A grounding in Greek

Heritage: Parents at a Baltimore County church opened a preschool to foster cultural pride in their children.

February 15, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Parents of children who attend a new Greek and English preschool in Baltimore County can't understand what their little ones say sometimes, and that's fine by them.

As teacher Toula Mavrophilipos tells it, parents come to her with all sorts of questions about Greek words and songs that trickle off their children's tongues but mean little to parents' Americanized ears.

Eager to immerse their children in Greek culture and language, parents at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church near Carney have started a bilingual preschool, the county's only such school, they say.

About a dozen children have been signed up, and 20 more plan to start classes next year. If the program continues to attract interested parents, the church could expand its preschool. A bilingual elementary school might be next.

"I really want my children to learn Greek," said Deme Ann Lomis, 35, of Perry Hall, whose 3-year-old son, Costa, attends classes at St. Demetrios. "I want them to know their heritage."

Lost traditions

Although Lomis' parents spoke Greek with her when she was a child, not all parents at St. Demetrios had the same opportunity.

As a child, Effy Lamp of Catonsville was forced to speak English at home with her Greek parents, she said. Teachers asked her parents not to speak Greek to their daughter because her accent in English was too heavy. As a result, Lamp, who is 32, speaks little Greek today.

"I beg my parents to speak Greek with my kids now," she said. "But it is hard for them because they have gotten out of the habit."

Lamp hopes the preschool program will help to keep her son Conner, 3, connected to the Greek community and the Greek Orthodox church. "These children will be the next parish council," she said.

Weaving the languages

Story time in the preschool classroom can get loud at times -- children like to yell answers in Greek and English. After teacher Erin Sudano reads "The Very Lonely Firefly" in English, children doodle with crayon and finger-paint.

Mavrophilipos reads a Greek book about a little boy who wants to be a mouse. When Argirios Stakios, 4, asks the meaning of a word, Mavrophilipos explains the word to him in Greek. She tries to speak to the children only in Greek, she said.

When Mavrophilipos asks the children the meaning of the Greek word "yata," Costa Pizanis, 4, cries out "cat." To reward him for his correct answer, Mavrophilipos says "bravo," which means "well done" in Greek.

With Mavrophilipos, the children sing a Greek song about a father's sweet gift. At one point during the song, they rub their stomachs as if expecting a large box of candy.

Stumping parents

Sometimes, parents ask Mavrophilipos for translations of Greek words their children use.

One mother couldn't understand when her child used the Greek word for car, "aftokinito," Mavrophilipos said. "When she found out what it meant, she said, `Oh, my child learned the hardest word first,' " the teacher said.

Many of the Greek books in the preschool's small library were brought from Greece by church members and parents, Sudano said. The church paid for the furniture in the classroom. Each item, including a miniature kitchen set, is labeled in English and Greek.

The project has received support from church members such as Robert P. Padousis, a Baltimore County dentist, who suggested the bilingual school last year. Recently, the congregation has experienced a baby boom, with about 30 babies christened last year, Lomis said.

`An outsider'

Lomis consulted with Mona Criswell, president and executive director of Play Centers Inc., to set up the preschool.

Criswell, who emigrated from Norway as a teen-ager, could appreciate Lomis' vision. "When you come to a new country, you really feel like an outsider," Criswell said. "I liked the idea of a preschool program that would help children to understand different cultures."

Criswell's company manages St. Demetrios' preschool, which offers classes from 9 a.m. to 12: 30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Criswell pays the church to rent the classroom where the preschool meets. Cost per child, per month is $160, which includes snacks and lunch. Information: 410-661-2908.

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