Thursday, 12 September 2013

Breaking down barriers (Γκρεμίζοντας τα εμπόδια)

After the sprinkling of the Holy Water (known as Ayiasmo) on the first day of the school term at the high school, the children were split into class groups alphabetically, and were then designated to a classroom where they would be given books (my son came home with 32 books in a blue plastic carrier bag, the kind you get in a fresh produce market for carrying potatoes, etc) and a teacher would give them a little pep-talk. During this time, my husband and I chatted with some of the other parents that had also accompanied their kids on their first day of high school. We were all waiting to ask the headmaster about some things we weren't informed of during the Ayiasmo, which consisted mainly of niceties, chanting priests and half-hearted speeches by the local politicians (deputy mayors). Some parents don't need to hang around the school to ask anything because they have other children (or know of other children) who have already been through the first day of term, and they know the ropes. But since we are new to the game, we decided stay and get a feel for the place.
Greek public school education relies on books: if it's not in a book, it's not taught. All books are distributed in the first week of the new year. Apart from the more traditional subjects of Language (both Modern and Ancient Greek), History, Maths, Biology (I note a lack of Chemistry and Physics), there is also Music, Geology-Geography, Life and Writings of Herodotus, Homer's Odyssey, Information Science, Art, Religious Studies, Physical Education (yes, there are books for those too!) and Home Economics, which particularly interests me, so I may read it before my son.
The headmaster sensed our newness and when the children had all been assigned a class, he explained a few things to us about how the school would operate, the kinds of things he knew parents were waiting to have explained to them: the availability of school buses (sadly, they usually arrive after the start of the first lesson), how absences are treated (it's not as though we can take our kids on a London holiday anymore, like we used to do when they were both in primary school), what times the school would operate in the first week (that first school week always take some getting used to in Greece, after three months of summer holidays for primary school children), and what times the school would operate under normal circumstances. That 'normal circumstances' phrase reminded me that we have been barraged with the news of the teachers' rolling five-day strikes, starting from this coming Monday. Yet, nobody, nobody, nobody dared mention the taboo question of how the school will operate on those days, and how we will be informed about striking teachers.

Striking in Greece has always been a common way in the public service of expressing dissent about anything. It is the first thing that people used to resort to when they wanted to show their annoyance about a new law/rule/edict. Sadly, it is now all that they have to use as a weapon - and to date, no strike has been successful in any public domain. What's more, striking is as personal as voting - you never tell anyone if you will take part in a strike, until the very last minute. This includes teachers - they behave in exactly the same way as any other public servant, which gives them much more power than the average pen-pusher, since they disrupt a parent's work routine and a child's study routine. The student and the parent are never their priority when they strike - striking is regarded as a democratic form of personal expression. This is something I knew full well when I decided to break the taboo and specifically ask the headmaster and the teacher who was accompanying him about it.

Greek high schools all look like this; the structures generally resemble prisons. This particular school has not had a second coat of paint. The main consideration for me in judging school buildings is whether they've been built according to anti-seismic standards (Hania lies in a seismic zone, but we have certain advantages over other parts of Crete). 
I'm not afraid to break down barriers. I never bother with grey forms of politeness when dealing with people of any strata. We are all human beings to start with - some of us are prettier, smarter, richer, etc than others, but in my mind, no one is better. As people, we are all equal. To most people, I think I sound horribly rude with my directness. But nowadays, I think that these people know I am simply demanding transparency. To my mind, I am just getting on with whatever job I am dealing with at that point. And I think the teachers saw that this is what I was ultimately aiming to do - I wasn't trying to offend them: I was simply trying to show some regard for my own self-esteem.

"Excuse me, could you tell us what's going to happen during the strikes?"

Both the faces of the headmaster and the teacher literally soured, like an old lemon that starts to wrinkle. The headmaster lost his smile. I had confronted him head-on with an issue that he thought he had cleverly avoided throughout the Ayiasmo, not mentioning a single word about the proposed strikes of the high school teachers, despite this being the main news item in nearly every mainstream Greek news site. What on earth is he avoiding, I wondered. Everyone knows about it; why didn't he show some sympathy to our plight? And with this in mind, how can I show any sympathy for his?

The teacher accompanying him immediately jumped to his aid. "That's a personal issue," she said, lips pursed. "We can't tell you who will be striking and on what day." But that's not what I asked or what I wanted to know.

"I'm not asking who is striking or whether the school will strike. I am simply asking what on earth I do with my child to make sure that he is safe."

