Life, books and everything else with the students in Arezzo
The morning I arrived at the Liceo Scientifico Francesco Redi, I felt as though I was inhabiting a former life.
The building was not one I recognized, the surroundings weren’t familiar, I still hadn’t met any of the students or teachers. Nevertheless, once I stepped over the threshold, the atmosphere enfolded me like a wave.
It was all there: the silence of classes already begun, the hum of activities from behind closed doors, the sense of all that young energy surging through the corridors. I felt completely at home: as though this was my Dublin school, complete with my colleagues, and above all, filled with my students.
I wasn’t sure what to expect that morning.
We’d be discussing the processes of writing, the art of active reading, the responses of students to literature: all the things I’d been so happily familiar with in my previous life.
But I had left the comfortable domain of my own Irish classroom more than twenty years earlier – lots of things had changed in the meantime.
How could I be sure I had anything to offer these young people? Would I be able to understand and be understood? Above all, would there be enough common ground to keep us engaged for the couple of hours that we’d be in each other’s company?
It took a while for us all to settle, and I was aware that I was putting some students on the spot by asking them a direct question. Perhaps it was unfair, and I was conscious it could go wrong – but sometimes you have to take a risk in order to get a conversation going.
The students responded with good humour and with an honesty and directness that was refreshing.
I was moved by the many ways in which they were willing to engage with the texts – above all, with texts in a language that was not their first – and how they worked at articulating their emotional and aesthetic responses to what they found there.
Their willingness to take part in a discussion was a testament to their own courage – it’s not easy to stand out from the crowd – and also evidences the high quality of teaching at the Liceo.
Reading is a creative act, in the same way as writing. Writers excavate ‘ordinary’ human experience to illuminate what lies beneath. We explore what underpins the way we think, the way we behave, the ways in which we grow.
Sometimes, as readers, we come across a book that is exactly what we need at a particular time in our lives. It says something to us in a way that feels new and fresh and exciting. And sometimes, that very book can help us understand ourselves in unexpected ways.
I was happy to see that ‘Heart of Gold’ made one reader
‘understand that I have a lot of reasons to believe in myself’.
For another, there was the pure enjoyment of watching a fictional character ‘take revenge’ on someone who had hurt her.
For yet another, there was the realization that
‘everyone can make mistakes’.
In all the responses, there was a willingness to see the other point of view, to understand motivation – and to feel understood.
With the older students, our topics included the growing and dangerous phenomenon of cyber-bullying. In our discussions of ‘The Things We Know Now’ we looked at the many complexities of teenagers’ lives today: the all-pervasive uncertainty of daily life, the difficulties of communication, the consciousness of alienation.
The students’ contributions were thoughtful and well-articulated.
One reader welcomed the experience of understanding the ‘fragility’ of some characters’ lives, the sense of guilt experienced by others and the ‘pain of the main character’.
Another felt intensely the joy of being understood: finally the pain of feeling ‘excluded and not accepted by others’ had been articulated and validated in print.
Reflections and observations such as these show how empathy can be created and nourished by the act of reading – and this is a very precious response for any writer to have.
Many students wrote their impressions of our meeting, and I was very glad to receive them.
They spoke of understanding how important it is never to lose hope, never to stop fighting against discrimination, never to give up.
I want to thank, again, everyone involved, staff and students alike, for the warmth of their welcome to the Liceo; for the enthusiasm of their participation and for the honesty of their observations.
It was a pleasure to meet you all.