“Myrivilis’ «Η Ζωή εν Τάφω» is an anti-war novel.”
“No! Did you read that bit where they meet the Russians on the hill and they are speaking Greek? It glorifies Greece.”
“Garbage, did you read the parts where he is writing about the trenches? It’s an action novel.”
«Βγάλτε το σκασμό!» my aunt yells at my cousins and me, and puts on a Stratos Dionysiou tape in the cassette deck. It is the early 90’s, and we are being driven to Greek school. On the way, we are debating the literature we are studying and, having divergent opinions, are almost coming to blows. This is how passionate our Saturday schooling made us about things Greek.
The Greek Academy of Melbourne, for years in Collins Street in the old Theosophical Society Building, operated between 1967-1992. During that time, thousands of Greek children passed through its doors. As its proprietors, Spiros and Koula Liolios were possessed of the highest commitment to Greek education. They ensured that these students all benefited from a holistic Greek education. The teachers that had the privilege of inculcating a love of Greek letters in their charges were also of singular talent, the famed Mr Pyliouras being a standout. A lawyer from Sparta, he taught ancient Greek on Saturdays and was a bricky on weekdays. Students still remember the lesson where he listed the declensions of the verb «γαμῶ» on the board, informing the shocked students that it means «παντρεύομαι» in ancient Greek. Stelios Menis, Mimis Sophocleous, Leonidas Sophocleous, Makis Kasapidis, Cleo Mavrothalassitou, Paresa Antoniadis-Spanos and many others also loom large in Greek Academy of Melbourne Lore.
These were the unsung heroes of the age, teachers who gave of themselves selflessly, in order that the coming generations would preserve a sense of who they were, and more importantly, who they could be. Their students remember them with gratitude, reverence, and a good deal of awe. For the rest of the community, unjustifiably, they are but a footnote, a Heraclitean toe dipped in the rivers of time, never to be revisited, and this is a great shame, because the teachers and the Greek Academy of Melbourne provided the highest standard and most comprehensive instruction in Greek in the history of the entire Greek community. In doing so, they resisted commercialisation, (after all, Mr and Mrs Liolios selflessly helped their teachers branch off and set up Greek schools of their own) degrading the syllabus in order to retain enrollments or pitching language acquisition as something frivolous, fun and easy. For them, Greek was a labour of love, and one with infinite rewards for it provided an entry into a cohesive and broader Greek community, in which all Greek speakers had a stake. Many of their students have thus gone on to make lasting contributions to the Greek community.
It would be trite to mention the many acts of kindness visited upon students by Mrs Koula Lioliou, one of the most charismatic and beloved practitioners of Greek education in Melbourne. Her irrepressible energy, untiring devotion and boundless love for the Greek language and her students imbued the whole institution with a sense of singularity and dynamism.
Some time ago, I was sent a copy of a Christmas card I wrote to Kyria Lioliou, at the conclusion of my last year of Greek school, which characteristically, she has kept. In that card, I wrote about my regret in no longer being her student. Her response, delivered personally, was neither soppy nor sentimental.
“I want all of you to go out into the world,” she smiled, in a manner reminiscent of Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood, “and make me proud”.
Wherever we are and whatever we may do, we, her students, recall her with immense affection and awe. A gifted educator and gargantuan humanitarian, she receives, in her retirement, little formal community recognition for her invaluable work in instilling an immense love of Greece and competency in the Greek language in successive generations of Greek Australian children, newly arrived, or locally-born. Yet perhaps this is commensurate with her self-effacing personality, for her achievement is exemplified in the love her students still bear for her and their own endeavours to pass on undiminished, the flame she lit in them, so many years ago.
It is for this reason, to honour past teachers and reconnect with students, that the Greek Academy of Melbourne reunion is being held on Saturday 7 October at Hellenic Republic, Kew at 2.00 pm.
Tickets $25 for adults, $10 for children (5-13), under 5 are free.