In Praise of a Greek School:
A Greek Independence Day Address

by Mary Papoutsy

Delivered at Portland, Maine, for
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church Greek School Program

Before we begin our celebration with a fine program of songs, dances and poems, it is worthwhile for us to review the significance of our festivities. What does March 25h stand for? Why do we as Americans, as Greek-Americans, as Orthodox Christians, and as members of the Holy Trinity Greek School community celebrate today? We'll briefly address each of these.

First, let me thank Mrs. Varipatis, your Greek School teacher for inviting me to participate in the program today. It is a very great honor and pleasure for me, all the more so because she was my teacher, too. I have very fond memories of attending Greek School when I was your age. In fact, I can still recall snippets of some of the songs and poems that we had recited. There we were, six girls—the Greek Rockettes as I like to say—all in different colored dresses, dancing and singing "Eimast' exi koritsakia, olo hari ki' omorfia. . . .[and] ki' i robitsa mou akoma, galano einai to chroma."

And as a proud alumna of the program, I donned another blue dress for the occasion today. It's the costume of the Roumlouki villages of the plains of Thessaloniki. The headdress is distinctive, resembling a helmet because village lore has it that the women were awarded helmets for their outstanding bravery during a battle in bringing water to the men fighting at the front.

Not only was it fun to attend Greek School, but my lessons with Kyria Varipatis set the stage for all of my later educational and professional development. So crucial was my linguistic training here, that it became later on one of the most important reasons for my success in college and graduate school. I am also convinced that it helped me become a college professor when I had finished my studies. Consider yourselves very lucky indeed, those of you who are students of this school, for you are receiving one of the very best possible preparations for scholastic success. Nothing else even remotely approaches the effectiveness of your Greek School lessons in preparing you for English classes, for other languages, and for educational studies in general. So, for me it is a great honor to be here, not only to celebrate the many years' of effort and success of our teacher, Kyria Varipatis, but also to help you, the students of the school today, to celebrate your own achievements.

But not all of us here today are students of the school, or even parents or relatives of students. So, to return to our initial questions, what are we celebrating? First of all, we are celebrating the Evangelismos tis Theotokou, the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, the day that Archangel Gabriel came to inform Mary that she would be a mother. It is no coincidence that this day is also Greek Independence Day, since Bishop Germanos (Palaion Patron Germanos) raised the first banner of independence for Greek people so many years ago.

The importance of Greek Independence Day cannot be overstated. Those inspirational ideals which spurred the Greek patriots on to victory, served as cornerstones, not just for the formation of the Modern Greek state, but also for all of Western civilization. For we Americans, as modern-day standard-bearers of freedom and democracy throughout the world, can truly appreciate these Hellenic ideals as few others can.

As Greek-Americans, we also celebrate our heritage today. And what a shining inheritance the Greeks possess! Who does not know of the Greeks? What land has not been touched by the deeds and achievements of the Greeks? Hellenic ideals have come to symbolize excellence, the best efforts of mankind. Since the beginning of recorded history, men have known about the Greeks. The famous seven sages or wise men of ancient times were Greeks. Many of the ancient wonders of the world were either Greek or could boast of Greek influence. The Olympic Games began with the Greeks. The first historians were Greeks. We attribute the beginnings of science, philosophy, and geometry to the Greeks. Poetry and literature produced by the Greeks, as far back as 2500 years ago, has rarely, if every, been equaled by any other people. And what person has not seen or read of the famous sculptures of Myron or Scopes or Phidias? Or of the incomparable architectural beauty of the Parthenon in Athens?

We have only to look around us to see how the world has admired the achievements of Greek builders and architects--our nation's capital and other government buildings boast a strong Classical influence with Greek columns and pediments.

Greek concepts of government and freedom have had the greatest, most profound effect upon world history. And it is this last concept, the idea of freedom, that we Americans celebrate today than any others. For the adjective, "American," is nearly synonymous with freedom. Oppressed people and freedom fighters around the world look to America for guidance and inspiration. Our constitution which guarantees the right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" is the model for others throughout the world. So, when we as Americans celebrate Greek Independence Day, we therefore also celebrate our own country's love of freedom, both political and religious.

