A few months ago, when I was still living in Greece and working as a teacher, there was a big upheaval caused when ROMA segregated schools were closed overnight and their population was asked to “integrate” in “normal” schools. I was appalled, furious and totally disillusioned by how our educational authorities handled the issue, but even more so by how my fellow teachers refused to go to work, or send their kids to the schools where ROMA students would go from the next day. Back then I chose not to write anything about it because I was so angry and so disappointed I was bound to be unfair.
My friend Nikos, a really Brave Teacher, was not at all hesitant in speaking out and even writing a heated article about it, but I’m not sure whether it was published after all. Local societies have the means to preserve their own and they wouldn’t concede even to listen to different views. Fortunately there were calm voices too and their scientific and sound arguments were expressed.
And then I left, and amid all the personal struggles to relocate to a new country, a new job, a new culture, far away from family and friends, I lost track of the case. But loose ends follow you wherever you go and as the poet has said no matter where you travel you will always get off at the same stop, at the same city..
So yesterday I was invited to an event about ROMA integration. There were some serious presentations about the work of the Commission on the issue and some very passionate people spoke. There were also some very talented young people of ROMA origin, from various countries, who shared their experiences. Some stories were cheerful, some humorous, some haunting…There was an energetic young woman, a stagier in Brussels, and one of the creative minds behind this site.
Somehow she reminded me of little V a student of mine, back in Greece, in Itea. V and her brother and sister , of Roma origin, came to our school last year. Not everything was ideal from the beginning and even recently you could occasionally hear prejudiced remarks. But the truth is these kids were so cheerful, so happy to be going to school, that I think they won us from day one. I remember very well the first day they came to school and how disappointed I was (again) by some of my fellow teachers. But we talked about it. We argued, we even fought with some. And gradually, I think we won. Not only did the kids stay at school but they were fully accepted too. Earlier this year I remember we were doing an exercise about different languages and V mentioned that she could speak her own language a little. For a moment I held my breath because I was not at all sure how the other 9-year-olds would react. But they reacted as all children in their age: with honest curiosity!
All three siblings were exceptional however. A, the younger sister is an adorable child with the highest degrees of social and emotional intelligence, clever, sparkling eyes, cuddly and confident at the same time. N, their brother should be given a prize for the student who loves school most, cause he is the first boy I have met who cries when he can’t come to school. His special abilities and speech impairment do not prevent him from becoming part of our small school community and he has such a sense of humour, he kept impressing his teacher, Ms Helen almost every day. Special mention for this Special Education teacher here, who is such an assertive person, a teacher who stood for her students every day against all odds, against all the prejudices of a small rural society!!! Three cheers for Helen. All the teachers who were involved with the kids were fantastic in their approach, Christos, Kostas, Andreas, all of them played their role in helping the kids to become part of the group as smoothly as possible.
So last night, I was listening to these beautiful young men and women speaking about their history and their origins and I couldn’t stop thinking of V. I am pretty sure that if she is given a chance, first by her family and then by our schools, one day she will be talking at an auditorium in Brussels too!
Big thanks to my new friends here who invited me to this even and gave me the chance first to meet all these interesting people and secondly to reminisce about my students and appreciate once more what a unique educational group I was part of, before I left. But of course you have to take your distance to understand that…