On belonging                                                                                     Edited 25/08/23

“If you feel like your belonging’s on trial, and you’re wondering if this is a place where you’re regarded favorably … it takes up working memory,” which is “mental energy taken away from learning, focusing, performing, growing.” [Stanford Professor Geoffrey Cohen]

“There are so many threats to belonging in the world today. Failing schools, gaping inequalities, a lack of opportunity — we absolutely need new laws, policies, and institutions. But life is lived down here on the ground, and there are so many things we can all do, right here, right now. Even more so if you’re, say, a manager or a teacher. The scientific research on situation-crafting has shown how small moves teachers and mentors make can sometimes, under the right circumstances, have life-changing effects. It’s surprising how much lasting impact a small gesture, even a timely smile, can have on people’s lives. Multiply that by millions of people, and maybe you can change the world.” [Geoffrey Cohen & Lee Simmons discussion]

“True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than you.”  Brené Brown

In today’s post I have included an extract from more personal writing, which I mostly engaged in from 2016 to 2018, 2019 maybe. It refers to education and belonging and to the beginning of things. I have also included seven new drawings.

“………. Kernberg (1980, cited in Akhtar, 2004) suggests that ‘temporal continuity prevents the encapsulation of identity in a particular time period’ and leaves space and possibility of transformation over time. Some literature suggests that when someone settles in a new country adaptation and integration of the new identity also occur through the acquisition of the new language, which facilitates the emergence of a new reconsolidated identity. Learning a language is a process of not only acquiring the knowledge of new words, but also developing the ability to think and feel using them, which to some level leads to shifts in our worldview and identity. The languages we use hold the various shifts in our identity and sense of self and determine our organization of the world.

In the seventies when I arrived in Greece, an archaizing form of Greek  was still being used in settings like the media, education, public services and politics. It was the language of school books. It was officially abolished in the mid seventies when demotic Greek was introduced at all levels of education and administration. Demotic Greek [δημοτική] was the language that many writers and poets wrote in, and most people used in their daily interactions.  However, it took a while for new school books to be written and distributed to students.

In the home I grew up we mostly talked about matters and subjects concerning our day to day living. My parents were not educated people and all my early extra curriculum reading as a child had been in English. Even so, when we left Australia they had felt confident that I would be okay at school. Other immigrant Greek children we knew were far less fluent in the language. I had also been among those that had attended Greek school in the evenings. I could read, write, spell and speak the language, so everything was going to be fine.

On the first day of high school I was in for a culture shock, which got worse as the days went by. Things were so different that looking back I realize that I must have felt mildly disoriented. I soon understood that my comprehension and capacity to express myself in the language was not at a par with my classmates. I also got teased for my foreign accent, which I was not even conscious of. Worst of all, the fact that this purist version of Greek was completely foreign to me, created difficulties when it came to learning by rote most of the lessons, as was customary at the time.

During the first Ancient Greek lessons I felt completely lost in the woods. I wasn’t even aware of the existence of ancient Greek and I knew nothing about syntax. I was quite fluent and I could spell perfectly from memory, but I was not familiar with a lot of grammar rules or the structure of the language. My Greek lessons in Australia had been basic and had not prepared me for this. The teachers mostly ranged from very distant to highly authoritarian. Once when I had tried to talk about all this to a Maths teacher he had dismissed me commenting that Maths is a universal language.  I had also never written a composition in Greek. The first time I was asked to write an essay about a school trip we had gone on the previous day I just managed to string some sentences together. I felt glued to my seat, ashamed and on the verge of tears. I did not want to hand it in. I had been a very good student and this new reality felt embarrassing and scary.

After everyone had left I finally worked up the nerve to walk up to the teacher and tell her that I had never written a composition in Greek before. She was nicer than the Maths teacher. She suggested private preparatory classes, but I told her that I didn’t think that could be possible. She didn’t say anything else. I stood near her desk for a little while and as I was turning around to leave she had said: “An easy way to pick up the language on your own is to read literature. Just read anything you can get your hands on. It will help you with your writing.” I have always remembered her fondly because she had heard me and gone to the trouble to at least suggest something. It doesn’t take that much to touch a kid’s heart, to plant a seed.

I haphazardly started reading Greek literature, anything I could find or afford.  A list with suggestions might have helped.  I used part of my pocket money to buy cheap editions from the local store of the small town we were living at the time and later from bookshops in other places.  Most teachers seemed to view me as a foreign object and some I soon found out did not approve of my literary explorations. One considered Nikos Kazantzakis, whom I had just discovered, an outcast. She had pointed this out in class and had suggested I would be better off reading  the dictionary and learning by heart lists of words out of context every night, in order to increase my vocabulary and I suppose keep my mind from wandering too far astray. Books contain ideas and uncomfortable truths. She might have knowm something important that I didn’t, but her approach had widened the chasm.  Teachers like all of us come from their place of limitations, blind spots, conditioning, socialization and belief systems.  Seth Godin writes ‘let me be clear. Great teachers are really wonderful. They change lives. We need them. The problem is that most schools don’t like great teachers. They’re organised to stamp them out, bore them, bureaucratize them, and make them average.”

Influenced by peers, I discovered significant writers and poets that were considered radical or belonging to the left. I had always been a curious child, and in any case, I was making my way through this acquisition of books and language, understanding culture and belonging without much support from adults. Everything was new and I was too young and deeply naïve about the political climate in Greece at the time. Some teachers thought it wise and legitimate to go through my school bag and notebooks during the breaks. Too many breaches of trust inevitably create anger and mistrust; however, both fearing authority and struggling against it can make life difficult and can prevent adolescents from learning and receiving guidance from trusted adults; on the other hand, healthy teenage rebellion, fosters independence and helps retain authentic aspects of self. But, there needs to be a balance between questioning and exploring new ideas and receiving adult guidance and support…..

School began to feel oppressive and unsafe, and there seemed to be no room for cultivating a true belonging and a safe dialogue. Unsurprisingly, I became more oriented towards peers, peers older than me. Neufeld Gordon and Gabor Mate claim that peers play a pivotal role in the self-esteem of many children and this is exactly what it means to be peer-oriented. As peers replace adults they become the ones who influence children’s sense of what to value in oneself and in others. They write: “This is not, however, how it always was, how it should be, or how it needs to be. Nor is the kind of self-esteem that is rooted in peer interaction even healthy.”

…. As we are driving along the highway this September morning, four decades later, my mind is already ahead of the rest of me; it has rushed to my destination and is already wandering around my old school, the school yard and the iron railings through which you can see the beach, the overturned fishing boats and the sea, my parents’ house, old classmates’ houses, the old patisserie, catching glimpses of the girl that inhabited these places….It is tracing this particular thread in the tapestry from the beginning to the end, to the current moment. It is discerning the repetitive patterns, from a distance it is always easier to notice…..”












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