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30 April 2014

For the artist, nothing is ever off topic. Just as, in the case of the photographer, nothing escapes the lens. It's the nature of the business.

Fortunately in this endeavor, you continually acquaint yourself with beauty. Which has an expansive quality such that, you know, it spreads. To others. You can't squirrel it away, like $1.9 billion, for yourself.

The news has been full of a particularly pathetic man recently. It may not have escaped you. Nor the outcry. Nor the response to the outcry. Nor the story of the sad woman without whom we would never have known the story of the pathetic man. There is nothing very pretty, let alone beautiful, in any of it.

Fortunately, we have been diverted from it this week, reading My Michael by Amos Oz. Not far from the end of this Israeli novel, we came across the following passage narrated by the woman who is the central character and whose family came from the kibbutz Nof Harim. Michael, whose father had bought him a briefcase on graduation from college, is her husband.

In September our son Yair started at Beit Hakereem Elementary School. Michael bought him a brown satchel. I bought him a pencil case, pencil sharpener, pencils and a ruler. Aunt Leah sent a huge box of watercolors. From Nof Harim came De Amicis' Heart, beautifully bound.

That last would be Cuore by Edmondo de Amicis. It's a classic Italian novel for children. What's it doing in a novel about 1950s Israel? Odd but delightful.

A copy sits on our shelves so we took it down and sat under the umbrella in the stiffling heat here to read a bit after lunch today.

Turns out there's more than one reason it's given as a gift. Here's one:

T H E   C A L A B R I A N   B O Y

The 22nd, Saturday.

Yesterday afternoon, while our teacher was telling us about poor Robetti, who will need crutches, the Principal came in with a new pupil, a boy with a very brown face, black hair, large black eyes and eyebrows so thick they grew together. He was dressed completely in dark clothes, with a black morocco belt around his waist.

The Principal left, after whispering a few words in our teacher's ear, leaving the boy behind, who looked around with his big black eyes as though frightened.

The teacher took him by the hand and said to the class: "You should be happy. Today our school has enrolled a young Italian from Reggio, in Calabria, more than five hundred miles from here. Be good to your brother who has come from so far away. He was born in a glorious land, which has given illustrious men to Italy and which now furnishes her with strong laborers and brave soldiers. In one of the most beautiful places in our country, where there are dense forests and great mountains, inhabited by people full of talent and courage. Treat him well, so he won't think he is so far away from the city where he was born. Make him see that an Italian boy, in whatever Italian school he sets his foot, will find brothers there."

So saying, he rose and pointed out on the wall map of Italy where Reggio, in Calabria, was. Then he called out loudly:

"Ernesto Derossi!" He's the boy who always wins first prize. Derossi rose.

"Come here," our teacher said. Derossi left his seat and stepped up to the teacher's desk, facing the Calabrian.

"As the leader of this the school," our teacher said to him, "give our new friend a big, welcoming hug for the whole class, a hug from the sons of Piedmont to the son of Calabria."

Derossi embraced the Calabrian, saying in his clear voice, "Welcome!" and the Calabrian automatically kissed him on the cheeks. Everyone clapped. "Silence!" cried our teacher. "We don't clap our hands in school!"

But it was clear that he was pleased. And the Calabrian was pleased too. Our teacher assigned him a seat and escorted him to it. Then he spoke again:

"Don't forget what I've told you. Something like this -- that a Calabrian boy should feel as if he were in his own house at Turin and that a boy from Turin should be at home in Calabria -- has only happened because our country fought for fifty years and thirty thousand Italians died. You must all respect and love each other. But any one of you who should offend this classmate simply because he was not born here, would make himself unworthy of ever again raising his eyes from the earth when he passes the tricolored Italian flag."

Hardly had the Calabrian taken his seat, when his neighbors presented him with some pens and a picture. And another boy, from the last bench, gave him a Swiss postage stamp.

The day before, the teacher had surprised the class by not punishing a student who had mocked him. He simply told him not to do it again. And then he told the class they would spend the whole year together, so spend it well. His mother had died leaving him with no family other than them. He has no one else to love but them. "Show me you are boys with heart," he tells them, echoing the title of the novel.

And they did, welcoming the Calabrian boy. As Oz found a place for the Italian novel in his Israeli story, too.

Photographers, too, are people with heart. We recognize the beauty we find in the world, capture it and circulate it among as many people as will look. That may not seem like much during times like these, but it makes the world a better place.

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