Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Ferula or Fella
Photos by Carmelo Rifici
Memories of school days often flit through my mind, some are seen through rosy glasses and others are painfully bittersweet. One memory that has haunted me all of my life and which still causes me vivid pain is the incident with the FELLA.
I grew up in the beautiful little town of Librizzi where everyone knew everyone else, and almost everyone seemed to have a connection to one’s family. My teacher for the first five years of my schooling was my beloved Concettina Bisagni. She challenged me to learn, to ask questions, to be observant, and particularly to enjoy reading everything and anything imaginable. I remember reading every book in her school library as well as her private library. I was allowed to bring home any of her books that I chose to read, and I did so frequently. I remember reading late into the night, usually under the covers with the help of a flashlight.
The town offered only the first five years of schooling and if a student wanted to attend the Ginnasio , she had to travel by bus to the town of Patti. The trip took only about twenty minutes. My father’s plan was to send me to the Ginnasio but I had to wait a year so that I would travel with my brother who was a school year behind me. My father basically wanted my younger brother to guard me and to protect me from possible imaginary harm! Of course I could not just sit at home for a whole year while my brother finished his elementary schooling so my father decided that I would repeat fifth grade, this meant that I would be in the same classroom as my brother. No, I did not like this idea, in fact it was humiliating for me to have to ‘repeat’ a school year as if I had failed a grade. But I was not given a choice.
School children in Librizzi learned pretty quickly that there were consequences for misbehaving in the classroom. Discipline was commonly enforced by means of corporal punishment, usually in the form of a few taps on the open palm of the hand with a magic wand. Well not a magic wand but a “fella”, stick in English. Once a child felt the sting of the fella and saw the red imprint that it left on the palm she would work hard at not repeating the unaccepted behavior. If the teacher was particularly displeased she would hit hard enough to cause a welt to form on the palm. Signora Bisagni’s desk was usually decorated with a fella but to my recollection she never used it to punish me nor any of my classmates. Looking back I realize that she had ways, other than corporal punishment, to motivate her students to pay attention and to do their best. For me the motivational factor was the permission to take home her books to be read at my convenience.
It certainly was an eye opener when I entered the 5th grade for the second time and with a different teacher. It did not take long for me to discover that not all teachers are made of the same cloth. My brother’s elementary school teacher was indeed very different. He was extremely severe and the use of the fella on his students was frequent and forceful. At first I did not have any personal fears since he was my father’s cousin but soon I was to learn otherwise. To my great disillusionment the day arrived when my sweet memories of Signora Bisagni’s class were to be forever tainted by the memories of an incident beyond my control.
I recall that fateful day very clearly. The teacher asked a question and then called on a student for an answer but the correct answer eluded the unfortunate student. The teacher proceeded to ask a student and then another student and another student. He called every student in the class including my brother but no one was able to give an acceptable answer. Lastly he called on me. Well, Signora Bisagni had taught me well and I knew to always look at the footnotes. Yes, the answer to the question was in the footnotes! And so I gave the correct answer. Anticipating the dreaded use of the fella on my hands, I was greatly relieved to come up with the correct answer and certainly I was a little proud to be the star of the day. But my moment of educational pleasure was quickly dispelled. The teacher put the fella in my hands and commanded me to give each and every student in the class two ‘colpi della fella’. My reward became my classmate’s punishment! Worse, I had to hit my own brother. Halfheartedly and with tears in my eyes, I administered the punishment. When my brother’s turn to receive the bastonate arrived I tried to mitigate the damage by giving just little taps. The teacher who had supervised each and every hit with the ‘fella’ did not think that I had hit my brother hard enough and insisted that I do it again and with force.
Yes, my classmates were punished for not having the correct answer but I was forever punished for having the correct answer. I have never forgotten the pain that I felt while hitting my classmates and the agony felt when castigating my own brother. The humiliation, the pain, the vision of the domineering teacher, and the fella used as a disciplinary weapon, will always haunt me.
I became a teacher and honored my much admired Signora Bisagni by following her positive and wise methods to motivate my students.
August 31, 2009
I have just discovered that my beloved teacher's full name was Concettina Tollaro Bisagni, Tollaro being her maiden name.
I also discovered that she taught for 51 years! During her 50th year of teaching, the Italian Ministero della Publica Istruzione awarded her the Medaglia d'Oro, Gold Medal. To honor the teacher and her award, the town celebrated with a big party.
This new information was made available to me by Tindaro Gatani a distinguished Librizzese, writer, recipient of many awards.


  1. Hi Maria,
    I think we all will enjoy reading about your memories of your years growing up. I can't imagine a treacher so cruel as to make you administer the punishment to the others!! In spite of the fact that it was such a bad thing, you wrote about it in an entertaining way. I look forward to reading more about your remembrances.

  2. Hi Dorothy. Thank you for your comments. Unfortunately in the old days it was very common to administer punishment via the students themselves. Apparently it was to further humiliate the 'culprit'. According to some sources that I have read, this custom went back to the Greeks and the Romans. Fortunately there were kind and wise teachers who did not follow this tradition. I was very lucky to have had Concettina Bisagni as my teacher, she did become my role model in my chosen career. This teacher, and relative through marriage, wrote to me until her death. I still have some of the letters that she used to send me.
    By the year 1953 this mode of disciplining was no longer used. Thank goodness.

  3. Ah, how well I remember. In our classrooms it was a ruler that was used. Strangely enough, I can't remember the teacher who used it - I only remember the red mark that it left. What I do remember is the teacher in high school who wore an enormous ring, like a class ring with a large dome. He was skilled at thumping heads with that ring - it hurt badly enough to bring tears to the boys' eyes.

    I could come up with some theories about why teachers acted as they did, making students mete out punishment to one another, but what's important is that you survived it, and found another model for your own teaching.

    I'm curious - was there something that happened in 1953 to end that form of punishment? Perhaps legislation? In any event, that's one tradition that doesn't need to be maintained!

  4. Shore, I have chills thinking about that ring digging into my head.

    I remember when I was in Junior High at Oliver Wendell Holmes in MA. I never saw corporal punishment meted out at that school but I do remember one irate teacher and our 'curious' classmate. The young man found it difficult to follow the activities in the class and often would surreptitiously enjoy reading material of his choosing. One day he was reading his 'book' but the teacher got suspicious and went to investigate, inside the book was a Playboy magazine! I guess the teacher did not like the centerfold because the next thing that we all saw was the young man flying through the glass door! Yes, she pushed him through the glass door, and yes he bled profusely. The teacher remained in the classroom, we never saw the young man again.

    I left Italy in 1953. Once Italy was out of that despicable war, people and attitudes began to change. I believe that the educational system was one of the institutions that changed along with other cultural elements. But you pose an interesting question and I will ask the 'older' cousins about this point.
    Thank you for writing.