A letter to students in Florence

On passion

Lily Prigioniero
September 10, 2015

A university colleague recently asked me, ‘So what’s your other shtick—all writing professors have another shtick?’ I looked at him with a raised eyebrow and said ‘Art conservation,’ to which he responded by raising his eyebrow.

Art is my passion and the entire reason why I left my native country and came to Florence for a field of study that changed my life. Having a passion becomes a true motivating force, and perhaps you’ve discovered it already, or perhaps you’ll find it while studying abroad or sometime after, but now that you’re away from the comfortable routines and surroundings of home, you may want to start asking yourself just what your passion may be.

While here as a student, I went through two years of the most intense conservation program (in Italian no less) that I could ever have imagined. I chose Florence for its obvious historical setting, and also to see if I could cultivate the passion that had been incubating in me for so long. Some of the toughest professors worked here at the time, Florentines who would not accept mediocrity and whipped any sort of laziness out of you with their time-consuming assignments. I swear they also had some sort of passion detector hidden in their chest pockets to gauge just how much interest you actually had in the subject matter. After I finished my studies, I was hired to restore some of Tuscany’s most important works of art: an enormous weight of responsibility hovered over me, but in time I realized that every choice made in life invokes that weight, whether you see it or not.

Looking back, I also realize that having taken that blind step to come to Florence to follow my passion has allowed me to live a life without regrets. I surrounded myself with passionate people and learned to convert fear-induced adrenaline into the energy to step into unknown realms. Now I see the same in some of my students: creative and courageous, with a burning desire to live life at its fullest, without regrets. In making big decisions they follow their hearts—with feet planted on the ground. The choices they make may not always be the easiest routes to follow, or the most logical, but they seem to understand that following their deepest desires with gentle ambition often leads to the fulfilling moments that put meaning into one’s brief stay on Earth.

There’s a note stuck on my desk, from a student of mine some years ago. Quoting Jack Kerouac, he wrote, ‘“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” Thanks for being mad.’ 

I keep that note to remind me why teaching is also my passion, and that I should continue to burn madly not only for myself but for all who cross my life’s path. I have kept in touch with this student, a bright and sensitive young man who for the first time in his life while studying here felt liberated from the confining bars of the social taboos that others had welded around his identity. Letting certain restrictions go is not always an easy task, but it can be as simple as admitting a truth that makes your blood reverberate to reveal a pathway into a meaning that may fulfill you for the rest of your life. 

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