Schooled on Hope

An experience from the Italian language school of Centro Astalli (JRS)

Last September, when I was asked to work at Centro Astalli’s Italian language school, I never imagined the adventure that laid before me and that continues to mark my days. I was very happy to be sent to a school, an environment I already knew and loved having already taught in some schools of the Roman suburbs. The relationship with individual students and the classes; identifying and transmitting the appropriate tools so that young people are stimulated and become curious to get involved in a way that is open and respectful towards other people’s differences; trust as the end result of the constant care and the personal relationship established with each student; the generation gap that becomes a meeting place, a way of confronting one another, a means of exchange, and of mutual learning. These aspects are just some of the challenges I experienced and that – in my opinion – make teaching among the most demanding, yet rewarding, professions. Therefore, when I arrived at the Language School, given my prior baggage of resources, I felt prepared and quite reassured by my acquired knowledge, even though I was conscious of posibile differences.

In effect, the first few months seemed to confirm in me the sensation of a certain similarity of the experiences. Evidently, it was because I found myself carrying out the daily lessons inside a school building, in a classroom equipped with a smart whiteboard and desks, but above all – I see it now – because of the mechanism, too often ignored, by which we tend to recycle past categories or schemes and bring them in a new environment we might find ourselves in.

The first shaking to my established certainties came – as usually happens – during one of those ‘normal days’ that seems to be uneventful and lifeless at first glance. As I entered the classroom as usual, I noticed an empty seat of an Ethiopian boy. He is always punctual and sits in front row of the class. I was somewhat surprised as since the day he had first arrived several months ago, he had never been absent. Even though in Ethiopia he never had the possibility to study, he stood out for his commitment and fast progress in learning Italian. His commitment however, was not the kind of zeal of those who want to gain something or reaffirm their presence in this world – albeit noteworthy goals nonetheless. This boy’s commitment was a desire for discovery and cherishing what was appearing before and inside of him. I was not the only one to notice this. That day though, none of his companions had news about his absence. At the end of the lesson, I shared on the students’ WhatsApp Group the topics we would cover the following day, and till evening I hoped to receive a message from the Ethiopian boy. But nothing.

The next day, he did not come. Neither did he come the day after, and so on for rest of the week. At this point, someone will consider it as exaggerated to worry about one week of absence from school. Maybe that’s true, even though when one of your students lives on the streets, it is a different story.

Hermeis had a sleeping bag and a blanket as a home, to which he added some pieces of cardboard during the colder nights. I was the only one that knew of this secret. Hermeis never entered the classroom with dirty clothes or with a bad smell: he is a clean person, and also, of a clean soul. Once when we were chatting, I happened to find out about his daily journey, that is, how he used to walk about four kilometers everyday just to get a shower. I asked him why he did not use the Metro-bus subscription offered by the school. He replied with such a simplicity that left me aghast. He told me that the Metro-bus subscription had been given to him to reach the school, and not to use it for other purposes!

I had a hard time convincing him to use it for any of his other journeys! Another time, during a particularly rainy period, I asked him if he needed anything. He answered me with a proverb of his village that sounds more or less like “The butterfly without covering her back, covers the plains” … and the plains that this boy covered were no joke! He left Ethiopia as a young teenager on foot with a small group of relatives and friends. Shortly after entering Sudan, he was captured and separated from his companions. He never received any other word from them. He was sold as a slave, and this repeated itself several times.

In about three years of travel before arriving in the first place where he was considered a human being – in Italy – he experienced torture of all kinds, privations, loneliness and fatigue. I will not talk about this, but I have tried to share this part of his story to convey my amazement before his deep and welcoming smile. My wonder before that serenity and vitality given to those who can keep his eyes locked in his. Eyes of an intense colour of black, wide and luminous: how can a person still find meaning and come to trust after having experienced so much horror?

I keep this question inside of me without an answer, and this because I have never summed up the courage to address it to Hermeis or to any of the other students. Yes, like him, there are many, many others … so many that it is unbelievable! Their stories move us when we hear them in the afternoon TV programs – or maybe not. The stories are many, and seem to be a distant reality with respect to our lives. Perhaps they irritate us, or rather the constant and stubborn claim for help irritates us. Perhaps it is because the visible wounds on the bodies of girls and boys, men and women, reveal to us that more than the desert or the mountain, the wind or the sea, ruthless is the man when he chooses to consider his fellow men nothing but merchandise.

This definitely frightens us and creates discomfort. If, as George Eliot wrote: “Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself; it only requires opportunity”, the opportunity can be given by any shallow and trivial motive, so I ask: who can really consider himself protected? And yet, each day, the students of the Italian course come here to make plans for their futures, to let themselves be challenged by life, to hope and to trust … as did Hermeis, of whom I came to know no more since the day when one afternoon, he did not show up at school. I continue to wait and listen to the stories of others in whose faces, at times, I seem to see those same intense, bright, black eyes.

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