‘I went to school in Italy in the postwar years, when classes were still separated by gender. I was the best student in my class, and I had to sit next to Mario, who was the worst. We were made to swap exercise books to mark each other’s work. Mine was always fine, but his was always full of mistakes.
At the end of the school day, the teacher would call the pupil with the worst marks to the front of the class. It was invariably Mario, and the teacher would make him wear a pair of donkey’s ears. The pupil with the best grades, who would always be me, would then be called to the front of the class to ‘wet the donkey’s nose’, which amounted to me licking the tip of my index finger and wiping it on Mario’s nose. We both hated this humiliating charade but were obliged to carry it out. Every day.
One autumn, I fell sick with measles and couldn’t go to school for a long time. One day, during a rainstorm, Mario showed up; he was drenched from head to toe and carrying a tin of biscuits. He was the only classmate that had come to visit me.
When I was well enough, I went back to school. I studied just as hard as before, but I always made sure I included two or three mistakes in my work.
The following year, we had a new teacher. When the old teacher came by to pick up some books she’d left behind and say goodbye to the class, the new teacher handed her the donkey’s ears, 'You can take these; we have no use for them here'. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mario’s back straighten, and his face break into a smile. The first of many.’