Monday, March 03, 2008


“Everyone who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.” Oscar Wilde.

I come from a long line of female teachers, my mother being the first and at the time, the youngest Greek female to have ever become a principal in Victoria and her sisters in Greece being teachers of French and other obscure Eurozone tongues that need not offend our Anglo-Saxon sensibilities here. Growing up with your parent as a teacher is not easy. Whereas my classmates invariably could go home and explain to their non-English-speaking parents, their faces flushed with success, that a D or a C meant that they had topped their class, no advocacy skills could recast my reports in a similar, flattering light. Attending a school where one’s parent is the principal is even less facile, especially in my case, considering that said parent was even more omnipresent than the Eye of Horus and just as vengeful, at the instance of inevitable transgressions against the Pax Scholana.
Teaching is certainly not for the faint hearted. During the time my mother was a teacher at a school in a particularly disadvantaged area, she had everything from knives to excrement thrown at her. Despite this and the fact that the students of the school had been largely considered factory fodder at best and prison rookies at worst, she still managed to teach them basic literacy and organise cultural and other events that enriched their otherwise troubled lives, proving correct the old adage, that “Teachers who inspire know that teaching is like cultivating a garden and those who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather the flowers,” absolutely correct. She still runs into her old students at the supermarket from time to time. They rush at her, brandishing their children as trophies, yelling ‘Miss, miss’ as if they have just come first at the egg and spoon race in the Inter-School Sports and she beams with delight, recounting stories about the time she apprehended said child intent upon placing another child in a rubbish bin and stating in an off-hand and yet with bone chilling precision, my contemporaneous exact position in the playground, complete with co-ordinates. The sound of my mother’s boots thumping down the corridor was enough to strike terror in the heart of the most hardened miscreant, which is the reason why I insist she take them off before entering my home, these days.
Truth be told, inspired by my mother’s example, I toyed with becoming a teacher during my high school days. However, in those dark days of schoolicide Jeff Kennett sacrificing seats of learning in order to appease the Kirner polka-dot Furies and having been reliably advised by my peers that if I became a teacher I would be broke and more heinously, have to wear corduroy pants until the end of my days, thus rendering my chances of finding a suitable candidate for the perpetuation of my dubious in design genetic make-up, next to zilch, I embarked upon a less noble path of sorrow.
One could thus view as a realignment or reconciliation of the fates, the fact that this year finds the Diatribist in the classroom, teaching Saturday Greek to a composite class of grade threes and fours. On my first day, I was as nervous as any child, embarking upon their first school experience. Prior to arriving at the school, I stopped by my mother’s house in order to consult the Grand Teaching Oracle. Trying and failing dismally to assume the beatific omniscience of the Buddha, only because of the intensity of her eyes, my mother intoned her first mantra, first uttered by the great bodhisattva of education Elbert Hubbard: “The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher.” This was news to me. I had no idea the yin and yang principle could be applied to Greek school. The next mantra by teaching lama William Arthur Ward, would have been more inspiring had my mother been able to intone it in the manner of Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid. However, given that she is not proficient in accents, her: “Teaching is more than imparting knowledge, it is inspiring change. Learning is more than absorbing facts, it is acquiring understanding,” was profound and flat. Upon embarking upon her third mantra, the Yoda-like Latin maxim: “By learning you will teach. By teaching you will learn,” my father was forced to interject, admonishing my mother for showing off and observing that I was, characteristically, late for school.
It is a moving experience to stand before a line of students, nervously clutching their bags, muttering the Lord’s Prayer in koine Greek, as if masticating a King-size Mars Bar. I led my class into the classroom and standing before the classroom, attempted my first ‘break-the-ice’ gag: pretending to write my name on the whiteboard, with a defunct marker. Reassured and gratified that my class could appreciate Chaplinesque humour, I commenced the lesson. In doing so and later, in comparing notes with the other teachers, I was astounded at just how complex an issue the teaching of Greek is in the twenty-first century as compared to the eighties, when I was a student. Back then, the Greek community was a relatively homogenous group, with common values and ideals that had been imported wholesale and frozen from the mother country and were largely unquestioned. Our parents mostly spoke Greek at home and cultural references abounded.
