New Humanity Movement

Education and Culture

A question that often comes up when you live in less advantaged parts of town where commitment to build a better city becomes a challenge, especially with yourself. This touching story is a dramatically relevant experience regarding the commitment of adults and the disarming innocence of young people.

Eleana Pace - Palermo, Italy

I belong to the ‘Legal Commission’ of the school in Palermo where I teach.
There’s a very good relationship of respect between us teachers, which has helped us in a context of disastrous neglect, with classrooms scarred by broken doors, smashed desks, gaps in the walls, filthy stairways. There were outbreaks of vandalism and unacceptable violence during the year, which, since they went unpunished, led to an ever worsening climate of bullying on the one hand, and of hopeless resignation by others.

One day I saw one of the classroom walls beginning to lean where it was hit by a desk, and when I saw that my classroom door was broken in two I’d had enough.

I wanted to shout and treat the students as they deserved, but I remembered a phrase from the Gospel I was living that month with some friends: ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

That inspired me to begin a discussion with my class and at a certain point one of them said: ‘But why don’t we start painting the classroom?’. One after the other they all agreed to do it at their own expense. Their offer was appreciated and the paint was supplied to them free, along with the presence of a school janitor. So one morning, armed with brushes, paint and all that was needed, the students carefully repainted their classroom in style.

It was interesting to hear the comments of some of the more disruptive students who were passing by and saying, ‘What are you doing that for?’ But the more responsible students asked how we’d got permission to do this. The news went round the school, not only among the students, but the Legal Commission heard of it as well, and two other classes asked to do the same and were given permission.

Over the next few days I tried to highlight the students’ good deed and asked if the maintenance office would reward them, at least by giving us a new door! But there was no official comment, and the acts of vandalism continued in the rest of the school. A colleague remarked: ‘What we need here is a divine intervention!’

The ‘Cesare Terranova’ Social and Legal Centre one day invited the secondary schools in the province of Palermo to take part in a competition on the topic, ‘Violence among young people - experiences, reflections and proposals to stop it inside and outside school.’ The prizes were scholarships of €1000 for the students and book-tokens of €250 for the teachers who organized the competition.

Immediately I thought that we’d really done something to overcome violence. I went to the class and I spoke to my students about taking part. I also said that if we won it would be nice to share the prize with those in need. When I’d said that, Paola, one of the students who’d taken part in our initiative, tearfully said: ‘I wouldn’t be able to share it because I’m poor too.’

Her honesty touched me deeply and from then on I kept in mind what she’d said. I got all the information we needed and involved other girls of the same age as Paola. We prepared a food package, clothes and a very nice card, which Paola’s family appreciated very much. They did not feel any loss of dignity but felt embraced by love.

In the meantime, the janitor filled in the gaps and a few days later began to change all the doors on that fateful fourth floor that was falling apart. I was encouraged and suggested to my students to write up their experience of what they’d done, even though it was the final day the work could still be presented. Sitting in a circle, everyone commented on what had happened and then we prepared our entry. It won, having beaten tough competition, and was given this citation: "The simple, clear and meaningful message is that of ‘change if you can,’ conveyed through the true experience of those who have acted positively". And, what was also significant, each participant was presented with a medal with the motto: “For your civic commitment”.

It was great to see how the young people were motivated to do good. When I asked, ‘do you think we could make the whole school new?’ one of them said with touching innocence: ‘We’ve tidied up one classroom. If we change a classroom each year, in five years we’ll have fixed up five.’

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