By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Look into the past far enough, and there are the Greeks.
To a great extent, our world began in Greece, as that nation’s contribution to the West includes democracy, language and culture. It’s why the study of ancient Greek history, Greek literature and even the Greek language has been offered at schools and universities for centuries.
At St. Vasilios Greek School in Peabody, it’s the modern Greek language that students practice, often communicating on iPads instead of papyrus. Regardless, the purpose here is to celebrate and preserve the very state of being Greek. And it’s been that way at St. Vasilios for 100 years.
The celebration of the school’s 100th anniversary year is coming to an end. Phyllis Dragonas, who serves on the St. Vasilios Greek Orthodox Council’s education committee, notes that both the school’s enrollment and support from the community remain strong. At a time when religion often seems in retreat, the continued popularity of the school reflects the strength of the adjacent St. Vasilios Church.
On Sunday, she says, “The church is jam-packed. ... Parents come and bring their kids.”
In 1912, most of the school’s founders had come to the North Shore and specifically Peabody to work in the leather industry. Thrown into the American melting pot, they decided to do what they could to help their children and grandchildren retain what made them unique. Even as they learned and spoke English in the public schools, they would come to St. Vasilios to study the Greek language and culture.
It was considered so important at the time, Dragonas recalls, that the school was built before the church, with religious services temporarily held in makeshift settings.
Georgia Christoforos, one of the school’s teachers, is a latter-day example of the purpose of St. Vasilios School.
“I was born in Greece,” she said. “I moved here when I was 4 years old.”
She grew up speaking English. But she can teach Greek because she attended St. Vasilios.
“All my reading and writing, I learned here,” she said.
Today, she uses the language — and sometimes English — to teach Greek history, dance and music. And food.
It isn’t always easy.
“Greek is a very difficult language to learn,” she said. “We have our own alphabet. But the kids take it very seriously. They learn when we sing our songs.”
Students quickly catch the excitement of their teachers. St. Vasilios teaches up to 55 kids, from pre-kindergarten to grade six, three times a week from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Tuition varies, $100 for the younger kids, $300 for kindergarten to grade six, with a $500 maximum per family.
And students come from as far away as Hamilton and Wakefield to attend. Christoforos marvels at grade-schoolers speaking conversational Greek even while their moms and dads can’t. More than that, she’s been approached by delighted parents who tell her, “My kids want to come to school.”
Dragonas is an expert on language who was the director of foreign languages in the Melrose Public Schools. She speaks English, Greek, French, Spanish and German. She points to the percentage of English words with a Greek derivation, 65 percent by her reckoning with math and the sciences particularly affected. Thus, learning to speak modern, conversational Greek not only broadens the experience of young people — it helps them communicate better in their own language.
Greece might seem further behind than ever — a lot of the families, “about 50 percent,” according to Dragonas, include parents with ethnic backgrounds other than Greek. To help retain skill with the language, the school offers a curriculum involving the “total immersion experience just like the public schools.”
Starting earlier makes the process easier for the children, she said.
The school’s five teachers are all experienced and have degrees. The school has a state certification. In fact, the education is such that students can continue their study of Greek in a course at Peabody High School. Further, those who succeed can claim credit for a foreign language when they apply to college.
More importantly, St. Vasilios provides the students with a sense of identity, Dragonas said. And given the very real contributions of the Greeks, she believes that almost any American could benefit from the lessons taught here.
“After all,” she said, “this country is a product of Western civilization.”