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.

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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.

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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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On Christmas and small green pieces of paper

“Yes – Matteo Renzi big money. No – Matteo Renzi house.”

This was a ten-year-old student’s referendum explanation, and you can imagine the finger-rubbing and palm-dusting gestures that went with it, while a stronger student did her best to give the essential facts about the room of something and the room of something else. Later that day, I asked an eight-year-old why he was rolling on the floor shouting “soldi, soldi”: apparently he was pretending to be Donald Trump dreaming. “Donald Trump sleepy, money in the mental”: Donald Trump dreams about money, pronounced moe-nay, and Christmas is approaching, and tiny Italian children take in the world around them with huge dark eyes.

Teaching is terrifying. In comes a child, bright, loud, full of ideas, totally oblivious to the proper procedure for taking his books and pencil-case out of his bag and putting them under the table, as receptive as a receptive skill, and increasingly convinced that those chosen to govern his world are those who only care really about their own bank accounts. For the next eighty minutes, he is in his English class. In theory, perhaps, in some over-confident highfalutin hand-wavy theory, he has an eighty-minute opportunity to develop such internal structures of intellect and character as will keep him from mindless consumerism, from the temptation to buy power; eighty minutes that the world need not encroach upon, from which a free human being might push back against the world. Seventy-three minutes, by the time he’s got his books and pencil-case out of his bag and put them under the table.

But his teacher has been distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. Perhaps the previous lesson went badly, and a really atrocious one seems likely to follow; maybe she’s conscious that the parents of Child A have been in to complain about the behaviour of Child B, Child C’s shoelace is undone, Child D must not be allowed to sit at the same table as Child E, Child F is overexcited already, Child G is coughing and spluttering with a head cold, and Child H apparently still thinks ‘I’ve got’ means ‘mi piace’; what’s more, she’s just realised there’s no point putting that toy vegetable in the sensory bin when she’s not sure herself if it’s a lettuce or an artichoke, and Norton the hand puppet has gone AWOL, and the IWB is an abomination that causes desolation, and she can’t remember at all what the plan is for this lesson, and she’s left her reward stickers in the teachers’ room again.

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Luckily ELT has taught me to be an action star and not scared of anything.

How fortunate that any good YL course book, available from a university press near you, will surely address this challenging situation with one ‘values’ page per unit, for example with a story about waiting your turn or a song about washing your hands before meals. The reality, I suppose, is that one does in fact push back against chaos and corruption by training kids to wait their turn, wash their hands before meals, and generally conduct themselves in a civilised and decent manner. It’s disappointing to find that you lack competence in this sort of area, either when you go into a lesson determined to love your most difficult students, only to find the atmosphere as disorderly and unproductive as it ever was, or when you totally forget what’s likely to happen if you introduce glitter glue into the mix.

And, as mentioned, Christmas is approaching, and with it, lots of reasons for glitter glue, wrapping paper, presents, sweets, games and general good cheer. Young Learner Christmas should be the height of jollity: make a reindeer, sing a song and everyone can leave feeling happy. For this, imaginative ideas, clear thinking and a sensible staged lesson are indispensable. Ceaseless vigilance is required on the part of the teacher. All activities will be fun and creative and yet remain beautifully and magically in order.

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I typed ‘under control’ at first. Then I felt that while ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ used to be such lovely words, ‘control’ was always a bit of an odd one.

I remain unsure what you do if you’re trying to achieve this, and you’re a bit rubbish at it, and you also happen to believe that the Real Meaning Of Christmas anyway is something to do with letting go of authority, something about messiness rather than tidiness, about weakness, sadness and squalor, about the wealthy and the poor, about up-ending an established order, and about the greatness of any random nameless child in the kingdom of heaven. I suppose one perseveres, mainly, back to the front line with Norton all present and correct after all, just in a different drawer to his usual one, and perhaps with assistance from a host of origami angels and a few reindeer.

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On learning from Nineveh

One midsummer evening, many moons ago when I was still living in Bath, I left a wedding party and discovered that the extremely ugly shoes I was wearing were incompatible with the steep gradient of the streets below me. Descending and returning home evidently meant taking off those shoes. I never wear heels, so it was a once-off experience, an exciting journey of discovery across smooth Georgian pavements, gritty modern tarmac, the wooden boards under the old train station roof, a sense of intimacy with the place itself, feeling the very ground of my city beneath the soles of my feet.

