Balancing work and study is a challenge, but adults who go back to school relish the experience

Often the best stories come from people who say: «What can I tell you? Why don’t you ask someone else?» That’s what Electra said to us when we asked how she decided, at the age of 46, to add schoolwork to her obligations. She is a wife and mother and works as a cook in a hospital, and this year she attended evening classes for the third year of junior high school. «I just managed to complete primary school. They didn’t let girls go to school. I don’t know why… We lived in the provinces; they were frightened of us being out on the street and maybe getting into trouble. I cried at night at home, the teachers begged my father to let me go, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Time passed, I came to Athens, I got married, but that always ate away at me. I couldn’t stand it any longer having people look down on me. So I decided to enroll in evening classes. When I told my father, he himself went back to the village to get all the documents I needed from my old school. Five months later, he died.» It’s 6.45 p.m. and we’re outside the First Junior High Evening School of Athens, near Koliatsou Square. It is one of 70 such schools that are attended by a total of 9,172 pupils. The schoolyard gradually fills up and groups start to form. Some of the pupils are migrants who need the piece of paper. Others are older students who have overcome any inhibitions and made the big decision to complete the secondary education they either never had or left halfway through many years earlier. But all of them are talking about the same thing, the test they’ll write during the first hour and their homework. «We have two type of pupils with an age gap of more than 20 years,» maths teacher and researcher Stratos Stratigakis told Kathimerini. «At one extreme are the people who have been left behind by the education system. They left school for various reasons and now feel that they lack something. They have come back and it’s amazing to see how they absorb knowledge, how hard they try.» Let’s get to know them. Efi Onoufriadou, 37, private nurse. She left school in the second year of junior high, «partly because I wanted to work, partly because I failed math and felt embarrassed, partly because I felt oppressed at home and wanted to be free, and partly… the free bird of youth.» Ever since then, Efi felt that she hadn’t done anything with her life, she felt like a failure. «Until last year, when I got fed up. ‘What am I doing with my life?’ I asked. ‘I’ve got a brain, I can do it.’» Last year she finished second year with a grade of 18.8. «I can’t say it’s easy, with work and school. But now I feel like a different person, that I’m doing something with my life. I want to go on to senior high, and, why not, study to be an assistant microbiologist, I always wanted to be a doctor. ‘Keep learning, old man,’ as they say.» Michalis Tsakmakis, 32, truck driver. Michalis is married with one child. «When I told my mother that I was going back to school, she was thrilled. And my wife encouraged me too. That piece of paper can help you get a better job, and that’s my aim. I’ll make sure I continue, maybe become an auto mechanic, why not.» He gets very tired of course, often going to class after long trips on the road. «Well, since I didn’t get tired when I was young, I might as well get tired now.» Agapi, 45, catering company employee. «I was a victim of internal migration, I came to Athens from a Cycladic island with five siblings and found it tough. The children at school made fun of my accent. I was a good pupil on the island, but here I didn’t want to know about school, so I left. I started working at 16, then I got married and had children. Now that they have gone away to study, I made up my mind. Apart from wanting to finish school. I wanted to study computers. Otherwise it would be like that bad time when I had come from the island. I’m 45, but I’d go if I were 90. I feel like I just left school yesterday.» Toula Costopoulou, 45, hotel worker. «When I finished primary school, instead of sending me to junior high, my father bought me goats to take to pasture on the mountains and tend,» she said, laughing. «You see my father was a chief shepherd. I couldn’t stand it, I just got up and left. Now I’ve gone back to school and I’m keen. And I want to tell anyone who left school not to hesitate. It’s a great feeling.» Roula Diamanti, 57. «I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner. I know why. I was afraid they’d make fun of me. My daughter told me to go then. And so I’m here. School gives me a chance to me experience things I didn’t experience when I was young. In class I often forget about my age. I forget about family issues, duties, problems. I do get tired of course. And that physics gives me trouble!»