The demographics of Greek school now are much more diverse and require a sophisticated analysis. Most students’ parents, having been born in Australia, do not have adequate fluency in Greek, and the students’ only contact with spoken Greek outside the classroom is with their grandparents. There are children of single parent families (at our school father’s day celebrations have been cancelled so as not to unduly exclude the significant proportion of children who are not in contact with their fathers), children of mixed descent, children who present learning difficulties – something unheard of in traditional Saturday Schools of yester-year, and others whose Greek is as good as that of native speakers. I found it particularly interesting that the best and most enthusiastic students in my class are a pair of siblings whose father is Greek and whose mother is Italian. Their committed parents have taken great pains to induct them equally in both cultures, with remarkable results. The worst student in the class paradoxically enough, has an excellent comprehension of spoken Greek. However, he can barely read and exhibits no desire to do so.
This student however, has been responsible in my mind at least, for the best ever ‘get out of doing homework’ operation, I have ever seen. Having been given an essay to write on the life and times of Alexander the Great, he ingeniously located a suitable text from the internet, highlighted it and changed it to symbol font, rendering it “Greek” in appearance. Top marks for the display of that fabled ‘Greek’ ingenuity.
Given the complexity of Greek community demographics, it is remarkable how a Greek teacher these days is compelled not only to teach Greek as a second language but also as a second culture. My students experience difficulty in recognising basic cultural concepts that would have seemed axiomatic just a decade ago, such as the identity of Panagia. This poses a pertinent dilemma for the would-be Greek teacher. In a post-modern world, in which there is a fragmentation and multiplicity of values, beliefs and lifestyles, is there any point in continuing to purvey the freeze-dried conception of Hellenism that has been handed down to us as a revealed truth? How Greek are we if we do not and are we best qualified to be the arbiters of what will be considered Greek for the purposes of instilling in our children, a ‘Greek’ identity – whatever that comes to be defined as being? I was surprised and touched to observe how the brilliant and passionate teachers at my school agonised over how to adapt and make relevant a culture to children who ‘should be Greek’ but have already traversed far down the path of assimilation. In preparing for a school play to mark the 25 March anniversary of the War of Independence, the irony of attempting to teach children who did not know the identity of the Mother of God, the troparion of the Annunciation is trite. And how do you teach the traditional nationalist poems that so form part of a traditional upbringing to children who have already had deeply instilled values about tolerance and the evils of racism? Ultimately then, the teaching of Greek does entail learning, for its would-be practitioners must be steeped in its mysteries and constantly reinterpret them to their students, in accordance with the perceived needs of the zeitgeist. My novel idea of assisting students to experience the tragedy of the Revolution by getting them to learn the song “Horos tou Zalongou” and have them jump off the stage one by one, I have been told, definitely is not in concordance with the present norms.
My mother’s parting shot at me was this, from Marva Collins: “The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another.” We need to find ways of allowing our children to discover the delights of Greek culture for themselves, within a structured environment that will ensure that students not just get a superficial splattering of Greek ‘colour’ but rather, a lasting world view that will ensure the continuity of our people in this country for years to come. This is not achievable by dumbing down lessons or underestimating the abilities of students to immerse themselves within learning what should have been their mother tongue. Nor is it achievable by self-righteously ignoring the increasingly heterogenous character of our community and identity. It is achieved by parents, teachers and the whole community working in concert to forge what is left of our community into a place that can embrace them and to which they can adapt comfortably, if it is to form an intrinsic part of their identity and not just a novelty. In the end, what we make of ourselves, will be what we make of our children, for our language can not be taught in isolation to what is transpiring already in the lives of students. If our attention was skewed more to the form and content of the latter generation’s Greek education, than to who will be president of a Greek organisation or whether paganism is superior to Christianity, then half the battle would be won.
Last week, in order to give my class a more hands-on approach to their ‘cultural legacy’ I brought in various Greek musical instruments, demonstrated their use and had each one of my students explore them and play with them. It was then, having asked the class to give me a sentence with the word μπαγλαμά, that one of the girls at the back, who had never before spoken Greek in my class, stuttered out: «Μου αρέσει να παίζω μπαγλαμά.» Unremarkable I know, but it is of these fragmented moments of triumph that a teacher’s resolve is stiffened and a child’s decision to persist with something that is still alien to them or to reject it wholesale is made.
If anything, the diatribist’s brief and extremely humbling, tentative foray into the world of Hellenic teaching merely validates, that which Lola May already observed and which so many of my erstwhile long-suffering Greek teachers were able to pull off in style: “There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff, know who you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly.” Until next week, study hard. There is so much to learn.


First published in NKEE on 3 March 2008