The American founders took inspiration from the Greek achievements they had studied during their upbringing. A good education at that time had required the study of Greek and Latin. And a gentleman's library included many Greek works such as those of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, and others. Several of our most noted patriots earned themselves Greek epithets: John Adams was called "our Colossus on the floor"; Patrick Henry was often referred to as the "forest-born Demosthenes" for his supreme oratorical skills.

The greatest connection, however, between American founding fathers and our Greek ancestors can be found in our own system of government. The Greeks were the first to envision a multipartite government where there was a division of powers and checks and balances. They were also the first to establish a democratic voting assembly and a jury system. All of these elements we see today in our own current form of government. It is no small wonder, then, that the U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution commemorating Greek Independence Day as "A National Celebration of Greek and American Democracy," recognizing that the "Founding Fathers of the United States of American drew heavily upon the political experience and philosophy of Ancient Greece in forming our representative democracy. . . [and that] these and other ideals have forged a close bond between our two nations and their people." So, when we Americans celebrate Greek Independence Day, we honor not just a shared love of freedom, but also the birthplace of key elements of our own government.

As I reviewed the program earlier this week, I began to think back to those years when I myself participated in many such celebrations, as I had mentioned before. After a few minutes of reminiscing, I realized with a smile that this process of recollection and reflection is exactly what we want our young learners to do. We want them to participate in these educational programs so that they, too, will experience them fully and cherish the resultant memories. Each poem, each song, each dance depicts a priceless part of our inheritance, an incomparable religious, ethnic, and intellectual heritage. And each Greek Independence Day program we all witness keeps alive in our minds and hearts this immutable bond with our ancestors, our heritage. But the shining crown of our heritage is that it is a living history, that it continues in an unbroken line from the remote past up to our present.

With this Greek School program, we occupy a place in this history as we keep alive our ethnic and religious heritage. We continue in the footsteps of earlier Greeks and Orthodox Christians when we march forward proudly with our youth and celebrate our heritage on these special occasions.

This heritage which we pass on to our children is invaluable in more ways than we often realize. Not only do we transmit to them a solid identity, with all of its cultural richness, but as I have mentioned earlier, the linguistic and academic benefits of attending a Greek School program are invaluable. These studies catapult learners beyond their peers scholastically. It is well established in the academic world that the study of Greek and/or Latin brings significant and lasting linguistic skills to the learner. Classics students consistently outperform their peers on standardized exams such as the PSAT, SAT, and GRE.

Enrollments in these languages at public schools nationwide continue to increase annually, setting new records. The academics have finally figures out what every parent of a child attending Greek School already knows: studying Greek or Latin is a better investment in a child's future than starting a college fund. It's a near guarantee of college acceptance, and if language learning is approached with diligence and real effort, it may very well earn the student a solid scholarship as well. And these benefits are long-lasting, remaining well after incapacitation from a sports injury or after the onset of age-related physical ailments.

The Greek School of the Holy Trinity community has even more cause to celebrate. For this linguistic program has earned recognition for its excellence, garnering glowing reports from national experts. I can personally attest to these reports, for I remember well some of these visits from Archdiocesan representatives when I was a student.

The credit for these accomplishments, of course, belongs to Mrs. Angela Varipatis—affectionately known by her students as "Kyria." For 40 years she has undertaken teaching Greek to young learners with a passionate dedication and caring that would astound most observers. And as a former teacher and college professor I can state unhesitatingly that she was ahead of her time. Pedagogical textbooks today borrow pages from her lesson plans for language study. All of the techniques that she employs in her classes are methods now heralded as most effective, from mnemonic to TPR.

But there's much more here. Kyria Varipatis has challenged her students to excel, often eliciting improved scholastic performances. She has instilled values in her students, too, succeeding where many others have fallen short.

What's her secret? It's simple! She adores teaching and loves all of her students. Always. And she never forgets them.

Today we celebrate not only a glorious heritage, both ethnic and religious, but also the people who have kept it alive, the people who have taught it to us. Angela Varipatis deserves proper recognition for her efforts—all forty years of such a stellar performance, teaching so many young people about their heritage, teaching them values, teaching them Greek language skills.

So, as we begin our program, let us all keep in mind the great significance of this day.

(Posting date 7 April 2006)

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