Monday, January 29, 2007


“Most Greek children never went to school at all. Girls, to begin with, always stayed with their mothers until they were married, either at home or working in the fields. Slaves, whether boys or girls, also could not go to school, and many children in ancient Athens and Corinth and other Greek cities were slaves. Any boy who was poor, even if he was free, also could not go to school: his family could not afford to pay the teacher, and besides they needed the boy's work at home. There were no public schools.”
The above is a paragraph I wrote at the age of thirteen, to justify to my mother that as the institution of Saturday Greek Schools had no precedent within our ancient past, they were a foreign inclusion and thus, should be extirpated from our usages. Needless to say, my mother, who in her younger days desperately wanted to (and still does) find a decent oil reproduction of the famous painting by Gyzis: «Κρυφό Σχολειό» and hang it in our living room, was far from convinced.
The truth was that a large amount of social conditioning and brainwashing took place in order to make me appreciate Greek school. At the age of three, my grandmother would sing «Φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό, φέγγε μου να περπατώ, να πηγαίνω στο σχολειό, να μαθαίνω γράμματα...» whereas my grandfather would sing Zambetas’ hit: « Ο πιο καλός ο μαθητής.» This caused me to believe as we set off on my first day of Greek school, that the said school would be conducted on the moon or at least in moonlight and somehow involve hide and seek, which I was particularly good at. Thus, I was inordinately disappointed to learn when I finally arrived, that I was not in the Sea of Tranquility but in Ascot Vale. I was pleased however to discover that hide and seek as well as tiggy seemed to be the first lesson of the day as our hapless teacher, κυρία Γεωργία attempted to round us up and herd us into class in the expert way that only a person who has grazed goats in Greece knows how. This may possibly have involved the throwing of stones at our legs and a ear-drum shattering, sound-barrier piercing whistle, but I am conscious of the fact that this memory has somehow merged itself with an early memory of watching «Ταμτάκος» movies hired from “Stavros Video” with my father and thus, is probably unreliable.
In those early times, the aim was not only to teach the Greek language but to also recreate the cultural experience of Greek schooling, at least the way it was in the sixties and seventies. An icon of Παναγία holding the infant Jesus hung above the blackboard in each classroom. Every so often, our teacher would look up imploringly at her. At first we believed that she was seeking divine assistance in order to pacify an unruly class. Later, we surmised that her look was one of defeat and sympathy à la: “Kids are so much trouble. You would know, you have one of your own.” A map of Greece hung at the rear of the room and during recess we would find our parents’ villages or at least the nearest town pertaining thereto and have arguments of inordinate length about which geographical region was better. One meek and mild child by the name of Neophytos surprised us all when, teased that his place of origin, Cyprus, was inferior because it wasn’t even shown on the map properly and what is more, it was for girls because it was shaded pink, wrenched the said map from the wall and smashed it on the class bully’s head. That classroom, which no longer exists, also marks the location of my very first personal revolution against the establishment. Learning after a punishing year of memorization that the polytonic system of accenting Greek was to be scrapped in favour of the current, simpler monotonic, I refused to accept this and despite the injunctions of my exasperated and ideologically inspired teachers, have continued to wield the polytonic ever since.
Corporal punishment, the recipient of which I was only once, when the whole class was smacked for breaking into the toilets and throwing all the toilet paper out of the window, was considered to be a badge of honour and stories of beatings would filter down the hallway into all the classrooms and drown in terrified silence as we heard the Teutonic steps of our first headmaster, a man whose eyebrows defied the laws of physics, crunching his way into his office. Despite the high jinks and escapades, woe betide any student who did not complete the prescribed homework. In those days, Greek school was considered the exact equivalent of “English school” and possibly as even more significant.
Greek school people remain with you all your life. A person that perennially comes to mind is “Koulouri Man,” a middle aged gentlemen who would materialize out of nowhere each recess and lunchtime and satisfy our huger and hyperactivity through the purveyance of steaming, melt in your mouth koulouria. His worldly manifestation at the times requisite would be invariably accompanied by distant cries of “It’s Koulouri Man,” and everyone would flood out of their classrooms, enveloping the corridor in a sea of Hellenic hunger. Hence, there was never any need for a school bell.
“Crunchy Man,” is another Greek school person indelibly etched into my memory. This student had the largest and brightest set of teeth I had and even to this day have, ever seen. Despite our teacher’s best efforts, he was particularly fond of Crunchy bars and would not stop munching on them during the lesson. One Saturday, our principal, an incredibly tall and stately but also terrifying man strode in to our classroom and began to berate us about some misdemeanour. The ensuing ominous silence, a prelude to punishment, was only broken when Crunchy Man reached into his bag, unwrapped a bar of his favourite snack and offering it to the principal, asked: «Κύριε, you want a Crunchy?”
