“Priest”, “father”, “prof”, “Nic”: my students have different names for me. Each student has decided his or her own preference: it doesn’t matter which one. I don’t want formality, because what interests me is the relationship with them. Some perceive a closeness with me that brings them to embracing me, others approach me timidly, waiting for a sign or a word. In class, in the hallway, in the dining room or in the recreation room where they play foosball, I try to be present. Sometimes at table with them, sharing a meal, other times teaching a lesson and staying on with them as they work on their projects. Together we play, speak about what’s going on, listen to music and discuss this or that rapper or song.
The other day, I entered the classroom. There was a student leaning up against the heater. I invited him to return to his seat. When he didn’t respond, I tried to intimidate him, threatening to write him a note. He didn’t move. Actually, he asked me to proceed. He said: “Go ahead and write me up. I usually get written up three times a day”. I started to chuckle and said: “How come?!”. I begin looking at his behavior pages and recognize that it is true. And then I read on his behavior report: «The student rose, opened the window and blasphemed into the street». I moved closer to him and gave him a tap on the cheek. He returned the gesture. I then returned to the podium and continued the lesson. When the bell for the interval rang, the same student began arguing with another comrade, and from the other part of the classroom I heard him blaspheme. He turned towards me, raising his hands and said: “Father, excuse me, it just slipped out! Seriously!”. I smiled and thought: my presence was enough to make him realize by himself what he had said! The notation on his behavior card, even if it was just, it had not provoked any kind of movement in him. What moves a person to change is a presence that loves, someone who looks at you and smiles, someone you are aware of hurting, not a procedure, even when it is correct.
This week we started to speak about war. It was a way to prepare for the trip to see the exhibit Fleeing from Syria, proposed by the dioceses through Caritas. The exhibition was interactive, putting you in the shoes of a Syrian who is searching shelter in the refugee camps or trying to reach other family members scattered around in the world. You got a passport and money, and then you began your trip from one panel to the next, where you faced vital decisions. Students went through the exhibit as if it were a game. Laughing, joking, and taking selfies.
Then they arrived to the moment to make a judgement about the experience and an unexpected discussion erupted. One girl began insulting another classmate who had laughed in front of the deaths of many people. Another girl started to defend the group saying: “If we hadn’t laughed, I wouldn’t have made it. I was continuously on the brink of tears!”. The setting had become serious. In that moment, I recognized how many wounds and pains they carried, and yet attempted to keep compress, avoiding possible exposure. There I understood that teaching them math, Italian, History and many other things was not enough, even if they are important. I saw their need for a face in their lives, that looks at them with a smile, an arm outreached, ready to take theirs. The adventure within the school continues.