Which of course is completely preposterous. Bath is not MY city. In Bath you can see all the layers of history and you have to know your place. Georgian Bath, with its elegant crescents and long-gone Assembly Rooms shenanigans, shows no interest in modern Bath with its shoe shops. Victorian Bath seems pretty oblivious to both, and underneath all of them are the green waters, worn stones and scratched prayers and curses of Roman Bath, which, one feels, might reasonably prefer to relocate to Rome proper if only it could. And beyond them all, dimly, is King Bladud with his pigs.

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He was King Lear’s father, apparently.

Of course people of the present community in Bath should feel that Bath is Their City. People walking those streets every day should feel that they belong in their city. People who know that ground well from sleeping on it every night should feel that they belong in their city. Children playing and teenagers getting pissed on the Royal Crescent should feel that they belong in their city. But if anyone in Bath were to say, “I just want my city back”, history responds, “which city exactly? in what sense yours?”

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This is the Bell Inn on Walcot Street in Bath, where Nigel Farage and a film crew were once told that they were welcome to come in for a pint but not to hold hustings.

As with cities, so with countries. In Italy, looking across the Strait of Messina to the lovely skyline of Sicily, I feel an odd disconnectedness. I hope this is just a lack of relationship: I haven’t got to know these mountains yet, and their presence still takes me by surprise. I hope it is not because of a lack of ownership. I hope my affection for English countryside is a matter of relating rather than possessing. But I wonder how you can be sure you’ve rooted out an ancestral instinct to swan around sticking flags in places, and whether that instinct might not also arise in relation to the place you first came from.

How did that song go?

We want to see Jesus lifted high
A banner that flies across this land
That all men might see the truth and know
He is the way to heaven

Step by step we’re moving forward
Little by little we’re taking ground
Every prayer a powerful weapon
Strongholds come tumbling down and down and down

I did not really need to ask myself how the song went. I know exactly how it went, and the actions too. I can’t think or remember now how much of the Christian discourse I’ve heard and spoken all my life has had this Onward Christian Soldiers bent, this impulse towards taking and claiming, winning the nation or the nations for Jesus. Not long ago, someone in a Prophetic Encouragement session looked at my Doc Martens and told me that God would give me every place where I set my feet. I have prayed this idea myself on behalf of friends who happened to be facing insuperable odds at the time. Of course we’re not talking about anything actually colonial, are we? We don’t mean real weapons or real armies, and calling the church youth group ‘Joshua Generation’ just means that you see them as strong, very courageous and younger than the Moses and Caleb generations. It’s meant spiritually, isn’t it? Ephesians 6 and so on?

Well, I’ve had enough of it. An overwhelming majority of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Mind-boggling numbers of my Brothers And Sisters In Christ were willing to put their support behind the idea that a rich man can have whatever he asks for, whatever his history of racism and misogyny, whatever the outcomes for vulnerable people and a vulnerable planet. It is not possible to think of all those who call themselves Christians as one united army standing together in love and unity for God and what is good. And I feel like anyway I should have stopped before now to question all this triumphantly marching forward seizing territory stuff. The children of colonists ought to question themselves at the very least before developing any metaphors about taking ground.

Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts – no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.

Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.

I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.

Take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.

Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’

If we want to honour Jesus, we cannot stand in triumph over anything. We cannot look at any piece of territory and say, I’m claiming that. We cannot look at any nation, including our quote own close quote, and say, this is mine. Weakness, repentance, grace, is the one place we get to call our home. We cannot take ground, but we can take off our shoes.

What does repentance mean? What on earth does repentance look like when people like me go and fight a crusade, build an empire, turn away the stranger, trash the environment or vote in Donald Trump? This ought to be basic stuff, the groundwork the church goes over all the time, over and over as with unfailing determination we prolong our remarkable history of making a pig’s ear of everything. Instead, we seek out obscure connections between the EU and the Book of Revelation, notice that the quality of post-service coffee has substantially improved in recent weeks, or wrestle with anxiety about whether this or that person might have been offended by this or that thing we said. Knowing about repentance is meant to be our gift and our pilgrimage; instead we vaguely expect ourselves to be more moral than other people, and collapse entirely on finding that this is not the case – or never find out, which is worse. We need to know what we are commanded to bring to Jesus that we never knew we were collectively guilty of. Then we may be able to walk in weakness alongside the weak, stand with them, and be there with them when the strong are shamed and the mighty are cast down from their thrones.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Have mercy on the fact that I have written about what I don’t practise but only had some thoughts about while sitting on the lungomare watching the waves crash in the wind.

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