Thursday, 20 June 2013

Junior high school (Γυμνάσιο)

When I started my son at primary school (1km away from our home), I took him to the local school on the first day of term, as we were instructed to do from the kindergarten, where all the parents and pupils had congregated in the yard. I looked around the school and noticed the lack of open spaces. The semi-rural/semi-urban area (depending on how full you see the glass) where we live went through a building boom when the school was first built, hence it then went through an exponential population rise, hence the new primary school suddenly became too small to accommodate the the students. There were pre-fab buildings in the yard, and some of the classrooms had been split into two rooms, to accommodate the rising number of pupils per class group. I was told that there would be 27 children in my son's first grade class.

The first thing I envisioned was children playing in the yard, running around and knocking into each other. One of my former colleagues who happens to work at that school told me that 'breakages' were common (arms, legs). The children would be sitting so closely together in the classroom that they would be spitting on each other when they talked. I didn't stay any longer than necessary - I asked if there was another school with fewer pupils that would accommodate us. I took my children to the next closest primary school, which was located in a village setting (5km away from our house). The school had a maximum of 20 children in each class, and ample spaces for the children to have their runarounds. In fact, when the school needed to enlarge, new classrooms were added to it, and the old classrooms remained intact, while the play area was not greatly diminished.

This discussion leads to an insight into how Greek parents choose their children's school. They don't look at class sizes or spaces - proximity to the home is the most important feature, which sounds natural.  We all want our children to be able to live close to school, because it gives us peace of mind. But what if the school premises cannot accommodate your children? Very few people would make the sacrifice I made at the primary school level. I have been driving my kids 10km to and from from our house every morning, while their father does the remaining 10km in the afternoon.

We now found ourselves going through similar dilemmas as we tried to work out the junior high school puzzle. We really wanted to send our son to the closest junior high school (1km from our house), because we were tired of early mornings and driving extra miles. But the local junior high school refused to accept us because we did not attend the one and only primary school that they accept pupils from, which is located 2km away from our house, which also happens to be oversubscribed, with even worse building problems than our local primary school which we didn't send our kids to, either.

How do oversubscribed schools develop? In Greece, they usually start off as village schools, located in an area close to the urban centre. As people became more affluent, the area itself becomes more affluent and highly desirable, as urban residents take flight, preferring the open air and cleaner surroundings, coupled with better housing, which is all available in the Greek countryside. The people fleeing inner-city neighbourhoods are usually affluent city dwellers - white-collar workers: doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, blah blah blah, including the infamous Greek public servant of course! So these schools start off as semi-rural/semi-urban, developing into schools that cater for the higher classes (which the Greek public servant belonged to in the past, when s/he was well paid, enjoyed many benefits and was guaranteed a high pension). If you are climbing the social ladder, you will want to be a part of this group. You want to rub shoulders with the right people: peasants and immigrants are not the right people.
Not being accepted in the local school is not a new issue, as we understand from many other parents, both in Greece and abroad, but we had a surreal experience when we visited the local junior high school to discuss the issue. The stress level of the school (over-subscribed, not enough rooms, not enough outdoor spaces) has rubbed off onto the staff. When we entered the office area, we were confronted by a woman who, had I not known that she was a teacher, I would have presumed to be a drug addict (she had personal problems, as my husband explained; she - the child of a public servant - had lived in the same neighbourhood as he did when they were young). She was dragging on a cigarette as she talked to us, in the teeny weeny office space which she shared with three other women, as well as two men who were coming in and out of the headmaster's office, which always closed as soon as it opened. She would have shooed us away with a flick of her hands and a puff of smoke as soon as we entered the office, had it not been for my husband who she recognised (her brother was my husband's best friend at school).  After greeting my husband with his pre-teen nickname, she told us that the school had no places for newcomers; it was hopeless trying to secure a place if we did not come from the over-subscribed primary school.

The men in the office didn't pay any attention to us, but the other women looked on us pitifully. One of them looked like she was dressed in misfit clothes that my middle aged female neighbours wear when they go into the garden to harvest summer greens. She had a cigarette hanging off her mouth too (what a disgusting sight in a school, and the wrong place for it, given all the discussions that have taken place about the no-smoking ban in indoor public spaces) and her appearance gave off that tired bored look of indifference that Greeks have come to expect from public servants who are simply waiting for the day that they do not have to come in to their workplace any more. She too told us that there was no chance that our son would be accepted in the school.

