The above is a ditty my grandmother would sing to us on the first day of school holidays. The wisdom of leaving a book under a kazani, where it could get wet, scorched or creased was something that I always secretly questioned. What if, desolate in the depths of a grandmother-enforced literary drought of school holidays, you furtively made it to the kazani only to find out that you couldn’t lift it, or even worse, that having achieved that superhuman task, that your treasured Greek books were no longer extant?
Greek school is over for my hapless grade three and four students at St Dimitrios Greek School in Ascot Vale and I would sincerely doubt that they would have ever heard the word kazani, though I plan to introduce it, and its declensions in the syllabus next year. Even moreso mystifying, is the singular fact that rather than greeting the end of the Greek school year with peals of joyful laughter signifying the commencement of the much coveted period sleeping in on Saturdays and the abeyance of the last-minute Friday night mad-rush to complete otherwise forgotten Greek school homework, these students are actually ambivalent about facing the prospect of two whole months of Summer without passing through the mission brown portals of our 1980’s brown brick Greek school.
Over the course of this year, my first purporting to be a “teacher,” these poor children have been subjected to an inordinate amount of homework. They have also been in trouble for not being attentive or misbehaving. Nonetheless, week after week, they came, alternately bright and fresh, or grumpy and sleepy, depending on the week’s events. In a climate where as the year progresses, class sizes tend to drop due to sporting or other commitments, I was thankful that my class size remained constant.
This was a battle in itself and the weapons in my arsenal were my perverse propensity to deliver lessons in the accents of Borat, Jackie Chan, Pepe le Peu, Arnold Swartzenegger and the Donkey from Shrek. Add to that the occasional exhibition of medieval Greek books, ancient Greek pottery and ancient Greek coins (to illustrate the reign of Alexander the Great and the Byzantine Emperors), centuries old icons from Russia and Mount Athos, topped with the forcible execution of orthografia accompanied by the not so dulcet tones of my bashing out rembetika tunes on the baglama/ tzoura/ violin/ Chinese fiddle, in order to make Greek culture not so remote, but tangible and real.
The Greek experience must, in Australian Greek schools, be extraordinary and it must delve into history and tradition. This is because as I found out, the vast majority of students are not only learning the Greek language as a second language but also Greek culture as a secondary one. Not being possessed, for whatever reason, from the home, with the requisite cultural references that are necessary for any student to understand not only vocabulary but also the ideology and ways of thought that are a necessary corollary to language learning, Greek-Australian students must be exposed to a wide array of cultural experiences if they are not only to learn the language but also count themselves as kin among those who speak it.
This is difficult in the extreme, in a pluralistic society. On the first day of Greek school, a worried father asked me in quivering tones not to be too harsh on his son and daughter, and not to be upset if they didn’t always complete their work because their mother is Italian and he could not always supervise their homework as he had to travel often for work. This notwithstanding, both Nikos, fourth from the left in the photograph, wearing the crown, and Katia, the grinning angel next to him, were constantly prepared, diligent and eager to learn. Towards the end of the year, their father, with tears in his eyes marveled at how, during a recent business trip, he had come home to discover that his children had not only completed their heavy load of Greek school homework, but also, that it was correct. This was nothing compared to the proud surprise he received last week at the school concert, when Nikos’ name was called in order for him to receive a cash prize as top student. It is not easy for Nikos’ itinerant father to transport his children to and from Greek school and there is no one to assist the children when he is away. Yet he persists upon sending his children to school and it is our responsibility to make his sacrifice and the sacrifices of all parents in today’s unbearably demanding and life-leeching society, bear fruit.
Next to Katia is another angel, Madeleine, also a recipient of a cash prize. Like Nikos and Katia, Madeleine’s experience of things Greek is filtered by the Chilean component of her family. I harboured a soft spot for her in my heart all year, not only because she attends my alma mater, but also because although she had sporting commitments every Saturday, she would insist upon being conveyed to Greek school immediately afterwards. She would arrive, invariably late, her face wreathed in smiles and her homework completed to perfection. On the odd occasion, I would detect an alien hand in her work – some polytonic diacritical marks that betrayed the intervention of a student of yesteryear, though I would always let this pass. Interaction with grandparents while doing homework not only cements concepts and vocabulary into one’s head but also permits bonding within a truly Greek literary setting – an invaluable and rare experience. Furthermore, she has a beautiful singing voice, and was my consolation during my quixotic attempts to teach some rudimentary Byzantine chant.
You can’t see Sofianos in the picture but he is truly remarkable. Upon learning that his English name is Darius, I set him to the task of producing a paragraph or two on the subject of his arch-nemesis, Alxander the Great. He arrived the next week, clutching a poster, upon which he had ingeniously pasted a page lifted from Wikipedia and converted into Symbol font, in order to pass as “Greek.” I gave him five marks for brilliance. Similarly, just before Easter, as I set my students about making the multiple-legged doll Kyra Sarakosti, I was bemused to find Sofianos having transformed her into a rapacious demon, replete with horns and sharp teeth, if only because this reflects my mood towards the close of the Great Fast. Having done no homework all year, Sofianos astonished me when, upon my despairing of teaching the conjugation of verbs (as most of the children have parents who do not speak Greek at home, they have no natural “feel” for what ought to “sound” correct,) he walked up to my desk, sat next to me and within ten minutes produced a page of perfectly conjugated verbs.
Third from the left, holding the Bible in kingly pose, is Phillip, possessed of a brilliant mind and an incredibly short attention span. An authority on Greek mythology, he breezed through the difficult terminology contained in our history textbook and was able to offer background gossip on all of the doings of the Olympian gods. During first semester, his father asked me why I was placing too heavy an emphasis on religion. My response, that it is impossible to teach modern Greek culture without providing the students with an insight into the religious beliefs and observances of the Greeks, seems to have been at least considered. A few Sundays ago, I had the immense pride in seeing the ever-theatrical Philip dressed in the garb of an altar boy, looking furtively around the church, folding his hands trying to assume a more angelic pose. Nikos also serves as an altar boy on Sundays, with his father looking on, profoundly moved. In this activity, one which the boys both enjoy, they are exposed to a Greek liturgical and poetic tradition of two millennia, in the company of a congregation of people which they understand forms a Greek community, of which they are part.
Standing next to Philip, looking decidedly Palestinian in his teacher-supplied keffiyeh (he was to play a shepherd in the school play and I had run out of costumes,) is Theodore, a rarity, since I think he is one of the last of the Greek-Australian students to have been born in Greece. His spoken and written Greek is perfect and he is not only the fulcrum of the class but also an enthusiastic Pontian lyra player. He is also an admirer of American gangsta culture and it was side-splittingly funny during play rehearsals to see him walk around waving his hands like a rapper, instead of tending his flock in Bethlehem and awaiting the visitation of the angels. Memorable too was the time when instead of attending to his grammar exercises, he drew a particularly gas-guzzling automobile and wrote underneath “Pimp my ride.” His homework for next week was to translate the said sentence, which he did by rendering the first word into the Greek equivalent for pimple.
The other Palestinian looking shepherd, first on the left is another Philip, who also happens to be a distant cousin. A quiet, softly spoken boy, who consistently completed his homework to a high standard, his hunger pangs were the instigators of my “you can eat in class, only if you are eating fruit” policy, provided of course that the said comestible could be named in Greek. All of a sudden, a good deal of fruit began to appear in students’ lunches, supplemented on occasion by my distributions of Greek delicacies that they may not have tasted at home, such as baklava, pita, or loukoumia and gratuitously, m and m's.
The two angels on the right of the photograph are Helen and Maria. Helen is the inventor of a new Greek letter – the bamza – a lower case omega that is tapered at the top. Apparently, this is supposed to represent the phoneme produced by the Greek sphincter upon the release of gas. She is also responsible for introducing me to such concepts as Smiggle and Captain Underpants. Helen has, apart from making marked progress in spelling and reading, introduced a revolution in iconography. As part of a lesson on the Panagia, I drew an icon of her on the board and asked the students to attempt to copy it in their books. Helen’s icon sported a Panagia wearing three quarter pants and a crop top, because, as she maintained, these are in fashion. Maria on the other hand, a model student, is immensely proud of her Cretan ancestry and attempts to bring the subject of Crete into every lesson. She was in the throes of ecstasy when we studied the Minotaur.
Given that my class is composite, my grade threes will return next year as mature, confident grade fours, keen to lord it over the new grade threes. Yet I will spend the summer devising new ways to keep it real for them with this injunction, from Marva Collins:
“Don’t try to fix the students, fix ourselves first. The good teacher makes the poor student good and the good student superior. When our students fail, we, as teachers, too, have failed.” When Greek school teachers fail, the ethnos fails. But for the moment, καλή ξεκούραση.