid subjects? “There’s no difference,” explains Tiago Bianchi of Lisbon, who chose to leave his job as a bank clerk to teach math. “Even with equations, you can discover that things have an order.” Or take grammar, for example. “The other day, in the first grade, I faced nouns,” explains Gaetano Scornavacche of Centuripe, Sicily. “It could have been boring but, instead, I said, ‘Just think how great we are: we can call every thing by name.’”

Nothing can be excluded from this challenge. Everything takes on value, including the red tape or the school by-laws. “Every morning, I wait for the students at the entrance,” says Angelo Lucio Rossi, “and I greet them: ‘How’s it going? Did you sleep?’ It’s not simply to get them to arrive on time. My presence there shows that the rules, within a relationship, have another consistency.” From this derives also the importance of caring for the place you’re in. “I can begin to say what nobody says in the State apparatus: mine. The result? Some kids are painting Matisse’s Icarus in the school auditorium; soon, the Forest Service will bring us 150 trees; and some master stone cutters will beautify the atrium. Rather than continuing to wait for decree X or Y, here’s the true reform: a man engaged with his own life.”

Dino D’Agata of St. John’s College High School in Washington, DC, has taken this engagement of himself with his responsibilities seriously: “It was clear on the first day that Christ was calling me to announce something to these kids when I was doing a lesson on the poet John Donne–immediately the questions of the heart began to surface for the kids and I knew I had to address them. Later, I was asked to take over the school newspaper and television journalism program. I threw all of my affection and creativity into this, and I quickly understood that I was serving the One who was behind it all.” Such engagement always attracts and intrigues: “My colleagues nominated me for an award that goes to a faculty member who most exemplifies Christian witness and furthers the mission and objectives of the school through his communication with students and families. Somehow, they understood that I was there to serve them, even if they may not have known the One for whom I was really so obedient to circumstances. This was something God planted and that continues to grow.” Such amazement was observed by Barbara Gagliotti in her work at Brookewood School for Girls in Maryland: “General malaise? Depression? OCD? A student exhibiting all these joined our 9th-grade class. Halfway through the year, I took the student aside and asked her what she really wanted from life. ‘It’s hard to focus, but I know that’s the real question,’ she responded. From that moment on, an appeal could always be made to that truer level of herself. At the beginning of the next school year, a big man came straight toward me and, all choked up, uttered these words: ‘Are you the Religion teacher? No one has ever had such an influence on my daughter’s mind and heart as you have.’ I was just as grateful as he was for the chance to assist in the happiness of another (who turned out to be one of the better students in the class!).”

Parents in Tears
On a Saturday morning before the start of the school year at the Center for Professional Formation (for academically and/or socially challenged youth) of Canossa di Lodi, Italy, students, mothers, and fathers crowded the meeting room. They were orderly and well dressed, as if for a party or a ceremony. The Principal greeted them and told them about himself, presenting the school and speaking even about happiness, because the hours of school, too, have to do with this. Many parents were moved. “I was amazed,” explains Principal Diego Sempio. “Often, at the end of the year, a mother may thank me: ‘Before, my son used to get up with a stomach ache, but now he gets up singing.’ But it’s surprising to see this attention even before the year starts. You could see that they’d sensed in us a gaze of esteem. While all the others made them believe that their children were worthless, I said, ‘If you’re here, it’s because you have a problem. But I, too, have that problem. Let’s start out from this.’”