family

No Pens, No Paper

12 September 2018

Demitra Lazarakis on why education matters to her

Art by Nicola Dobinson

 
 
I remember a moment vividly from when I was around 15 years old. I had spent the afternoon with my grandparents— Grandma Cornelia and Grandpa George, γιαγιά and παππού in Greek. On this particular day, I noticed one of my grandma’s little notes on the dining table. As my grandparents had no mobile phones, sometimes they would write notes to each other explaining that they had gone to their neighbour’s house, or to the shops. When I read the note, which said something like, “Γιώργο, πήγα στην Μαρίκα,” George, I went to Marika’s house, I realised that the spelling of “went” was wrong. I was surprised to find that my grandmother, a native Greek speaker, had misspelled such a common word. I was even more surprised, however, that I, a third-generation Greek, knew the correct way over her. It was a few years later that I fully understood why.

When I was younger and my parents were at work, my sister and I were looked after by my grandparents on the school holidays. They would take us to the shops, to the park and sometimes even to McDonald’s. We would watch TV together, play hide-and-seek and draw pictures. Towards the end of the day, Grandpa would give us a notepad and pens. It was time to write an essay—in Greek—about what we had done that day. So, my sister and I would produce a short paragraph in Greek about our trip to the shops, or the park, or what we had watched on TV. And my grandpa would read over it and mark it. He always gave us δέκα από δέκα. Ten out of ten.

Sometimes, when my grandma was finished with the cooking and dishes, she would come to sit with us on the couch and read. It was from a small book that most Greek children have come across before, which contains passages for beginners of the Greek language, right through to pages for more advanced learners. Usually she would read to us, but sometimes she asked us to read to her. I remember the feeling of satisfaction I had whenever I read from the longer, more difficult passages.

My grandparents, all four of them, taught me Greek. I attended Greek school for 12 years which taught me more refined ways of speaking and writing, but if it weren’t for my grandparents I would never have been able to practise what I learnt at school, and I would lack confidence in my abilities.

I have a strong passion for education. I’ve wanted to be a teacher for many years. I love the idea of working in a school, of passing my knowledge onto others and being surrounded by young people. I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in English and History. I hope to get my Masters in Secondary Education when I’ve completed my first degree.

When my Grandma Cornelia was a little girl, she also wanted to be a teacher. Her older brother adored her, and one day he said, “Αυτή θα την κάνω δασκάλα.” I’m going to make this one a teacher.

But that didn’t happen. Growing up in Kariani, a small village in Macedonia (Northern Greece), my grandmother, Cornelia Lazarakis, barely had the opportunity to finish primary school.

She began school with the first grade. She wasn’t very interested in writing or maths, but she loved religious studies. And she loved the social side of school—playing outside with all the children during break time. She got along with everyone and never had a fight with any of the other children. Well, except for an incident with a shoe falling down the toilet, but that was proven to be an accident and resolved within a day.

My grandmother was half way through fifth grade when her teacher had to speak to her mother. He asked her why she wasn’t attending class often and told her that if this continued he would have to hold her back a grade. The reason, her mother had told him, was that Cornelia needed to work at the family’s farm.

So, my grandmother dropped out of school then and there, half way through fifth grade.

My grandmother never really met her father. He died when she was two. With no men in the house after the death of her older brother, working the farm was left up to my grandmother, her mother and her older sister. She had no time for school. After all, her sister had only completed two grades.

A few years later, the Greek government made it compulsory that all children complete primary school. She attended a night school in order to finish the rest of fifth and sixth grade. This way she had time to work during the day.

 
One night, she remembers coming home from school to find a προξενήτρα, a matchmaker, in her house. They wanted to arrange her marriage. This was very common for young Greek women during the period. My grandmother said no. She didn’t want to get married just yet, especially to someone she didn’t know.

In 1955, aged 18, my grandmother obtained her primary school certificate. Having just become an adult, she completed primary school with average marks. After all these years, she still has a copy of the certificate, along with my grandfather’s. She showed them to me last week, all yellow and tattered as they were. You should have seen my grandfather’s eyes. They were bright with pride.

My grandfather, George Lazarakis, grew up in Peramos, another village in Macedonia (Northern Greece). He was meant to start primary school at the age of seven. But due to the occupation of Greece by the Axis Powers (1941–1944), schools had shut down. My grandfather was nine when the Bulgarians left Greece, and so his first two years of primary school were compressed into six months. After that, grades resumed at their normal length of one year.

At his school, there were no pens or pencils. Students often used chicken feathers and ink to write. The majority of students didn’t even own notepads to write on. Most used paper shopping bags.

My grandfather loved school. He was an excellent student, fantastic at both maths and writing. He fondly remembers the day his teacher read out his essay as an example of great work to his classmates.

He finished primary school in 1950, aged 13. His teacher praised his smarts and encouraged him to go to secondary school. But his father had no money to pay for a secondary education.

Many years later when travelling back to Greece to visit family, my grandfather bumped into his teacher. As this one teacher had taught him for all subjects, and as he was a bright student, both remembered each other clearly.

His teacher asked, “Τι κάνεις; Πως είσαι;” What are you up to? How are you?

Τώρα είμαι αλλού,” he replied. Now I’m elsewhere.

Of course, by this stage, my grandparents—along with approximately 160,000 other post-war Greek migrants, had left his homeland and built a brand new life for himself and his family in a foreign land—Australia.

 
My other grandfather, Dimitri Tsamoudakis, was born in a village called Kalamos on the small Aegean island of Ikaria. His education was also disrupted by a shortage of teachers, and money of course. The Greek Civil War (1946–1949) contributed significantly.

The trek to school was a long one, and he was usually barefoot. He had one pencil. However, he loved school and was a very bright student.

When he completed primary school at the age of 13, his teacher urged him to consider secondary school. He asked my grandfather to speak to his father about it. But my grandfather never mentioned it to his father. They were a family of seven living in poverty. Secondary school was impossible.

So, he left his village to work in various jobs before becoming a sailor.

Grandpa Dimitri was a little reluctant to share his experience with me. Reflecting on such hardships isn’t easy.

Helen Tsamoudakis, my other grandmother, was born in the village of Poliani, Kalamata (Southern Greece). It was difficult to find information about her education, but I do know that she didn’t complete primary school because she, like Grandma Cornelia, had to work on a farm.

The next type of education she received was in her preparations to come to Australia. Males were usually given priority in migrating to Australia during the post-war period, however, in 1956 a program was established to enable single women to migrate. Held in Athens, it trained young females for domestic work in Australia while teaching them basic English. My grandmother undertook this training before migrating to Australia in her early 20s, alone.

 
So, after learning about these stories, my Grandma Cornelia’s misspelt note holds greater significance. When my grandparents ask me how school is going, or how I went in my exams, their experiences run through my mind. They inspire me to embrace the opportunities denied to them. They give me a sense of pride in all that they’ve achieved in their lives, despite social barriers. And they make me eternally grateful. Let’s not forget how privileged we are to live in a country in which we’re entitled to 12 years of free, decent education. Especially when so many today are still denied it.
 


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