This winter, the 5th grade class of gifted students at Benjamin Franklin Elementary in Kirkland, Washington, entered a national creative writing contest on the theme: “Why I am glad America is a country of immigrants.” When state finalists in the contest were announced, five of the 19 kids in that one class had won-a startling result, perhaps, but not when you know that their teacher, Irene Georvasilis, is a 51-year-old Greek immigrant with an inspiring life story and a passion for teaching her students about other cultures.
Growing up on the Greek island of Leros in the Aegean, Georvasilis was a top student with dreams of attending the University of Athens. But her family didn’t think girls should go to college, so she parlayed her first-place win in a national writing contest into a student visa to the United States. She headed to Seattle--she had relatives there--and introduced herself to the principal of a local high school, who invited her to live with his family so that she could learn English. After three years of hard work at the high school level, she entered the University of Washington to study education.
“Look at me,” she tells her students. “I came here from a small island. I did not speak one word of the language, and no one stopped me.”
In 12 years of teaching, Georvasilis has told this story to her students many times, bringing the immigrant experience to life for them. But she doesn’t stop there. She also invites immigration attorneys to class to describe what it’s like to become a naturalized citizen, and she brings in Greek and American newspapers to demonstrate cultural differences in print. Few of her students are recent immigrants--most are children of employees of Microsoft, whose headquarters is in nearby Redmond--so she also asks them to investigate their own families’ immigration to this country and tell these stories in class.
The result: Students often grasp the immigrant experience on a personal level, says Georvasilis, and they have more respect for the differences among their peers. Some of them start out thinking that someone with an accent isn’t as intelligent as they are. She tells them, “Well, if you were in a different country, you would be the one with the accent!” They love that idea, she says. “They tell each other, ‘You are the one with the accent. I am the one with the accent!’
“If there is one thing I want them to take away from my class,” she adds, “it’s respect and tolerance for other cultures.”
When a parent of one of her students heard about the writing contest, which was sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, it was an obvious fit. Georvasilis asked the kids to vote on whether they wanted to enter the contest--a majority of them said they did. Tyler Gordon, who placed fourth in the state with his fictional story about a Jewish boy growing up in 1939, isn’t usually in terested in writing, says his mother, Mary. But since entering Georvasilis’ class, “his interest in the world has increased.”
Georvasilis’ influence on her students is obvious in their contest entries. In her poem, which won first place, Elise Randall writes, “When immigrants first come here/They don’t know what to expect/So to show them who we are/We should treat them with respect.”
Georvasilis hopes that her students’ eyes have been opened by their experience in her classroom. She tells them, “Your thinking is no longer cyclopic! You know, like the monster in the Greek myth.”