Saturday, 8 December 2012

Pride and prejudice

Thank you Nik, for the CD. And Clyde Quay School, for the most embracing teachers I ever had.

Yesterday I received a video celebrating Prof. John Psathas, a music professor of Greek origin in New Zealand. John had a very typical Greek upbringing, similar in many ways to mine, and we are the same age. We were born to Greek immigrants in New Zealand, we both had unpronounceable names (he was sometimes called John Pissartist, while I was often called Maria Veryfarty) and our hard-working parents did many factory jobs before buying food businesses where the whole family was employed. We came to Greece for the first time in our life at about the same time (he in 1975, I in 1974), where we experienced the "impossible feeling of coming home"; although we had never lived in Greece before that visit, Greece was more familiar to us than where we were born and grew up. We also had our first experiences of drunkard behaviour through our shop customers, and although we did not realise it at the time, we experienced what we recognise now as racism through the school system.

My primary education was at an inner-city school located in an area known for immigrant neighbourhoods. The area is now one of the most sought-after places to live in and the house prices have risen exponentially. My high school was on the other side of town, where Anglo-Saxon professionals were known to reside (it was and still is an affluent area). it was also an area filled with private girls' schools (and the Parliament buildings were just down the road, so the whole area was pretty much elitist). The reason why I changed school zones was not because we moved house, but because my parents bought a business on the other side of town, and the high school close to our house was too far away for them to pick us up and take us to the shop afterwards, where we also helped out in the afternoons. Eventually, we would take the bus to the shop, which had a stop close to our high school.

My first year in high school was quite a shock to the system; having left a multi-cultural school where one's differences were celebrated, I came to a school that prided itself on mainstream academic excellence. It drew pupils from the locality (middle-to-upper class Anglo-Saxon professionals), as well as girls from areas in its vicinity which did not have single-sex high schools. In other words, they were also Anglo-Saxons who came from the greater urban area, whose parents did not want them attending the co-ed schools of the newly built cheaper-housing suburbs. Those schools, like immigrant-filled schools, were stigmatised according to their social class. 

I felt this stigma immediately when I began my education at high school. For a start, the other Greek-heritage girls came from the 'right' schools (which were included in the school zone - either they lived in the zoning area, or their parents were in the same situation as mine: they lived far from where they worked, so their children were educated closer to their business than their home). To be allowed into this school as an out-of-zone pupil, I had to choose Latin as an option, which I wanted to anyway, because I was good at languages. The Greek girls were also studying Latin - but we were grouped along the lines of the expectations teachers had of us: all the Greek girls went into the 'A' Latin class (they came from the 'right' school zones), except for me - I was the only one placed in the 'B' class, and this because I was from the 'other' side of town. This was quite different to what went on at my primary school - the Greek children were often grouped together, as a kind of cultural support mechanism.

My first year of high school was not much fun. Neither were the remaining years, but that first one was particularly difficult. I was in a class full of mainly middle-class Caucasian girls (known then by the Maori word 'pakeha', meaning pale-skinned; it is now viewed as somewhat derogatory). It wasn't that I was dark-skinned; my 'darkness' seemed to show up in different ways. For a start, it was common knowledge that my parents picked me up after school (while everyone else took the school bus), and I went to a smelly greasy fish and chip shop (where the term 'greasy Greek' came from). Anyway, I lived quite far away. No other child from my class lived near me. I was like an outsider.

But I was also a good pupil. I stood out for that reason more than any other. Unbeknownst to me, I was placed in a 'bad girls' class group. This was because I came from a school that was considered as having a low-achiever status. I had always been a clever student at school because I had always liked learning, but at my primary school, we were not taught to be competitive - whereas in school with a high-achiever status, students were competitive. So even though I never had the pre-conceived idea that I was one of the best students in the class (because the school's culture did not cultivate this kind of concept), at the end of my first year in high school, I was pronounced top of the class.

This did not change my class group the following year. I was placed in a middle-achiever's group: I was there, but not quite there.  I recall being so bored in class sometimes, that I completed all the maths exercises in the set course textbook in the first two months of the year. When I showed the teacher, I vividly - and can still - recall her wide-opened stare. She felt sorry for me - the other girls weren't very academic, and I had clearly been placed among a group I didn't fit in to. But the following year, I got what I wanted: I was placed in the same class group as the Greek girls (finally! I thought), where we were all doing 'clever girls' subjects, like French, German, Latin and history.

There I got another shock - those girls, along with the rest of the class, were way ahead of me, not academically, but socially. Half of them had professional parents, they were connected to high-status people, and they worked cohesively in this group, whereas I was still an outsider. In terms of social norms, so I had a lot of catching up to do, and I can say that I probably never did catch up to them.I was always lagging socially.

This didn't have any bearing on my future, as I suppose I can say I turned out OK. I don't think life would have turned out any differently for me if I had been placed more 'appropriately' in the class groups right from the start. I think I boldly ploughed through life, despite the impediments. So the prejudices, so to speak, of the school - of grouping children according to areas of origin rather than abilities - didn't have any bearing on my later life. They probably made me stronger.

The inspiration for this post came from a news article about how UK state school pupils are often disadvantaged by the university application process because they don't have the 'right' contacts to get the 'right' experience to be chosen in favour of 'public-school' graduates of equal calibre. An interesting example was given of one application from an 18-year-old public school graduate, who listed their life experience as:
working "for a designer in London; as a model; on the trading floor of a London broker's firm; with my local BBC radio station; events planning with a corporate five-star country hotel; in the marketing team of a leading City law firm… and most recently managing a small gastro pub".
I discussed this very issue with my whole family over today's lunch table; my husband and I know our kids would never be able to make such claims (for one, they will not be allowed by their parents to work as a model at any time in their teens), and I then had the chance to explain to them all about my own school experiences in another country.

Psathas' speech summarised everything my humble parents of a peasant background stood for. I am unlucky in that I lost them both too early in life, but I have never forgotten what they taught me, and it all came back to me as I heard him speak: Greek parents want to see their children doing better than they did. And if you want it, life can be all about what you make of it, not what somebody makes of it for you. This is what I try to teach my own children, who face the local stigma of having a rather different upbringing among a very hardcore traditional village mindset, and the global stigma of being Greek.

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