An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb


(Photo by Diana Ricci)

Welcome To Sunny Greece

Ellen and I crossed the border from Yugoslavia into Greece in August of 1967, and headed for the beach just outside of Thessaloniki (Thessalonica; Salonika: the second largest city, and the northern "capital" of Greek Macedonia). When we pulled our tired, wheezing Hanomag Kombi (a sort of oversized VW van with an undersized Austin A-40 engine) into the campgrounds of Akti Thermaioku, we believed we had at last found heaven. Sun, sand, the beautiful Mediterranean Sea; fresh produce and fish; and a camping store. The space rental was low, our neighbors were pleasant, and there was a bus nearby that went into town.

Near our campsite was a kiosk that sold cigarettes, and staples like salt and sugar. It was run by a bilingual youngster named Milteados Papayoaquim, whom everyone called Miltos. About to enter his last year of high school, Miltos had already been appointed to the Army Medical School, the finest in Greece, both because of his superior grades and test scores, and because his father's boss, a well-connected multi-millionaire who owned the largest chain of sweet shops in Greece, had recommended him. Miltos befriended all the English speakers, and was an endless source of good advice about where to go for this or that.

One day, we dropped by to see Miltos. We told him we were leaving soon, on our way to Athens, to the Ministry of Education, to see if we could get jobs teaching English on one of the Greek islands. He was crestfallen. Why, he asked, didn't we stay in Salonika? He could get us jobs, it was no problem. The school where he studied English was always in need of native speakers. He would talk to the Director and get us an appointment for an interview.

Two days later, true to his word, Miltos escorted us into the city, and pointed out the entrance to the school: The Greek American Cultural Institute. We were ushered in to the office of Doctor Arta Svarna, the owner. The ease with which we got our jobs amazed us. We were told to report for work when the school year began, in October, and returned to our campsite for another few weeks of sun and surf.

Arta was an entrepreneur. She owned a few schools in Salonika, and leased or franchised others in the surrounding towns. Ellen spent two of her work days teaching in one of the suburban schools, and I taught in two of the central locations. English was not taught as a foreign language in the public schools, so private schools like the Institute were the only source for EFL instruction. One of our duties as teachers was to collect the fees from the students and turn them in to the head office.

As native speakers, our classes were all "advanced": composition and conversation for fourth and fifth year students. We were not to use any Greek; the students, had already demonstrated proficiency in English sufficient for interaction with a native English speaker. At least that is what we were told.

The reality was quite different. Of an average-sized class of 35 students, perhaps six or eight could correctly string together a sentence of more than six words, either spoken or written. Most had trouble understanding even the simplest of instructions. They were polite, sincere, serious, and almost totally unprepared for their level. What to do? Ellen advised entertaining the students; keeping them amused. That was easy for her to say, she was a trained elementary school teacher. I, on the other hand, had never taught anything – except maybe some bad habits – to anyone. And besides, these kids were PAYING for education, and by gum they ought to be getting one!

One day, about three weeks into the course, I picked up an essay submitted by one of my fourth year composition students. It had not one complete, correct sentence in it. Most of the words were mis-spelled. The punctuation was useless. It was, in my opinion, barely worthy of second-year work. I gave the student an F, and suggested that he return to the second level. The next day, I was summoned to the Director's office.

Arta carefully explained the facts of life to me. Teachers at the Institute, I was told, have only two non-negotiable duties: to collect the fees, and to pass the student. Students must be passed; they expect it; they pay good money to be taught, and if they do not learn, that is the fault of the teacher. When a student is failed, that is because the teacher has failed. Failed teachers can not expect to be employed at the Institute. The student I failed has complained. He has left the Institute. He has signed up at another school. At that school, they will cheat him out of his money without teaching him anything. At the Institute, students always get their money's worth, otherwise they would fail, and at the Institute nobody fails.

Overwhelmed by this exercise in capitalist logic, I vowed to change my evil ways. From that day forward, no-one ever failed anything in any class of mine. I learned how to lead sing-alongs, give long lectures during which the students sat upright at their desks, with sparkling eyes and absolutely no comprehension, and hand back essays full of corrections and marked with "C+".

Much to our surprise and dismay, it began to get colder in Salonika. We had rented an apartment in the center of the city with lots of window glass and terrazzo floors, and by the end of November we could see our breath in the air at night. There were radiators, but they had not been turned on. We discovered that there was a tenants' association, and that the president, who happened to be our next door neighbor, was in charge of deciding when it was sufficiently cold to use them.

When I knocked, he came to his door dressed in two pairs of pants, two t-shirts, one shirt, one sweater and a wool sport coat. I told him we were cold. Impossible, he said. Is this not sunny Greece? Two days later it snowed.

We left Salonika in mid-December, driven out by the cold. We felt guilty about abandoning our students, and our one-year commitment to the Institute, but by then we were wearing every piece of clothing we owned and still couldn't feel our fingers and toes most of the time. When we returned for a brief visit in June, we were told that we had lasted about as long as most of the native English speakers who had taught there.

In 1998, Diana and I went on a "grand tour": a meander of Italy, Turkey and Greece. By the time we got to Athens, the last city on our itinerary, it was December. Athens is so beautiful and so rich with history and great food that we hated to leave, even though it had gotten cold. Perhaps having a heated hotel room made the difference…

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