The apogee of Greek school mayhem was inextricably linked with the fact that the facilities in my second Greek school were of questionable, Eastern-bloc quality, a feature that was both endearing and character building. This was especially true of our heaters, which were possessed of a temperament all of their own and were quite volatile. It was during History and an in depth discussion of Markos Botsaris, while κυρία Χριστοφίδου was answering the question: «Κυρία, why did the τσολιάδες wear φουστανέλες, to make them run faster?» that smoke began to pour from the heater. As we looked on bemused, κυρία Χριστοφίδου, grasped the cord and without unplugging the heater from the socket, began pulling it towards her, exclaiming: «είναι το σκυλάκι μου.» Unfortunately, the comedic effect of those words was lost on the class as the heater proceeded to burst into flames and a terrified κυρία Χριστοφίδου abandoned it and us to our fate and ran screaming from the room.
My second Greek school was an aging, crumbling building in Collins Street with remarkable Art Deco brass doors, which we christened “the Portals of Hell.” A good gauge of how well the school was going was to monitor how promptly the principal would turn up to open the doors. In the early days, we would arrive to find the doors wide open, compelling our entry. As the years passed and more and more parents and students decided that Saturday sport or bludging were more beneficial to their maintenance of Hellenism, the principal would arrive later and later and have to herd his pupils back into the building from the City Square and even as far as Myers. This Greek school was the legendary place where one of my classmates, Ioachim explained to one of our teachers, to his everlasting fame, that as his father was a roof-repairer, he was in fact a ρουφιάνος. It also saw our grammar teacher, κύριος Σοφοκλεόυς lull us into thinking that he would help us cheat in the Grammar exam by providing helpful spelling hints such as: «το α με άλφα να το γράψετε.»
Greek school for me was not just about learning the Greek language. It was more of a tutelage in being Greek for there were many lacunae in my Hellenism that could not be filled by my parents or grandparents. By reading my «Αναγνωστικό» I was transported to a world where all Greek fathers wore moustaches, all grandmothers lived with their grandchildren and all little boys wore shorts. A καντήλι was always burning before the εικονοστάσι and there were some strange days like Καθαρά Δευτέρα when it was incumbent upon all true Greeks to climb to the highest mountain peaks and fly kites. I learnt when it was time to sow, when it was time to reap in Greece, what the απόκριες were and in studying a diverse range of subjects such as history, religion and geography, a diverse vocabulary with words such as υλοτομία, πληθυσμός and καραγκιοζόπουλα began to be formed. Though the homework was difficult, we persevered, variously out of interest or parental pressure and as a result of being taught Hellenism (ie. Greek language as a first language plus Greek culture) rather than just the Greek language as a second language, most of my classmates became functioning bilinguals and biculturalists.
I cannot but look back nostalgically at carefree sunny days when κύριος Παπαδόπουλος would usher us outside into the schoolyard, distribute bread and cheese and lecture us passionately as to the superior wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers. As opposed to “English school” teachers, whose job description and function is prescribed by the Education Department, our Greek teachers took on the role of mentors, passing on life skills as we grew older and giving us advice for the future. If anything, they were our invaluable guides in learning how to bridge cultural gaps, behave in a Greek social setting and understand the Greek as well as Greek-Australian mentality. Some of these, like the grandfather of all Greek teachers, Κώστας Γκονόπουλος may be gone, but surely must never forgotten and it is to our community’s great shame that we do not do more to honour the people who often selflessly strive for the perpetuation of our identity. Many private Greek school principals and teachers currently provide vital support to other Greek community activities and most importantly, serve as a facility for the integration of Greek-Australian students into the wider Greek-Australian community, endeavouring to preserve the societal framework instituted by the first generation. Nonetheless, Greek language learning both in enrolments and quality is facing an unprecedented crisis, lending the thoughts of a well known and pioneering Greek teacher even more veracity: «Η γλώσσα δεν παρακμάζει. Οι άνθρωποι παρακμάζουν.»
Though I personally believe that Greek education in Australia was blighted at its core by our own short-sighted policy of permitting various Education Departments to assume control and dictate its curriculum to their own purposes, the experience of Greek schools, both in terms of actual language learning and acculturation is an irreplaceable and enduring one. Just how enduring it is can be evidenced by a recent trip I made to Cheimarra in Albania where I was told that an other Australian, one Kostas Gionis had recently been there before me, to visit his relatives and would soon return there. Remembering that he had been my Greek school teacher some seventeen years ago, at an age when I was particularly unruly, and being asked what message I would like to leave him, I replied: “Just tell him to give me back my confiscated pencil case.”
This short foray down memory lane now leaves you with perhaps the most telling justification (as if one is at all necessary) for Greek education in general, as well as the publication of this supplement, by the master teacher himself, Patrokosmas:
«Και δια τούτο πρέπει να στερεώνετε σχολεία ελληνικά, να φωτίζoνται οι άνθρωποι· διότι διαβάζοντας τα ελληνικά τα ηύρα οπού λαμπρύνουν και φωτίζουν τον νουν του μαθητού ανθρώπου.»


First published in NKEE on 29 January 2007