This woman was clearly the ringleader of the little troupe. The two other women sitting beside her kept silent while we were there. They looked... sensible. They looked like the kind of people that would perform their duties to the best of their ability, abiding by the law, if the ringleaders were as sensible as them. They are the public servants who I mention in my post the day before yesterday:
"They refuse to budge from their chairs, presenting a perfect display of the typical characteristic of Greek public-servantism. Yes, there are public servants who do their job well, but at the end of the day, they are public servants..."
I was appalled with the whole sight: not because we were turned down, but because I suddenly felt that home schooling would be the best and only choice I would have, no matter where I went. Is it possible that there are other schools out there that could be better than the pure misery that we had just confronted?
We had a choice of two other schools: (1) the city-centre junior high school (4km away, combined with a slow bumper to bumper drive into the town), and (2) the rural junior high school (9km away) that accepts all the children from the olive-grove/orange-orchard villages, reaching up as high as the village of Lakki on the foothills of the Lefka Ori. If proximity is no longer an issue, how do you make a choice between town and village?

Just the thought of driving into the city centre every morning put me off going there first. It's not even on the same route as the primary school my daughter attends. I would need to drive in and out of the city - and back into the countryside; inevitably, one child will always be late for school while the other will have to hang around in all weather until the school gates open. It is not even conveniently located for my workplace. We would have to get up even earlier than 7.10am when we used to wake up all the other years, to ensure we could have breakfast and get to school on time. There are free buses available, but there will always be times when we may miss the bus for whatever reason.

But this is not my most significant concern. Another worrying aspect about urban schools is the increased levels of racist violence directed against immigrants. When we talked to other people about the next closest junior high school, they would all make remarks about the number of immigrants in that school. This tells us something about Greeks, which my previous post yesterday also hints at: they are covert racists, no matter how we look at the issue. They organise solidarity groups for foreigners, they hire and feed foreigners in their fields, they call Golden Dawn racist thugs, but are they any better than them when they covertly avoid immigrants, carrying inside them the belief that they will soil their pure and pristine Greek children with their presence? The main remarks made by anyone we talked to about the choice of the urban junior high school was that immigrant children use foul language (as if they invented μαλάκα and γαμώτο!) and they are not academically inclined (my own prejudice against Greeks is that they are taught a lot of academic subjects which they can never put into practice, and their all-round intelligence levels in a social context are low despite their belief that they are highly qualified academically speaking).

The other choice is the rural junior high school. We already attended the rural primary school by choice, so we know what to expect from the people whose children attend these schools. They are often not very worldly, and not very progressive, but they remind us of ourselves in many ways, because, even though we like to believe that we are worldly and progressive, we come directly from such backgrounds: humble village dwellers, hard workers, people often forgotten by the state whose plans never include them, people whose homes may always have been among somewhere among those olive groves and orange orchards, people who earn their living off the land. When we talked to other people about the rural junior high school, this is what they had to say about it: all the peasants send their kids there! So that tells us something else about Greek identity: the peasant (or farmer's) life is undesirable, even thought most Greeks are directly derived from the former!

To summarise, if we were to listen to other people's advice, we should: a) avoid immigrants, b) avoid peasants, c) find a school where the parents of the children are public servants, and d) fight for a place in the local school. This is what Greeks mean when they say the school is 'good'. But I never followed the rules when I chose the primary school of my children, so it's unlikely I will follow these rules for the next step. It was a really hot morning today, as it is every single morning in summertime Crete. I decided not to drive in the direction of the city; I took the easier route, to the rural junior high school. I also took my son along so he could compare the schools for himself.

On entering the school, which was very big compared to the semi-urban/semi-rural school, I noticed how peaceful it was (despite its austere exterior prison look - most Greek high schools look like that, as they are modelled on the same architectural design). We followed the murmurs of human sounds until we found the offices - large, airy and - would you believe it?! - smoke-free! The staff - about 15-18 of them - were dressed appropriately, sensibly, decently, and there was no door-slamming. The first woman to see us hovering outside the office door immediately, very softly and politely, asked us if we needed any help. I explained that we lived outside the school zone but we haven't been accepted into our local school.

"Don't worry, we'll take you," she said, putting her arm around my son's shoulder. She then led us to the principal's office, who shook our hand and bid us to take a seat. I couldn't believe that I had found the degree of normality that I expected to find only in 'other countries', as Greeks often say about the state of public services in Greece. In those few minutes that we were in the school, we even signed up for the after-hours free-tuition programme which the school was offering for the second year in a row. After taking down all our details, he told us when the school would be opening for the new term, and informed us that we can come to the school during the summer if we wish to discuss anything, because he is there every day.

I don't know what the inner-city school is like, because I was quite happy with what I saw in the village school. My son is thrilled that he will be back with the same friends from his primary school, and he will make new ones from the surrounding villages. I don't fancy that inner-city drive anyway, so for now, I can sleep more easily at night, knowing that I have found a safe school, both from the physical and mental point of view, for my children.

The fuzzy photos were taken from the end-of-year primary school function before breaking up for the long summer holiday. Schools start again on 11 September.

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