Saturday, June 18, 2016


I wonder if the children of Margariti know what they have, if they know of the fragility of education for those who came generations before. It's

We're all basically the same. It's hard to know what those before us have gone through so that we could live in our comfortable oblivion.

It was this Margariti school that my husband, Nick, attended as a rambunctious and rebellious student who I have no doubt was a challenge to most teachers' patience. In fact, one disturbing incident that was depicted in a past post entitled, Teacher, may have been the catalyst to his disillusionment with education and thus his choice for disruptive school-behavior. But that's a different story.

At the same time that Nick was attending Margariti School, I was across the ocean, a compliant, looking-for-the-teachers'-praise little student. Along with my classmates, we were unquestioningly collecting pennies to donate to an organization that would send food to the post-war hungry children of Europe. We even had black and white photos of their hungry faces hanging in the classroom, which seems odd now. But I remember feeling a great sense of duty as I begged neighbors and relatives for their pennies.

Nick also fondly remembers receiving American cheese when he was in grade school. It was cut into small square blocks and handed out to the students. None of the children had ever seen such cheese before. In the heat, it became a gooey yellow mess. So, under the direction of my future husband, they learned how to launch it from the end of their pencils and have it stick to the classroom ceiling.  He's always been a mechanical sort of guy.

Fast forward a few years to junior high school as Nick listens to the admonishments of his English teacher for cutting English class. Nick's response carried a robust serving of proud ethnocentrism: "I'm Greek! I speak Greek! I'll never need English!" To which his teacher replied: "Someday you will remember me and regret not listening to my advice." Sure enough, only a few years later as a young immigrant in the U.S., unable to communicate with anyone, Nick did remember that teacher . . . often.

The point is, we don't understand the hardship of those who came before us. Education is something we take for granted and expect to be there if we decide to attend. In the memoir, The Nifi, my mother-in-law's 1930s educational experience in the mountains of Epirus is laid out as accurately as she could remember.

Here is an excerpt. I hope you enjoy it.

        School was not necessary. The girls' labor was needed elsewhere, but the village priest pestered the villagers to enroll their children, even the girls. Chevi's father met the subject with indifference. As long as he felt neither hunger nor thirst, and his clothes seemed clean, his winter nights alit with the warmth of the collected wood in the fire, he did not look past the top of his ouzo glass. But Yiayia Vasiliki was different. She was quietly aggressive in her efforts with Chevi and school--and one might assume that this old woman, having endured an arduous life, illiterate, uneducated, controlled in every aspect by the men around her, would be first in line to register her granddaughters with the hope of their breaking free of the village yoke, but such an assumption would only be made by a person who had never lived in that time or place. Instead, Yiayia Vasiliki used every bit of her intelligence and cunning to avoid the priest for quite some time and then to articulate long and unlikely scenarios--that one might call lies--as to why her son had not come to register Chevi yet. 
        "Oh, John is tending to the sheep on the mountain," she'd say, knowing he never had nor ever would have animals, or "Chevi is visiting my sister in Paramithia," when in fact, Chevi was not far behind her on the path and Yiayia had no living sister. But the priest was accustomed to being put off this way. Apparently, it was proper village etiquette to make an excuse that was obviously false, in order to achieve a goal, but to also--at all cost--avoid the unacceptable behavior of hurting one's feelings because, after all, in a small village the occupants would be living close together for a long time. Better to be talked about for a flimsy excuse rather than for cruel behavior. So, for example, if one were to have an unwanted guest whose stay appeared to be for an undefined amount of time, the more appropriate response to such a situation would be to say something like: "I'm sorry you'll have to stay in the goat shed (knowing this would create the hoped-for result) because the priest needs his brother to stay here for a while," rather than saying: "Your digestive habits are making me sick and you've been here a month already. Take a hike!" And mind you, there is a chance that the visitor would actually move to the goat shed and see that no guest  arrives, but the house would be rid of him and he would not mention it. Goal achieved--village etiquette intact. 
        So Yiayia Vasiliki did her best to keep Chevi free from the shackles of school. She was of the opinion that having Chevi sit in a two room school house wasting time with fifty other children of all ages, would only give the appearance of being educated. She suspected very little learning actually occurred there and in turn it would only limit her granddaughter's ability to find a husband. Besides that, in all likelihood, Chevi, because of her old age of ten, would be used for assisting the teacher with the unruly smaller children--most of whom had never sat quietly in a chair with a writing tablet or pencil.  But eventually, the village priest got most of the signatures that he needed by buying a round of drinks at the taverna and Chevi found herself sitting uncomfortably among the first graders in a corner of the school house. 
        "Chevi Lykas, read this page before the wolves come down the mountain and eat you." The teacher was a man who, in Chevi's aged memory, was as tall as the ceiling with a voice that boomed like thunder and with small black weasel-like eyes embedded in a head as hairless as a turtle's shell. He found it easy and comfortable to use young Chevi for creating light moments of fun in the classroom. And the other children laughed as she stared at the lines that were supposed to be words. But it was Greek and she only knew Albenetika, the village dialect. But not its writing.  

No comments:

Post a Comment