Monday, March 07, 2005


An old Jewish proverb tells that in one’s life, one must find a teacher, and a friend and it is preferable that one person covers both hypostases. Indeed in many traditions, the relationship between teacher and student is a particularly important one. In Islamic tradition, one cannot write or comment on Islamic law without referring to their teacher and amazingly, commentaries exist that refer to an unbroken chain of teachers and students who have commented on each other’s works, re-interpreted, elaborated and studied them, stemming back at least five hundred years.
Greek tradition also partakes of this respect and awe between teacher and student and there are innumerable examples of such relationships, the most famous being that of Alexander and Aristotle, or that of Plato and Socrates, where the latter’s death so affected Plato that it pushed him to invent fascism. Byzantine teachers, such as the brilliant and erudite Patriarch Photius also enjoyed a devoted following of students, while in modern times, teachers who were particularly linked with the revival of Hellenism and education, such as Adamantios Korais, Eugenios Voulgaris and most significantly St Kosmas the Aetolian are hailed as “teachers of the nation” (διδάσκαλοι του Γένους.) The dedication of these personages to their students is evident in their legacy: in Northern Epirus, the persecuted Greek minority still turns to the sermons and homilies of St Kosmas for guidance.
For the past fifty years, an unsung generation of Greek migrants has humbly assumed the shoes of their illustrious predecessors, with varying success. Some inspiring in their dedication to retaining and developing Hellenism in far-flung Australia in their young charges, others merely marking time and obtaining some weekend pocket-money, Greek teachers until recently have loomed large in the lives of Greek-Australian youth, with mixed legacies. Everyone has a horror story of teachers gleefully applying the strap, or of others who would consign students to a whole week of insoluble grammatical tasks. This notwithstanding, the lot of the Greek teacher is sadly not that of his glorified prototype but rather that of disapprobation and well, derision. The reason for this is simple. When push comes to shove, no-one likes to give up their weekend and their ‘freedom,’ not even for the sake of Hellenism. So there is a traditional antagonistic sympathy between Greek-school teacher and student.
The other day, I was looking at one of my old Greek school-books, especially the classic initials at the back: ΟΔΕΒ. I was showing a friend how in a fit of boredom in grade four, I had devised various phrases for this acronym, including the classic: «Ο Δάσκαλος είναι βλάκας,» as well as «Ε διάβασε! Ο Βαριέμαι!» My friend then laughed, suggested a few gems of his own and then asked: “Was there any teacher that you had, that really made a difference?”
Enter Stylianos Papadopoulos, or rather enter me, for Mr Papadopoulos had instilled the Greek tongue in thousands of Greek-Australians before I knew him. I had just changed Greek schools and walked into his class. He looked me up and down and asked softly: “Which is better? Leniency or Justice?” “Justice,” I replied. “Noooooo,” he exclaimed, wide-eyed: “Justice is Anglo-Saxonic. Leniency is Greek. Now sit down.” I was fifteen and felt total amazement. Almost as I had entered the classroom, a wave of warmth that emanated from this man surged forth and practically bowled me over. In his loud, exuberant manner, he cajoled, taught and exhorted, the class, all knowing and all seeing. I could not understand how he seemed to be in perfect sympathy with the thoughts of every single one of my fellow classmates, nor how he could read my thoughts so precisely. All I knew was that I was in the presence of a truly remarkable man.
Lessons with Mr Papadopoulos were admittedly unpredictable. He would suddenly come to class armed with bread and cheese, and distribute it to us. We would then all sit outside while he lectured us on the virtues and ethics of the great Greek philosophers. The rationale behind this, as he explained, was that “you think better while sharing a meal, and you think collectively.” This was a secular scholastic mystical supper in which the students were exhorted not only to understand the text or its meaning but rather appreciate how each person interpreted it and what effects and applications it could have on each individual. In short, it was a lesson in being human.
Mr Papadopoulos’ view of life was admittedly partisan but it was based on such a rare reverence for the human being and his cognitive powers that it permitted the free exercise of speech and thought, though he would pounce good-heartedly upon anyone who would dare to speak without completing his thought process. I was a case in point. “You are a selfish student,” he would exclaim (and still does in relation to the Diatribes). “You never say exactly what you mean and you dwell in ambiguities...” Ambiguities, in the best tradition of positivism were to be deconstructed and demythologized, rather than used as a dark cloak of self-indulgence. One owed it to his fellow man, to communicate with him directly, omitting nothing, in total honesty, just as Mr Papadopoulos did.
Mr Papadopoulos’ humanism, based as it was on egalitarianism and compassion was unashamedly Greek. Through the use of such diverse texts as the poems in exile of Ritsos, Socrates’Apology or even a Greek translation of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, he was able to construct a narrative of the cosmos that not only exemplified the depths to which humanity could sink, but also point a path, always through the Greek literary and philosophical tradition, towards redemption. The most ‘cool’ or ‘rough’ students would find themselves automatically quoting long swathes of poetry or pointing to obscure incidents in the lives of Greek heroes as if this information had always existed within and needed only the ministries of this didactic Pied Piper, to bring it to the surface, and set it free.
In Mr Papadopoulos’ class, no one was admonished for not speaking Greek. For all students, the speaking of Greek became a natural consequence of poring over the vast corpus of the Greek tradition, pondering its meanings and delving into its concerns. We were at one with the positivist ‘new generation’ poets of the 30’s, expressed solidarity with the demoticists who insisted upon a vernacular close to the spoken tongue of the people and cheered on Slavophone Macedonomach Captain Kotta as his exploits in freeing Macedonia were studied at length through the sharp but uproariously unpredictable and side-splitting humour that only Mr Papadopoulos could apply to such devastating effect, reducing class after class to tears of continuous laughter.
One ambiguity that this otherwise straight-laced teacher is never able to shake off, is the delimitation of the student-teacher relationship. For Mr Papadopoulos is not only a teacher. He is a friend, father, motivator and confessor and gives of these gifts to all students, in equal portions, munificently. He alone would spend hours after school coaching students to excellence, helping them through their personal problems (drawing always on the Greek tradition for guidance), entertaining and spending time with them. His walls at home are covered with class photographs and appreciation awards awarded to him by grateful students. Unsurprisingly, he knows the names of each and every student he has ever taught.
Recently, I was poring through some of the poems he has written over the years. Incisive and impassioned, they are merely a summary of a remarkable life of thought and perseverance. In them I saw the heart-break of a migrant fleeing poverty by arriving in Australia, fleeing inanity by leaving the factory and through sheer will-power, putting himself through University, fleeing oblivion by teaching all that he knew to his students. I realised that this remarkable man did not just teach me a language or a literary corpus. He entrusted to me, along with all his other students, his own sensitivities and intellectual journey, to do with it as I would and that gift, his soul, is the most precious of all.
Those readers who have or have had the privilege of being instructed by Mr Papadopoulos are perhaps nodding in recognition – his cognitive inspiration resides in all of his scholastic children. For those that have not, let it be noteworthy then that teaching Greek is not just about language, but an entire way of life and that teaching per se, is life itself.

First published in NKEE on 7 March 2005