The headmaster felt as if his authority and the tacit agreement that he has made among his staff were being challenged. "Of course your child will be safe!" he insisted. But he hadn't really answered my question, had he? I could have left all this shit to be dealt with on the day of the first strike (if there will be one - we simply do not know), but I've always been the kind of person to plan ahead; most of the mothers who were with me do not work, so they can always be around for their children if something does not go to plan. I found it very insolent and rather egotistical on the part of the teacher and the headmaster that they did not remember this. Village schools are used to the housewife mother; I refuse to apologise for being an exception.

"So when I drive my child 10 kilometres to bring him to school and then drive another 20 to get to work, while his father could be anywhere on the island, even as far as Iraklio, what do I do in the event of a strike being called at the very last minute? I think I have a right to be told from now how you handle this issue."

Tensions rose. Still, no one else among the other parents wanted to break the taboo of not mentioning strikes. Both teachers and parents were cruising along as if they were completely ignorant of current affairs, completely unaffected by the crumbling world around them, completely indifferent to each others' apprehensions. Greeks have often sat it out, waiting for things to change without changing them for themselves, even watching the tide come in, and simply hoping that it won't take them with it. Plan Bs are often devised at the last minute. But that's not me. I refuse to work that way.

At primary school, because children have only one class teacher, they are informed the day before if the teacher will take part in a strike the next day. But at high school, where children are taught by different teachers, this is not done. Of course, it is easy to do this, but the teachers themselves refuse to shape up: surely they know if they intend to get up early the next day to go to their job - surely they have already decided if they are striking or not: I  know for a fact that teachers do have knowledge of who will be striking or not, and they inform their friends (the in-group, so to speak) who have children attending their school. They are simply not telling the students until the last minute, kind of like a cat-and-mouse game. This means that children must turn up at school at 8:10am, even if they end up having not a single lesson that day.

My following outburst had the most effect on the teachers:
"I am only asking for this information because I really don't want to go away from here with a feeling of mistrust and suspicion against teachers. You are in a position to tell us what will happen. We're new here, we don't live in the area, and we really don't know who to ask. I don't really feel like asking more experienced parents what happens - I want to hear it from you, για να μην υπάρχουν παρεξηγήσεις." Which basically means "I don't want there to be any misunderstanding", clearly implying that I don't want to be in the position to be able to accuse them of mismanagement or neglect.

The headmaster then realised that I had put his two feet into one shoe, as we like to say in Greek. He could not avoid the issue. So he did the only thing left to do: he explained what happens during a strike at the high school:
"All children have to be at school on time and all teachers must have declared whether they will strike by 8:10am of that morning. After that, we reschedule the children's classes with the teachers who are not striking so they can all finish earlier. Then the children can phone their parents to inform them of when they will finish--"

"Do you allow the use of mobile phones?" I was very naughty to interrupt him, I know. But it's a tactic applied as feedback - I wanted to show him I was paying full attention to him, hanging onto his every word. So his word had to be good and true.

"-- wait a minute, now just listen to us first! We don't allow mobile phones, they can call you from my office. We also inform the school bus services to come earlier, and we wait until all the children have left the school grounds with a parent or the bus."

I thanked the headmaster for this explanation; he gave me the answer I wanted. And I was so pleased to hear the teacher who was with him say: "You were right to ask about this." She was the one who originally said it was a personal issue whether a teacher went on strike. I knew I had done the right thing, and I was glad that someone could see things my way.

This kind of secretive behaviour is not exhibited in more transparent societies  where each party knows its rights and has been exercising them for a long long time, even when people are in extreme disagreement over how an issue should be handled. It wasn't common in Greece to challenge authorities - it may not even ever be fully accepted - but the more often people do it, the more acceptable it will become. I couldn't go away without doing what I did. It's sad that I had to act like this on the very first day of school, at the very beginning of the new school year. I also foresee times in the near future when I will again demand a full explanation of how things work (eg I know there is a way for my children to avoid religious studies altogether - I will eventually work that one out, too). But if I hadn't done what I did, I would have gone away that day with suspicions and negative sentiments towards people who often take it for granted that we do as they tell us to do and not ask too many questions.

Thankfully the kids weren't around to witness these events because they often see their mother behaving 'differently' among a group of parents. The behaviour of the minority is judged by the beliefs of the majority, so they still need some time to understand what I am doing. I may not have been brought up in Greece, but I learnt about democracy in another country that espoused the virtues of this ancient Greek invention.

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