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Overcoming Sadness

Overcoming childhood was both scary and exciting. It was scary because we had to pass oral and written exams. Five boys in my village attempted it. Three failed, and two succeeded. I was one of the latter. I didn’t like the other boy, but we ended up in the same class. It was exciting because, for the first time, I felt independent and self-reliant. Every day, I had to ride the bus for about an hour each way to attend sixth grade at the Scuola Media Luigi Pirandello with boys from various parts of the Messina province. There were also girls located on the other side of the building. Around this time, I became increasingly self-conscious about my skills and started comparing my abilities with others.

Academically, I wasn’t at the top or the bottom of the class. I intentionally tried to remain in the middle to avoid drawing too much attention to myself. When I received my first grade of three out of a possible ten on my first composition, it appeared I had a long way to go to meet the standards envisioned by the teacher. To make things gloomier, my village friend flew a note to me saying, “Vergognati.” The teacher eventually discovered the situation because I looked too distraught. She reprimanded him, remarking that he had not done much better obtaining the rating of a four. Her intervention gave me hope, and I worked diligently to please her. My admiration for her turned into spiritual love. I didn’t care about the competition from the rest of the class. As a graduation teacher from Junior High School, I was the student posing next to her in the class photograph!

That year, I was not promoted. The unthinkable occurred. I had to take a written Latin test but showed up on the wrong day. The rule was that if a course failed, a student had to repeat the entire year. My mother was depressed but did not blame me for the oversight. She made me feel safe. She attempted everything: interventions with the principal for a retake and, given the remoteness of our village, appeals with the school committee for special consideration. Our requests were denied. I had to repeat the year. My friends in the town were looking at me, whispering, “Bocciato!” I didn’t feel ashamed, but I did feel excluded. I was dejected, but I had not lost hope.

Meanwhile, my mother summoned the village priest (a true mentor during my early adolescent years) to my house. Bed-stricken, she spoke softly and calmly about my plight with the priest. The plan was to prepare me for special exams the next June and, in the process, complete two years of education in one.

The priest personally volunteered his time to be my tutor. It was a way out. I could not and did not want to disappoint, and I embraced the challenge with all my heart. Latin, Geography, Mathematics, nothing stopped me. Walking up and down by the church where I played soccer, word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter, book by book, I was determined to succeed. Friends offered the quietest rooms in their homes. I was confident. I didn’t mind working from dawn till dusk. Pages filled with printed words became photographs. I had a great time and discovered I could do things with my mind.

In June of 1961, I took the exams, one by one, for six days. Amazingly, I was very calm. There were about ten other boys in the same situation. The following week, on a Monday, when the grades were posted, I took the bus to the city with trepidation and anticipation. Passing grades were marked in blue, and failing grades in red. Next to my name, I saw blue, blue, all blue. I had passed all the exams with sixes, sevens, and one eight. I was the only candidate with the attribute ‘Promosso, and I savored the moment. Back in the village, my friends said nothing but glanced at me with admiration. I learned two critical lessons that energized me throughout my teens. First lesson: hard work pays off! Second lesson: individuals need people who care and offer support to be successful. Without the latter ingredient, I wouldn’t have had the desire to stimulate the cognitive portion of my existence.

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