Sulla Terrazza, Christmas 2016

A language school seen from outside after dusk presents a vivid arrangement of neatly cut squares. Upstairs windows, downstairs windows, stacked above and alongside each other: Blue Room, Orange Room, Pink Room, corners of classrooms well visible through the glass balcony doors. Students, sitting round a table, ranged in an interested semi-circle, or strolling around the room presumably looking at pieces of paper stuck to the wall. Teachers, recognizable by height or hair or cardigan or characteristically light-footed loping shuffle. All at the same time, in silence, at this distance, and brilliantly lit in the darkness.

I realize it’s an unconventional, even rather creepy way of doing peer observations, watching the school after dark from a terrace on the other side of the street. It’s not something I make a regular practice of. But, chance having ordained that the flat where I live has a terrace strategically positioned for a zip-wire straight into the Kids Room, it would happen that one evening I’d go up for air, stars and to get the washing in and end up looking back at the workplace I’d just come from, thinking that there was something inexplicably beautiful and moving about, um, a bunch of lit classroom windows.


It looked like this, but less blurry and somewhat less tilted.

I wondered about saying that this might be how God sees the world: all the rooms at the same time, you know, and everyone likes a good punchy paragraph opener. But it seems presumptuous to suggest that there’s anything God-like about me on my terrace getting the washing in, and anyway the point of the glimpses through the windows must be something to do with the fact that one is neither all-seeing nor all-knowing, cannot hear at all or see properly what is happening; good, bad or mediocre, any lesson appears from across the street as a bright, silent, magically, mystically populated quadrilateral.

Maybe one could suppose that this is how Santa Claus experiences the world: not the rather alarming Santa Claus who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, but a lonely, wistful, doubtful sort of Santa Claus, much unattended-to, looking up at the lit windows in great perplexity about how to engage with the complex and difficult world of human beings; a Santa Claus who really does wish a merry Christmas to all and to all a good night, but with a disappointed feeling that the night will be long, dark, and soulful for many;  a Santa Claus unsure how to fix this problem, but compelled by the irresistible idea that an extensive distribution of socks, oranges, board games and glitter-covered items will surely make all humanity feel that everything’s going to be OK.

This Santa Claus heard rumours, before Christmas, that 2016 was widely considered to have been a pretty pants year. He noted on June 24th that many of his elves were displaying a marked tendency to slack their work and have coffee-machine conversations in angry whispers. On November 9th, still more of them began the day with expletives over their computer screens and refused to work at all except with Radiohead playing in the background. During the year, he fielded petitions to the effect that Michael Gove be placed on the Naughty List and Nigel Farage not even be admitted to exist, while other elves worried about the workshop’s carbon footprint, and others expressed concern about presents that might reinforce gender stereotypes, and others debated humanity’s chances of surviving the transition of The Great British Bake Off from the BBC to Channel 4.

But this Santa Claus never got round to establishing a Naughty List, perhaps considering it a cumbersome modern gimmick, and finds it all very confusing, this maelstrom of difficulties that can in no way be solved by the application of anything wrapped in shiny paper and sellotape. Wondering what can be done for all the little teachers in their little lit classrooms, and thinking, not only about the matters of public farce that his enraged elves have reported to him, but the full unknown tangle of everything each little teacher might privately be experiencing by way of grief or joy, anger, hurt and uncertainty, this imaginary Santa Claus feels very uncertain himself, reaches for a consolatory mince pie, and is glad to pop back out of existence, blown away by a breath of wind up the Strait of Messina.


In daylight.

Maybe the bright classroom windows seem beautiful simply because they are light in the darkness. Or maybe because one knows that a classroom experienced from inside can be horribly noisy, and the eerie silence of a distance view is therefore eerily notable. Or because you forget, when you’re teaching yourself and things are going really rather badly, that on every side there are other teachers calmly plying the same trade, and that your own component part is only a small part of the larger system which is only a language school at the end of the day. Or maybe because those distant silent lessons might be going well, and it still seems possible that ‘going well’ could mean something deeper, richer and more human than that all students are now able to use the present continuous to talk about actions in progress at the present time, crucial as that skill obviously is for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But it’s not really about teaching. It’s something about a shifted perspective, a scene that you normally experience up close, and involving yourself and other human beings, with all the chaos, irritation and hilarity that naturally ensues, now seen at a distance, in silence, so that almost no details can be perceived except the humanity of the human beings. Perhaps a person’s particular idiosyncrasies can be better understood at closer quarters; the perspective from across the street is that each little human person in their little lit room is really quite miraculous by virtue of existing at all. In the whole lofty and intricate space that is the world, or what I can see of it from this corner of the southern Italian coast, there through the classroom windows are however-many ‘very wonderful wholes’, thinking about the present continuous and unaware of how small and how very remarkable they are within the entire frame. The night may be dreary, the road ahead may be uncertain and The Great British Bake Off may be lost to us for ever. Maybe the students were not able, by the end of the lesson, to use present continuous to talk about actions in progress at the present time. Maybe there are no ways forward for the secret troubles each person was carrying that Santa Claus could not guess at. Still, grandly, constantly, and persistently, however unreasonably, all the encircling space, the sky and city and mountains, the quiet night, seems to say to them, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

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2 Responses to Sulla Terrazza, Christmas 2016

  1. I’ve obviously missed something. I’m way behind with my emails and blog reading. When did you leave Russia and go to Sicily? What a culture shift! I was still thinking of you in the Moscow winter, not in Mediterranean climes. Hope you’re enjoying it there.

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