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  • Writer's pictureDan Cavallari

The shot: EducationVenice

Far away from the tourist attractions, the people of Venezia avoid being loved to death in small ways.

Alleyway school
School in session, Venice, Italy. Photo: Dan Cavallari

This is perhaps not an image you would expect from one's vacation to Venice, Italy, no?


In a past life I taught high school English at a school in Winslow, Arizona. None of the students wanted to be there, and most had come to us from bad situations: abuse, homelessness, violence, drugs, and poverty. That last one was the through-line through every student's story. It was the ever-present guard of their futures and fortunes — or in many cases, the lack thereof.

It was a hard job, and largely not a pleasant one, but at some point I got to leave it all behind. The kids never did. Their stories continued in the dusty desert outside of Winslow, while I moved on, perhaps due to good fortune, but probably due mostly to my privilege as a white male. Some of them have kept in touch and have made their lives into wonderful things, and it makes me happy to know that. Others, well, sometimes the dust devils bite and swallow.

The further you get from the tourist centers, the more real Venice becomes.

Years later, I took a job as the technical editor at VeloNews Magazine, and I was on an airplane across the pond once every few weeks to cover product launches and bike races. It was on one of these trips that I was fortunate to have a day off in between work tasks to wander around Venice, Italy as a tourist. It was every bit as awe-inspiring as the photos and videos of the place would have you believe. It feels like a movie set.

The further you get from the tourist centers, the more real Venice becomes. And it was far away from St. Mark's and the Bridge of Sighs where I spotted this young girl at her school work in an alley. It was here it became crystal clear to me that Venice was a place people actually lived — and perhaps we were trampling it a bit too enthusiastically as we grappled to love it too much.

Someone within the ground-floor apartment shouted directions at her, and she referenced her book at the table in front of her. Then her small voice replied, the Italian conversation happening in front of me but without me. There was no one else around; the alley was quiet. I was the intruder here, and yes, as intruders do, I took something that wasn't mine: this photo. I had never even stopped walking, had only slowed. Yet I had stolen something vital from the city of Venice: a quiet place — another one taken from a tourist.

Looking at the photo now, it's easy to spot its romanticism certainly, and it is of course an image of hope, and the best of humanity. Education is a gift, and it's wonderful to be reminded of that in small, quiet moments.

I was not, in their minds, there to lend them any good fortune; I was there to steal something from them.

It also reminds me of that school in Winslow, Arizona, where I wrestled with the minds of kids who viewed me with suspicion. I was not, in their minds, there to lend them any good fortune; I was there to steal something from them. I was there to force them into something they did not want to do, because someone had told them it was necessary for them. I was stealing their time and their energy, both of which they desperately needed simply to survive in a place that had never shown much love to them, only hard truths and I-told-you-so blows to the brain and body.

I was an unwelcome presence. I loved the idea of teaching them, of allowing them to learn. Perhaps I was loving them to death. Or maybe I wasn't loving them at all; maybe I just loved the idea of me loving them to death.

I never even stopped walking, after all.

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