Thursday, February 11, 2010

"The Heart is the Teacher," by Leonard Covello

"The Heart is the Teacher" reads as clear-headed and purposeful as the man it describes.

Its string of anecdotes are rendered in a straight-ahead, clean prose, chronologically scripted from educator Leonard Covello's earliest days in the Italian village of Avigliano, to his retirement from the New York City school system.

It is a narrative which deals only in the essential and does the good job of conveying his ideas.

"The Heart," does a marvelous mapping of the disconnect endured by those who left pre-industrial, rural Italy to settle in urban ghettoes like Manhattan's Lower East Side or East Harlem.

There is much pathos in Covello's story. His mother expired from depression born of that chasm between old world and new, which she could not find it in herself to bridge. "Cara Mamma!" he cries to the reader when recounting her departure.

Similarly, his first love died in the opening phases of their well-suited marriage.

And, of course, as an educator, he bore certain students' failures as fully as he permitted the success of others to fill his sails with wind.

The early chapters fully divulge the difficulties of the Italian-American experience: the gulf between foreign-born parents and their United States-born children; the gap between success Italian-style, via family loyalty, and the American promise of independent self-realization.

And "The Heart..." is also a possible prescription for a particular kind of American success. Covello did not become a wealthy industrialist, but his academic commitment, first as a student and later as teacher, carved out a significant niche as intellectual and policy wonk.

Himself the subject of certain books on education, Covello's approach was hardly rocket science. Socialist of bent, his approach to kids was strictly old school:

"A child," he wrote, "cannot be left to his own devices. He must have discipline, must be given responsibilities. He is a part of the family and the community and must be made to feel from the beginning that he has a duty toward that family and that community."

The start of World War II stunted his efforts at making Benjamin Franklin High School an engine for change in the surrounding East Harlem neighborhood. It convinced him that such violence, however far away, fed his young charges with the same unfortunate inclinations.

Covello's autobiography is terribly understated so that it suffers somewhat from a lack of drama, although his life was hardly devoid of it. But through the narrative's calmness, the reader may be sensing the affect the educator had on those he spent his life trying to help.

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