I still remember a day during high school in Italy. I was part of a very strict classical studies school, in the years of ginnasio and I knew the philosophy teacher was going to check whether we had done our homework or not that day. See, in Italy, most of the exams are oral ones (which I am grateful about. I think that a lot of pressure is taken off when I speak in public thanks to this one), and he would check on us from time to time with a surprise quiz.
I loved philosophy, and he knew it so I kind of had gained a “reputation” with him. I would have never “disappointed” the teacher by not studying one of my favorite subjects. And yet that day I hadn’t studied. I had forgotten. I had spent the afternoon with my mom who was trying to teach me mathematics (as a science and maths teacher she helped me out), while I was dancing to distract her (my strategy not to study mathematics). But in the end, we had spent the entire afternoon on it and I felt pretty ready.
And philosophy. Forgotten. Before the teacher entered the class, I was chatting with my classmates and rumor was going around that also other 5 or 6 people were not prepared in philosophy either. So we thought “OK if we come clean as a group maybe he won’t do any surprise quiz today. Ok, 1,2,3.. go! Gain the courage and tell him.” At the time you had to stand up from your sitting chair and talk in front of everyone (talk about public shaming. Way worse than social media if you ask me!!) if you wanted to talk. The teacher said he was going to start the surprise quiz. I look around, and none of the unprepared classmates looked like he/she was prepared to stand up with me...everyone was frozen. I had a few seconds to decide to either be part of the silent group, and risk it, knowing that maybe I could get away with it if the teacher did not ask me questions, or come clean alone, and maybe be punished with a “penalty” on my marks record but to feel lighter because of my honesty. I chose honesty. I stood up completely alone and said that I hadn’t studied that day. I felt everyone’s look on me as I was blushing, and I could hear some sounds like “ohhh, look at the teacher’s favorite, she did not do her homework this time!”
This, I thought this morning, in the present time of 2021, is a memory and reminder of what it feels like to speak up alone. I get it, I get it why people feel more comfortable speaking up as groups. The group is stronger, the group eliminates that individual shame or potential lack of courage, the group defends you, but the group can also silence you. I somehow always felt good speaking up for myself and others, even if I was battling the war alone. But what is better to do? And how? As a group, or no matter what even if it is a single voice? As an adult I have come to ask myself these questions.
Reading the article on BBC about Naomi Osaka or Simone Biles speaking up individually about their mental health connected to professional athleticism, I think how hard it must have been for them. But at the same time I think what a long way we have come before even one person spoke up. How many issues have been unnoticed until someone spoke up? And how many people haven’t had the strength to speak up about violence, about racism, injustice, overwork, bullism, mental health, and have gathered as a group to gain that courage and strength? Is it the group of the individual that starts it? Or both?
I have come to the conclusion that we shall never feel alone when speaking up before sooner or later, someone is going to join us. It might not be a group at first, but then it can be. And one thing is certain: sharing the pain with a group makes the pain smaller and our ability to make positive change easier.
The teacher did not place a penalty on my marks record, because he said he did not want to punish my honesty. I am glad he said that, because he reinforced my strong belief in the power of truth no matter how hard. He did the quiz though, and asked some questions to the unprepared ones. Some of them got a negative mark, some others got away with it. If I had to go back, I would choose the path of truth again.