Gianni Rodari the teacher who taught us

the revolution of the fantasy

100 years of the birth of the writer who brought an enchanted world to school and the memory of one of his students

  • Transform everything.       

  • Dream big.       

  • And don't be afraid to make mistakes.  ​

(Gianni Rodari surrounded by children in 1979)

 The Piccinnini school seemed far, far away, beyond every periphery. Only via Tiburtina managed to get there. Otherwise it was surrounded by uncultivated meadows - arid in summer, muddy in winter. Going through them every morning seemed like a further punishment; it was added to the misfortunes and meltdowns that in that period were chasing my family, who had recently returned to Rome. The intolerance was not diluted in class, a fifth grade attended by workers' and unemployed daughters who in their faces, in their gestures, in their words carried the difficulties, the hardships, the abuses that lived outside daily. 

 

The teacher was busy. But his efforts didn't pay off. Every now and then he lost his patience - he flew a few slaps. It was still only October and the situation seemed stagnant. One day a new teacher arrived, or rather, an auxiliary teacher, who was supposed to help. He was a small, somewhat shy man. He did not raise his voice and often smiled. Yet he was inflexible. 

 

In a short time everything was revolutionized. The classroom changed, the atmosphere changed and we changed. The hours passed quickly one after the other. In fact, we stayed at school even in the afternoon. Our commitments had multiplied and we, previously so riotous and awkward, had ended up being even enthusiastic. Suddenly school had become an enchanted world.

 

But it wasn't a fairy tale - it was a utopia. And we had discovered that we were the protagonists. It was up to us to prepare and anticipate with zeal and imagination. This made us understand in a few days our new master Gianni Rodari. So we soon got out of the sad and passive role of schoolgirls forgetting an oppressive Roman suburbs.

Each had a task in that small, big transformation. Not that we had stopped studying history, geography, arithmetic. Rather! We did it with a new passion and exploratory fervor.

 

What part could I have played that, besides being the youngest, felt so alien and rejected? Rodari assigned me two. I was the postman of the class. I sorted the letters that each addressed to the master, but also to a companion, to talk about himself, to let off steam, complain, confide. Thus small frictions and futile misunderstandings could have been overcome. There was nothing to prevent letters from being written to real or fictitious, existing or imaginary characters.

 

In addition to playing this role, almost interpretative and psychoanalytic (many letters were read together and commented on), I was an "eye on the world". So the master Rodari called me. Not all of my companions had access to newspapers. I could instead get them at home or among relatives who did not live far away. "L'Unità", "Paese sera", sometimes "Il Messaggero". In short, what I could find. I was in charge of news coming from abroad. Every morning I brought newspaper clippings and pasted them on large cartons. They were our tazebao. I realized that hierarchy was important. So I put up everything related to the war in Vietnam that I found deeply unfair. At least half an hour in class was devoted to discussing the news.

It was the last months of 1965. We all had problems of all kinds waiting for us outside the door. We could have succumbed, folded in on ourselves.

The teacher taught us to look up, to consider our situation in a broader perspective, looking at everything that happened in the world.

So it was that, «dreaming big», as he repeated, we decided to publish our own newspaper using the school mimeograph. We had a real editorial meeting. Articles and ideas were not lacking. And yet Rodari did not seem satisfied. We had to dare more. Those same light wings that raised us in the skies of the imaginary should have pushed us to know and investigate a reality so close that we might have preferred to remove. The proposals floated. But Rodari was shaking his head.

 

An idea that seemed bizarre occurred to me. Not far away was a large factory, the Fiorentini. We passed by to go home, when we chose the longest but easiest route. Why not interview the workers? Wait for them on their turn? To understand what their fears, their anxieties, their struggles were? We went there in a group. I still remember the astonished and pleased look of the workers in front of those truly original girls, improvised journalists, who took their part so seriously.

 

The magazine was a success. Even a gruff inspector from outside congratulated him. On that occasion Rodari wanted to show him how we had learned to play with mistakes. 

 

Because, of course, there were plenty of them in that difficult class. Then I found someone in his books. In itself the mistake was not frowned upon. To err and transgress are almost synonymous. And so a poetic transgression could arise. We liked the country with the "s" in front of it, that of the "scannone", which undoes the war rather than waging it, and of the "detacher", which is not used to hang clothes, but to detach them when necessary. It is the country where coats are free of charge like air and water for children who need them.

The holidays were approaching. Poverty was a bad specter that was spinning unstoppable in that school. Nothing seemed more chimeric than preparing gifts. Rodari told us to bring what we could from home. My classmate arrived with a piece of white sheet. We laughed - not without bitterness.

What did he want to do with it? The master scowled and scolded us. Everything could be transformed, everything could be repaired. The piece of the sheet turned into a splendid rose. There were no others so beautiful, because that had the aura of redemption.

(Gianni Rodari with children. On the right, a small illustration by Maki Hasegawa)

During the holidays my uncle Armando, who always urged me to read, gave me "The blue arrow". I still have the original edition with its dedication. There and then I left the book aside, because it seemed strange and incomprehensible to me that Gianni Rodari, my teacher, also wrote for other children. I only read it later. And I found much of his teaching in that singular story of toys that, on the night of the epiphany, flee the shop and get on an electric train, the blue arrow, to reach the children who cannot buy them.

 

Among them there are also the Three Marionettes who chatter their teeth in the compartment so hard that they prevent others from sleeping. «But can't you leave us alone? Don't you have a little heart? »Ask the other toys. "No, we don't have it," say the Three Marionettes.

«We are made of wood and papier-mâché; if we had the heart, we wouldn't be so cold. " From the box of crayons the red flashes out - three signs, and here is the heart. "After a few minutes they also felt warm in the ears, even in the hands and feet, that is, in the points furthest from the heart, where the cold has fun tormenting the poor people."

 

The final exams went well, more or less for all. We already regretted that school on via Tiburtina which before seemed to us the most desolate place in the world. "You will study history! O philosophy! Or maybe she'll be a journalist. In short, don't you want to choose math? ». These are the last words of Rodari that I remember. During my university years in Germany I studied, almost by chance, Novalis, that poet and philosopher whom Rodari loved very much and who, with his "fantastic", had inspired him. 

 

From my teacher I learned, within my limits, the strength of transgression, the need for utopia, the value of resistance and revolt, the commitment to change the world.

 

Source : L ' Espresso - "Thanks Gianni Rodari, the master who taught us the fantasy revolution" by Donatella Di Cesare / 29 January 2020

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