By Christopher Tripoulas
Continuing the theme touched upon in the previous column, that “symbolism speaks louder than rhetoric” – to borrow a phrase from legendary literary great Alexandros Papadiamantis – it is worth applying this axiom to the manner in which community organizers treat the all-important issue of Hellenic Education; especially within the context of the annual celebrations for Greek Independence Day now taking place.
If this year’s events, culminating in the parades celebrated across U.S. metropolises featuring a high concentration of Hellenes, follow the typical pattern of previous years, Hellenic Paideia, embodied primarily through our schools, will once again be treated as the ugly stepchild of the Community. Sadly, contrary to the usual spiel about the important role of Greek schools in the Community and the importance of keeping the language alive, the actions of the organizers tell a very different story.
Although the closure of five Greek-American day parochial schools in the New York City area over the past decade (along with problems that afternoon schools may be experiencing, such as switching from daily or at least semi-weekly schedules to weekly ones) represents a clear indicator of crisis and distress, not only has no direct action been taken to address this troubling trend (formation of ad-hoc committees and public forums discussing the underlying problem and proposing solutions or viable alternatives, appeals to untapped sources of funding, necessary systemic reforms), but equally disconcerting, no symbolic steps have even been taken to show solidarity with these educational programs, which have long been ignored and left to fend for themselves by tertiary regional and national organizations.
In terms of symbolism, what more important statement could have been given by parade organizers than to afford Greek schools – at the very least, those operating on a daily basis – the honor and privilege of marching at the front of the parade, right after the Greek Presidential Guard (the showcase of the Parade), as a resounding message to marchers and spectators that schools represent the future of the Hellenic Community and that without formal maintenance of its language, faith, and culture, the Community will face a major identity crisis that will ultimately lead to complete assimilation and loss of any “cultural capital” – the unique cultural “otherness” that allows us to dynamically contribute to society as an entity that can command respect, admiration, and social standing.
Schools meet all the logical requirements that would allow them to command a permanent spot leading the first battalion of parade participants: uniform dress code (something sorely lacking among other marchers, who can be seen wearing everything from their favorite soccer jerseys to face-paint, Greek flags distastefully draped around their backs, and ridiculous blue and white Dr. Seuss hats rendering them hopeless fashion victims), a band, and the capability of marching in an orderly manner. Instead of seizing this golden opportunity, organizers stubbornly resist the need for reform and prefer to leave their fate to the “luck of the draw,” often resulting in their marching dead last, with hardly anyone but the pigeons left to cheer them on.
The argument often made by organizers that allowing schools to march first would weaken the parade because students would leave right afterwards, and also not allow young people to admire the other marchers, is hardly convincing. First of all, anyone who frequents the parade knows that marchers don’t get to watch it, because they are stuck waiting on the side streets. Since the wait can last hours, most schools opt to delay their arrival, indirectly assuring that students don’t get a chance to see anything or anyone else at the parade. Secondly, the problem of schools departing after their march could be solved if they were subsequently given space in the grandstands (even on an alternating basis) or at the end of the parade route. Most schools would be happy to stay for the extra hour or two in exchange for the long overdue honor of leading the first battalion.
Of course, it is not just the community organizers who are guilty here. It’s school leadership as well, which has not crossed the borders of their own parish communities to form a single unified bloc and demand the obvious. With students being shortchanged in such a manner year after year, parade organizers should look no further than this sleight and failure to empower the youth when they lament gradually dwindling attendance figures and warn of the future loss of central parade routes as a result. Once again, our adherence to outdated policies and failure to adapt and react to the problems confronting us today will only exacerbate matters in the future.
However, symbolically strengthening a community’s cultural hierarchy of needs has more venues that just the parade. The remarkable festivals featuring dance competitions and other aspects of folklore organized by Archdiocesan Metropolises all across America are certainly praiseworthy. They are even grand enough to warrant the presence of the Archbishop in the same location for several days – not an easy task, considering his incredibly busy schedule. However, amid all these celebrations, could a Greek language component not have been added? Could the St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival, which is conducted nationally, not include categories in both languages? Could an International Festival of Greek Language and Culture (a Hellenic Olympiad) not also be organized? After all, there is enough money earmarked to organized GOYA and JOY District Olympics… Surely, the funds for language and culture Olympiads could just as easily be found.
Think it’s impossible? The Turkish Community led by Fethullah Gülen, who has set up over 1,000 schools internationally(!), has been organizing a Turkish language and culture Olympiad since 2003, with over 2,000 students from 140 countries participating. (Just to delineate what is possible and what is not…).
Along with the many Ancient Greek proverbs that will be recited in the coming days, community leaders would do well to remember Socrates’ pupil, the philosopher Antisthenes, who reminds us that “to unlearn one’s bad habits” is the most necessary kind of learning.
Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas