My story comes from about twenty-two years ago…
I was about eight when my family decided to move to Greece from Canada. I remember not taking it very well, but there was nothing I could do about it. When I first saw the school I was going to attend, I saw this old, gray, stone-built construction. “This is your new school!” my mom said enthusiastically. I thought it was an old church the way it looked.
So school started and apart from the occasional teasing I got from classmates about my broken Greek accent (which has been rectified now, even though some friends of mine say that there still are English sounds in my Greek!), I liked school. I remember having a wonderful teacher, a very open-minded gentleman who taught us not only to the subjects but also values which would accompany us later as well.
When there were national days, our school (and all Greek schools) organized celebrations during which students recited poems, performed skits which were about the respective historical event that had happened on that day in the past and some teachers made long-winded speeches about how the Greeks had resisted any invaders and come out unscathed through the centuries. So, the 25th of March which is a national day in Greece arrived. Our class was to stage a performance of the women of the period who had helped that day. My teacher thought it would be a good idea for me to have the starring role in the play, as he thought it would also give me confidence in my spoken Greek.
So the teacher gave us our scripts. Reading through it the first time at home, I found something very disturbing. I did not tell my parents but decided to directly tell the teacher. There was a line in my script which I thought (and was really) quite offensive to Turkish people (and in a children’s play!). I remember it to this day and it is not worth remembering, or mentioning, for that matter.
The first rehearsal came. When I had to deliver the horrible line, I got a lump in my throat and stopped. My teacher thought I had forgotten what I wanted to say and whispered it out. I still did not say it. The teacher, a very kind and caring gentleman as I said earlier, took me aside and thought I had a case of stage-fright. “Don’t worry”, he said. “You are doing very well and your Greek has improved a lot!” The moment of truth had arrived. “Well sir…” I said a bit hesitantly. “It is about that line.” “What line?” he said. “The one that says something bad about the Turks”, I answered and I remember how frightened I was that he would scold me or even throw me out of the play; I was quite proud to be the star, I must admit and was happy about the confidence he had in me to perform in front of other people in Greek! In addition to that, I felt terrible about delivering such a line. “Well”, he said, “don’t worry. It is an expression they used to use back then and we all know you do not mean it. Let’s try it again tomorrow.”
I went home crying after that (scaring the daylights out of my mom who thought who knows what happened at school). After my parents coaxed me into telling them what had happened, I finally told them: “I don’t want to go back to that school again.” They were still asking me why, because I was not telling them. Finally I blurted out: “Because they are making fun of the Turks at that school!” (It took them a lot of persuasion to get me to go back the next day, telling me not to worry and always to remember that everyone is equal no matter where they are from.) Next day: rehearsal number two. The time of the dreaded line arrives again and this time I break into tears in front of everyone and I remember raising my hand and saying: “I don’t want to say it!” (This time certain that my teacher would be furious with me and tell me to leave the school play. But I was determined not to let this pass – a tough little eight-year-old!). My (very patient and kind) teacher took me aside again and told me he would leave out that line altogether and I would just say the rest. My first little victory against negative comments against other countries!
Thankfully incidents like this have disappeared from schools today. Or so I hope.
I see this now in my teaching. No child is too young to grasp notions like this. Kids understand and they know what is fair and unfair. For this reason, to all teachers, please do not hesitate talking to children about issues of multiculturalism and racism and diversity and so on. Please do not think that they might not understand. Their minds are fresh to accept new ideas and to understand that people are different and it is okay to be different. They will both accept other people and will feel more comfortable about who they are at the same time. The classroom is a place where this can be implemented but first of all children’s primary education must be based on these humanitarian notions. It is the best kind of education they can get.
Note: When I wrote this post, I was not out to criticise the specific system, as I think that unfortunately in many educational systems in the world notions like these are perpetuated. It is just an example of such notions. My teacher demonstrated that he chose not to do so. We can all do the same and show our students the beauty of being different – the beauty of all cultures.