Hand Gel and Hula Hoops

The delicious excitement of the last day of school before the endless summer holidays. Three whole months here. But never before has breaking up been such a miserable anticlimax. Children in the north of Italy were the first to be hit by lockdown restrictions. They haven’t set foot in their classrooms since February 21st and still don’t know if and how they’ll be going back in mid September. Some won’t be going back at all. In the Italian system, infant school goes up to age 6, primary to 11, then middle school to 14 and finally high school. So for any child finishing one of those cycles… it’s over.

But for Isabella Conti, the mayor of the small municipality of San Lazzaro di Savena just outside Bologna, the idea that kids would miss out on their rites of passage was simply unacceptable.

Isabella is young, brilliant, and enormously popular, voted back for a second term by 81% of her 33,000 citizens. If there were Oscars for best mayor, she’d sweep the board. Her council was the first in Italy to make nursery schools free for all families, and she’d probably pick up the best housing, environment and social policy awards too.

“Since she’s been mayor, San Lazzaro’s been reborn”, says my friend Francesca. She and her husband Marco, and their 6 year old daughter Anna are among Isabella Conti’s biggest fans. During the strictest and scariest moments of the lockdown, she was, they say, “not just a mayor but a mother”. Using social networks, she stayed in constant contact with the community. She broadcast live on Facebook every evening, giving important local virus news, explaining each government decree, answering citizens’ questions and even telling people off for going jogging when it was banned. And, much to Anna’s delight, she made time to read stories to her youngest citizens two afternoons a week.

It’s been deeply upsetting for Anna not to be able to finish infant school. She’s had the same classmates and teachers for 3 years. That’s half her life! Isabella Conti was determined children like her should get their last day of school.

‘I will not allow this pandemic to deprive you of the chance to say farewell to your teachers and classmates’ she wrote, in an open letter posted on Facebook. Her simple plan would take place in San Lazzaro’s biggest park. There’d be dozens of coloured hula hoops, disinfected and placed in a large, carefully spaced-out circle on the grass beneath the trees. Every infant, primary and middle school class would get their own special moment together. A small reward for their patience, resilience and adaptability.

The reaction to her letter was ‘amazing’, she says, with mayors from all over Italy calling her to say they’d do it too. “I was really emotional while I was writing it and I think people felt it,” says Isabella, her eyes shining as she explains that people now need more than protection alone. “You have to think about humanity, relationships, emotions, creativity and hope” she says passionately. “I wanted to assure the children they’d be safe but also that they have the right to be happy and to have beautiful memories, even with all the darkness we’ve been through”. It would be different but, she promised, still meaningful.

And it was.

There was hand gel and strict protocol for entering and leaving the circle but there was poetry and music and genuine joy. And standing in their individual hula hoops, cardboard mortarboards on their heads, the children were allowed to lower their masks for their most unusual class photo ever.

10 year old Bianca was radiant in the sunshine after her class farewell: “It was just like a party, even if it was distanced and with masks. It was really strange but I felt like I was in school again with my friends and my teachers, so it felt special”. Her classmate Maeva says she was in floods of tears during their last video rehearsal for the song they sang today: “We all fell apart a bit yesterday evening – even the teachers. But today has been fantastic”, she continues, “It’s so exciting to see each other again after 3 long months.”

14 year old Tommaso tells me he actually quite enjoyed the lockdown. “It was relaxing to get up a bit later, and it was exciting to live school through a screen”. The thing he liked most was spending time with his older siblings. “It was very positive being together with my family, detached from life outside home and concentrating inward.”

But today Tommaso’s thrilled to look his schoolmates in the eye one last time. His class celebrated with flute and violin solos and then made their Italian teacher cry with a surprise recital of a poem by her favourite poet. The teacher, Corinna, also happens to be Bianca’s mum. Unlike Tommaso, the last months have exhausted her.

“I found myself caught between two fires because I had to look after my school kids and my own kids. An experience… I hope never to be repeated!” Like everyone here today though, she’s loved the festivities: the first hopeful step towards a fragile new beginning,

There is a sense life in Italy is returning to normal. If Isabella hadn’t been here, she’d have been officiating her first post-lockdown wedding. But it’s not all about celebrations. “Right now we have a risk,” she says, explaining that their priority must be economic reconstruction to defuse growing fear and anger. “The risk is that selfishness, isolation, and alienation will be part of the legacy of coronavirus and we have to fight that with all our strength.”

If the mayoral Oscars introduced a pandemic management award, she’d probably win that one too.

All photos courtesy of the Municipality of San Lazzaro di Savena

June 10th 2020

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