Sweet sixteen

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January 27, 2013 by allsho

The Daily Post publishes daily tips for blogging. One of the recent ones, whose title I borrowed for this post, was asking:

When you were 16, what did you think your life would look like? Does it look like that? Is that a good thing?

It reminded me of something I wrote a couple of years ago for some students of mine, who were discussing the same topic. And here it goes.


How was I at sixteen?
For an almost forty-years-old guy, looking back at his teen-age is a simpler exercise than for a sixteen-years-old divining what his thirties would be like; yet it is not a trivial one.

Times were different. There was no crisis, no Obama, no SkyTV. There were communists, back then, the prime minister was Craxi, we were in the middle of the fake boom of the Eighties. We were confident. The cold war was ending, walls were shaking, there was Gorbachev.

I was an ordinary sixteen-years-old kid, not into any particular vice, clever at school without studying a lot, a boy-scout, some of my classmates being my best friends; I was at times in love but without conviction or courage. I had clear ideas on some topics, ideas that later became much fuzzier; but then again, on other topics my ideas were pretty confused and these, with time, got much clearer.

What did that sixteen-years-old guy want to do? He wanted to follow his passions. He did.

For physics, for mathematics. Even more, for education, for younger people.

He bet on these passions. He thought that among the things he valued, these were worthy of higher wagers.

He knew well, this sixteen-years-old me, that he would not meet fat salaries on his path, or bright careers. Some of his teachers tried to talk him out of his plan A. They were seeing other potentials. His parents would have preferred for him to become an engineer, and the reason was then quite straightforward.

What did he find?

He found a wonderful profession (in spite of all the efforts generally put in our country into destroying or denigrating it). Now in his thirties (not for long again – edit: actually not anymore), he can say he is doing what he loves doing and it matters not if he is teaching a weak subject to students not really interested in it, or maybe it does, in a positive way. Among his colleagues he found and still finds persons he holds in the highest consideration. Among his students he found and still finds great persons. Some of them are struggling to build their own identity; others don’t know yet they will have to; more already did. But, well beyond marks and grading, they are real people, not future somethings, actually present men and women. Unique and wonderful members of that family, heavenly and beastly at the same time, he also belongs to.

He found friends, relations. He found a woman he loves and by whom he is loved. He had often wondered how wearisome faithfulness is, that committing “forever”, whether it is possible or not, whether it makes sense or not. And he found, every day, sometimes with fatigue, always with joy, that loving is not trivially a feeling, that love is will, and intelligence, that faithfulness is really exhausting, that “forever”… who knows if it is possible but trying is a wonderful effort, and that this all makes sense only if loving itself makes sense. He found two kids. A real earthquake in his life. If it were possible, he would never go back and change a single comma.

He found life beautiful.

Did he find a sense, a meaning? He saw several candidates on the market: he just had to search a bit. Of course, the idea of a wasted youth, without values or directions was back then as chic as it is nowadays. He often judged it as the alibi of those who don’t want to spend energies searching, and prefer putting the blame of not giving a clear meaning on God, society, the past generations. He saw many teenagers lost in a mug turn into serene people, maybe just a fair bit troubled, when they just switched their will on.

Without quoting here religions or mysticism, he found that the best meaning is the one built by himself and not imposed from outside. He heard again John Donne’s call: “No man is an island”. He rediscovered some of the great, divine things mankind is capable of, but also the worse-than-beastly aberrations it is tainted with, and he got to believe that one thing that gives life a meaning is helping the human family to practise the former and avoid the latter, in order to make this place a better place to live.

So, this is what the sixteen-year-old kid of twenty-two years ago is today.

PS for my students: the fact that John Doe can solve an algebraic inequality does not necessarily or magically make the world a better place to live. I’d say, instead, that if John Doe knows and appreciates mathematics, he appreciates one more thing among those almost “divine” that humans created. John Doe is then a better person, he is able to see a better world, and has, perhaps, one more chance to make it even better.


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