The Sicilian School for Peasant Prodigies
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Because sometimes all it takes is milking cows and cleaning stables to sharpen the IQ.
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It’s a sunny morning in the fall of 1969 in Petralia Soprana, a tiny village in deep mountainous Sicily, and a bunch of supersmart kids are rushing to the main school hall for their first lesson. They’ve just had breakfast — homemade biscuits with jam dipped into a cup of steaming café latte, fresh from the teats of cows in the backyard. But the biggest treat? When Don Calogero La Placa, the parish priest, arrives on his Vespa at 8 a.m. sharp to start a lively conversation with these 5- to 18-year-olds. Reading newspapers, they talk about world events, their dreams, concerns and curiosities, trying to come up with solutions for humanity’s ills. Nothing is taboo.
Villaggio Cerasella, set in a lavish park surrounded by a Saracen lookout tower and a necropolis, was a peculiar hamlet-campus for “super gifted” boys with high IQs — so-called cervelloni, Italian for “big brains.” It ran from 1967 to 1975, giving dozens of poor, precocious Sicilian youths an opportunity to develop their innate skills and find their callings. Sons of farmers, diggers, butchers and masons, many of the pupils outperformed their parents academically, going on to lead professional lives. Today, many live abroad, having contributed to Italy’s brain drain.
Intelligence should be fostered and put at the service of humanity.
“I still remember those years; it was pure happiness and freedom,” says Francesco Melia, 61, the lucky-slash-brainy one of nine brothers who, thanks to Villaggio Cerasella, ended up migrating to France, where he currently heads the IT department at Paris’ main airport. He even speaks Italian with a French accent now, reviving his Sicilian twang only when he visits his family in Palermo.
School founder Don Calogero La Placa, today 92 and a genius himself with an IQ of 165, came looking for a piece of land one day and built the village from scrap. “I went talent-scouting for bright kids who did not have good grades but were creative, dynamic, always on the move, with personality,” he says, noting how he believes “intelligence should be fostered and put at the service of humanity” as a gift. While the school has long been shut due to a lack of funding, the tenacious priest still hopes to reopen it one day.
The village groomed geniuses with unusual methods. No grades, classes, uniforms, quizzes or oral or written exams. Nor was there any homework or textbooks. “Our main book was the outside world that we were pushed to observe. If you study for the pleasure of studying, then things stick in your mind. You really learn,” says former grad Salvatore Lanasa, now 60. His eight-year stay at the school enabled him to pursue his studies, flee Italy and become a successful surgeon at St. Joseph hospital in West Virginia. When Lanasa went off to university in Italy, he clashed against the red tape that hindered research and self-fulfillment, instead finding the U.S. system a more promising fit.
Students sharpened their natural talents by practicing what they loved the most: sports, foreign languages, chemistry and physics lab experiments, complete with tiny explosions. They attended artisan and blacksmith courses, learned music, set up their own choir and orchestra, got insights into psychology, studied insects and the secrets of the universe. “Whatever a kid wanted, I tried to give it to him. I even bought a telescope when one asked to study astronomy,” says La Placa, who called upon the best teachers from around the world to train his little geniuses. Their prodigies studied real life, not abstract notions of it in a schoolbook. There also were even a gym, a football field and a Ping-Pong table for a bit of fun and exercise.
Another former pupil, Antonino Rando, recalls evenings when Calogero played the piano while they sang religious hymns: “That was the best page of my life; [it] gave me all the tips and tools to live the rest of it,” he says. When summer came, instead of being happy to return home and enjoy the beach life, pupils were sad to leave the village.
Villaggio Cerasella was a thriving microcosm. The children lived on campus and even helped build the wooden bungalows in which they slept in groups of four based on common interests. The school had a pizzeria where locals enjoyed lunches served by the smart kids; the school’s farm-bred cows made milk and butter, all of which was sold to locals. The goal? For the school to become self-funding. Kids were taught to raise revenue to help keep the school open. They learned to feed and milk the cows, clean the stables and make dairy products. “I remember one of them found out that by shaking a bottle of milk he could make butter,” La Placa remembers. That kid, Salvatore La Barbera, is now a leading Italian engineer and still laughs when he looks back on his days as a dairy boy. As part of their curriculum, pupils were taken on day-long bus tours to catacombs, deep gorges, crumbly fortresses, castles, convents and picturesque towns, touring Sicily, former student Antonino Rando says.
But like many happy stories, this one came to an end. The village school grew too big for its britches — the pupils and priest simply could not afford to keep it going. “It was time-consuming, and I had so many teachers and suppliers to pay. Our debts piled up,” says La Placa. Not once did he receive a single penny from donations or public funds. The only vestige that remains is the pizzeria, now run by others; it has become a frequent reunion spot for former students who, thanks to social media, have tracked one another down. They share those common years of joy that allowed them to become the men they are today, and all of them are grateful to the priest. “I don’t know what would have become of me it hadn’t been for Don Calogero. I owe him everything,” says Melia.