Thursday, 29 May 2014

High school summer blues

It’s that time of year again.

Throughout Greece, coats and winter woollies have been washed and stowed away in the back of the cupboard. Knees, hairy or smoothly exfoliated, have been unleashed on the world in a flap of Bermuda shorts. The warm night air is filled with the scent of jasmine and the sound of people eating on their balconies. Toddlers are taken out for late night romps around the local park to wear them out before being put to bed. The sensitively-skinned start scratching as the mosquitoes launch their attack. And the less heat-resistant among us are already eyeing the Air Conditioning remote control.

Late spring or early summer is, in many ways, the best time of year to be living here.

Unless you’re a High School student. Or the parent of one.

Around the country, barrels of midnight oil are being burned by teenagers in a masochistic fury of last minute revision for end-of-year exams.

You can tell which ones are the 18-year-olds taking the all-important Πανελλήνιες - nationwide exams (more or less equivalent to A levels in the UK) whose results determine whether the will win a place at their University of choice.

They’re the ones with a vague look of disbelieving horror and shell-shock dancing round their dark-ringed eyes as they contemplate what the future holds for them (especially the boys, who still have compulsory military service ahead of them). The ones who occasionally stop and stare into space like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car for no apparent reason.  Who can be heard shouting out equations and ancient Greek couplets as they grab a few hours of fitful sleep.

And in this land of vicarious living of our offspring’s lives, the parents aren’t in much better shape.

Education is a very big deal in Greece. The Hellenic equivalent of the French Revolution’s “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” rallying cry during the reign of the military ‘junta’ was Ψωμί, Παιδεία, Ελεύθερια ("Bread, Education, Freedom"). Beyond having food on the table, education is prized above freedom – and that’s saying something in a country where refusing to be told what to do is something of a national pastime.  

Families sacrifice new cars, holidays and money in the kitty for the household bills to pay for extra lessons to supplement what is taught at the state schools. In most middle class homes, even in these desperately cash-strapped times, the thought of your little darling NOT going on to study at Uni, or at least a private college or vocational school, is virtually unthinkable.

Whilst it’s hardly surprising that about 84% of all Greeks aged between 15 and 19 are in full-time or part-time education (this IS Europe, after all), the figures for 20-29 year-olds is perhaps rather more telling. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development) report “Education at a Glance: 2012”, a little over 40% of all Greeks in their twenties are in full- or part-time education. That’s way above the OECD average of about 27%, the USA (approximately 26%) and the United Kingdom with around 18%.

About 15% of all Greeks hold a University degree – and that includes the toothless black-clad grannies you took snaps of in that quaint Cretan village you visited on holiday last year.

There’s an enormous burden on 18-year-olds to do well in exams and win a coveted place in one of the country’s Universities – even if they don’t know what to do with the degree once they get it. But only one in four get in. The others usually end up attending private, post-secondary educational institutions that are not recognised by the Government.

But….  a degree, is a degree, is a degree. Or so I’m told.

I know people with degrees in Agricultural Science keeping the accounts for small family firms, Computer Programming graduates trying to make ends meet with dubious pyramid selling schemes and Psychology majors working on supermarket check-outs. Greece 2014 is a little like a skewed version of Hollywood - instead of every waitress or bus boy being a starlet waiting to be discovered, here they’re highly qualified graduates waiting for the chance to put their hard-earned knowledge to good use as they clean out the cappuccino magazine or bring you’re your iced tea.

Yesterday, on the first day of the Πανελλήνιες, an 18-year-old in northern Greece left the family home to sit the first of this year’s exams. Just like thousands of others young men and women around the country. Unlike most of them, he never reached the examination hall. Instead, he went to the sixth floor of the building next to his school – and threw himself off.

(Just writing that makes me go cold, despite the fact that it’s nearly 30 degrees C outside.)

Presumably, the pressure of the exams was not the only thing he and his family were facing. Who knows what other demons he was fighting? But it seems that the prospect of the exams and an uncertain future were the cherry on the cake that the poor lad just couldn’t swallow.

It’s a chilling reminder to us all that no matter how important education is – and believe me, it IS - life itself is more precious than any exam result or first class degree.

And perhaps it’s also a wake-up call for all us parents, telling us to listen to our kids instead of expecting them to live the dreams we had but never made reality?

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