Friday, June 20, 2014

My Other Life

Earlier I mentioned ‘my other world,’ and it is becoming increasingly apparent over the years that my other world is the setting for another life as well.  Sandy and I are happily balanced between two lives, interconnected and mutually reinforcing but very distinct and separate.  And this at a point chronologically when we are about to step over the threshhold into a transitional phase as well.  That can only be good, I think.

One of my lives, one which I have cherished for 42 years now, is the life of a teacher, in three secondary schools and two universities.  And, despite the fact that North Carolina’s progressive government has been hijacked by what can only be described as a redneck element, my last few years of teaching have been among my favorites.  At Cary High I have had, quite simply, some of the nicest young folks I have ever had at any level.  I have been asked several times if I don’t become bored with teaching the same subject year after year.  Never.  That is because at this level, far more than at the college level, I am not teaching Latin, I am teaching students Latin.  There is a huge difference.  Am I intellectually challenged by teaching first-declension Latin nouns for what must be the 432nd time?  Frankly, no.  But do I find it competely engaging to teach it to this new crop of kids, with all their hopes, apprehensions, intellectual challenges and strengths?  Absolutely.  The first declension hasn’t changed much since crusty old Palaemon was flogging it (literally) into Gaius Iulius Caesar two thousand years ago.  But kids are infinite in their variety, and finding the right buttons to push to make them learn—and more importantly love—this old, dead language—that is endlessly challenging and fascinating to me.  People who hold up a corporate model as a way to ‘reform’ public education have missed the boat entirely, in my opinion.  Any corporation which tried to operate with the tremendous variation in the raw components of their intended product that any teacher in America confronts on a daily basis would be bankrupt in six months.  Kids aren’t widgets.  God made them all different for a reason.  And this ridiculous obsession we are currently experiencing on testing and data is, in my opinion, unequivocally the most pernicious trend in pedagogy (as opposed to teaching) that I have witnessed in my long career.  Here’s a simple truth:  teaching is an art, not a science.  Always has been, always will be.  And it is among the noblest of arts.

So I’m eagerly anticipating a few more good years in the classroom before I toddle off the stage and close my Ecce Romani for the last time.  But I wonder if that eagerness is not largely due as well to my other life, where I can give free rein to the scholar, archaeologist and writer, one who is fortunate enough to live in Italy in the summer.  Here is scope for as much intellectual pursuit as my limited intellect will allow.  Here the subject of food is actually considered a perfectly legitimate one for academic research and is actually understood and applauded by ethusiastic amateurs.  Here all that prehistory, protohistory and history of ancient wine and food springs to life before my eyes, not just in the form of archaeological remains but in the topography, the climate, the very air of the place.  Here are artisinal foodways that have a proven history of well over two millennia and a presumed prehistory of at least another thousand in some cases.  And here still, the finest artisinal products are made in the age-old ways—not more cheaply or more efficiently, just better.  

Here, too, the lifestyle seems to touch something deep inside us, to slow us down, make us enjoy the simple pleasures, make us more human, in a way.  Look, I don’t want to romanticize this land; there are enormous problems here.  Unemployment is rampant, especially, sadly, among the young.  And even those lucky enough to have a job find advancement through merit and hard work difficult because of a rigid, obsolete seniority system.  Here government is ridiculously inefficient, duplicative, inert, bureaucratic, enough to make the degree of gridlock we experience from our American elected officials actually look like a functional government.  And here those same politicians are, with depressing regularity, not only corrupt and venal but corrupt and venal at the behest of Camorra, the local version of the mafia.

But there is so much that is good, as well:  a delectable climate, the incredible beauty of the mountains, the sea, the vineyards, the olive groves, the little farms, the wild places with clear, racing streams and wildlife in abundance.  Here families are still the center of life, not just in theory but in fact.  Here work is a means to provide for those families, not an end in itself, where even professionals make no apology for going home to be with family and several generations still often live happily under the same roof.  Here the people, a bit shy and reserved at first around strangers, soon warm and show incredible generosity, kindness, humanity.  Here little girls at the beach still go topless until they are prepubescent simply because poisonous popular culture has not sexualized them.  And call me a dirty old man if you will, but I find that absolutely charming.  Here I may be a bit concerned about pickpockets, but I can walk the streets at almost any hour of the day or night without fear of being shot to death by a thug or, worse, some schizophrenic with an assault rifle.  Here good food and wine are not just a sign of wealth and priviledge but a birthright and a passion.  Here traditions are still honored.  Here we find tranquility.

So you can doubtless imagine how, toward the end of a long year of teaching, the prospect of this other lifestyle lightens the load and keeps a bit of spring in our strides.  We just keep saying the mantra:  “Italy, Italy, Italy soon...”  And perhaps you can see why we have seriously considered semi-retirement here, at least on a part-time basis.  When we’re here, we love this country and especially this litlle corner of the country, but we still sorely miss the best parts of good old Stati Uniti.  And when we’re back home, we love our native country, but we yearn for the best parts of the Cilento.  Being poised between two lives, two countries—that keeps us focused on the best parts of both, and perhaps that focus, in turn, vibrates somehow in the best parts of us.

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