It’s my birthday today, but I don’t have anything particularly fascinating to say about myself, so I’ll talk about someone else instead: one of my teachers.

As most of you probably don’t know, I went to school at the German School of Thessaloniki (Deutsche Schule Thessaloniki – DST). It wasn’t the best school I can imagine, but it was certainly better than most other schools I’ve seen in Greece and Germany. Given the dreadful state of the German educational system, I was quite lucky.

Now, the DST was divided into two departments: the Greek department and the German department. The Greek department functioned much like a Greek school with a strong-ish German overlay; the German department was mostly German. The Greek department was attended almost exclusively by Greek pupils; the pupils of the German department were mostly bicultural Greek/Germans, with the occasional pure German thrown into the mix (mostly the children of teachers).

I was in the German department, and for the most part that was fine. There was just one problem: there were no decent Greek lessons. Like most children in my class, I spoke fluent Greek, but there’s more to a language than just speaking it. Greek lessons were so random and disorganized, occasionally not happening at all for extended periods of time, that even after years of school there were people who weren’t capable of writing a single correct sentence – in the same language they used every day to communicate with their parents, their friends and the world.

I was one of the lucky few for whom things went differently. My parents, poor as they were, thought my language skills important enough to pay for private lessons. And I was also lucky enough to have an absolutely awesome (if occasionally eccentric) teacher, a man called Miltos, who taught me not just grammar, but literature and poetry and history as well. I owe a debt of gratitude to that man, and it makes me sad that we’ve lost contact for years now. But I’ll write about him some other time.

When I was young, it never occured to me that the lack of decent Greek lessons at my school might be anything other than a simple lack of organization. The fact that we should be taught Greek seemed self-evident; most of us were at least partly Greek, after all, and we certainly lived in Greece. Who could ever object to that?

As it turned out, quite a lot of people could.

You see, there were two types of German teachers who came to Greece. There were those who quickly learned to love the good parts of Greece and hate the bad parts – pretty much like Greek people, that is. They enjoyed the weather and the food and the more relaxed attitude; they learned the language, or enough to communicate, and lived life in Greece.

And then there were the colonialist types, who didn’t learn the language, hated the weather, sneered at the more relaxed attitude, and went to the German restaurant to eat schnitzel. They organized Oktoberfests (a beer festival at a school?) and told their children never to marry Greeks. They went around like mysophobes afraid of being infected by Greekness.

A while ago, a lunatic kidnapped the DST’s principal. (Really.) The victim managed to escape, and to call the police… but he didn’t even speak enough Greek to tell them where he was. That does say something, doesn’t it?

The fact is, there was a substantial number of people inside the school’s power structure who were very much against infecting this German school with all this foreign stuff. Thanks to them, Greek lessons remained a disorganized mess for years. One year we were grouped into beginner and advanced classes; then we had lessons with pupils from the Greek department; then we had no lessons at all; and so on.

Then came Eleni Nikolaki, our new Greek teacher. You can imagine the kind of mess she inherited: some pupils being as advanced as their Greek school counterparts, others barely able to write their own name, and a general sense that Greek lessons were not something to be taken seriously. It must have been a nightmare.

She approached this herculean task in a way none of were used to: directly, seriously, and with plenty of humour. I’m not sure I really appreciated it at first, to be honest: I was bored out of my head with school, and with my private lessons and my general interest in language I was naturally ahead of most of the class, with only two or three exceptions. Having to listen to people being taught the basics of grammar, or going through a series of exercises I had already completed five times (over the years and under different teachers), made me want to scream.

But here’s the thing: in a remarkably short period of time, Eleni Nikolaki managed to drum this stuff into most people’s heads. To this day I have no idea how that actually worked, but it did. Everyone’s skills improved noticeably.

And then she did something even more impressive: she went for the history of art. Suddenly we were talking about the kind of stuff we’d never talked about before: ancient plays, modernist poetry, the evolution of language… we were going through enormous masses of interesting and important material. More importantly, we were going through it in an organized, internally interconnected fashion, something we had never done in any of our other subjects.

Having worked at the university’s Writing Center for four years now, I have a much clearer idea of what kind of academic background most teachers educated in Germany have: almost none. There are exceptions – I know several personally – but the vast majority are grade-D students who wouldn’t know an academic work from a turnip, who have no understanding of history or art (or the history of art), and are just studying to be teachers because they can’t come up with anything else and think that children are kind of cute. The absurd focus of the system on imparting “teaching skills” at the expense of having teachers who can tell the difference between Shakespeare and a hole in the ground doesn’t help.

Eleni Nikolaki was quite different. Here was someone who knew what she was talking about, who had both knowledge and opinions, and who was genuinely interested in these subjects. We probably disagreed as often as we agreed, but I never once felt that I knew more than the teacher (as in so many other cases), or that the teacher wasn’t really interested. She never pretended that she was above us, or talked to us like idiots, as so many other teachers did. She respected us and encouraged us, and occasionally chided us. But she always remained friendly and approachable (something a lot of older, conservative Greek teachers are not really good at).

We talked about content. We talked about form. We talked about history, about politics, about art. We told silly jokes. And we had, as a group and as individuals, many good moments, and some bad. But we learned, and came away wiser and more adult than we had been before. Even arrogant little me.

I vividly remember how, in our last year, I analyzed a book we were reading in terms of how the form reflected the content, and Eleni enthusiastically told me I’d make a great academic. (Heh.) I vividly remember the incredibly kind things she wrote about all of us when we graduated.

I also vividly remember how hard some people made her work – not the pupils, but the principal and other teachers. They resented her for her success, for the fact that when we were allowed to choose between Greek and French (or both), only a single person chose to ditch Greek, and quite a few people ditched French. They went far, far out of their way to punish her, even starting rumours that we had already been handed our questions for the final exam, and bringing in a special inspector-type-person from Germany to check our results – even though that person didn’t speak a word of Greek. They made life hard for her, and harmed the very pupils they were supposed to be taking care of. Such is arrogance and hatred.

I have had very few great teachers in my life. I was too annoyed by school in general to fully appreciate her work back then, but I can do so now.

Eleni and I share a birthday; she turns forty today.

Χρόνια πολλά, Ελένη. And thank you.

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