By Andromachi Sophocleous
I was present at the English School when Turkish Cypriots enrolled in the school for the first time after 1974 and the election of a Turkish Cypriot as the Head Boy in 2015 did not surprise me but filled me with hope.
I remember those heated moments at the school when, following the checkpoints’ opening in 2003, Turkish Cypriots were readmitted to the school after 29 years. The school had to go through a turbulent period in which it was called to re-identify itself as the open to all religions, multi-communal school; as were the principles on which it was based when founded in 1900.
Being an active member of the Under the Same Sky Society, a society that was created in order to enhance the spirit of rapprochement, I was often a witness of the high tensions at the school.
We were living through a milestone era, not only for the school but for the whole of Cyprus. One generation of Cypriots had been growing up detached from the multi-communal aspect of the country. During that generation, Greek and Turkish Cypriots never had the chance to interact, to share pleasant or sad memories or to analyse and understand each other, as we do with people that life brings us close to. All they knew about each other was mediated through stories from parents and grandparents and through the, undeniably, biased educational system that was bringing up two distinct sets of Cypriots: Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots , destined to be set opposite to each other, treating “the other” as the enemy. That generation of Cypriots never had the chance to create its own judgment, based on tangible experiences nor could they look at this “other” and create a rational opinion aside from predetermined constructs. The clashes that broke out during the first stage of these estranged communities getting to know each other were no surprise. However these clashes were aggravated by the political motivations of people within and outside the school that treated the idea of co-habitation as unimaginable. Maybe it is the same people who are today abhorred by the idea of a Turkish Cypriot being elected as the Head Boy of the School.
The social media is today replete with comments by people who are vehemently opposed to this recent development at the school. What I found particularly striking was a comment by a girl citing the incident where a Turkish Cypriot student spat on the cross of a Greek Cypriot schoolmate during the first years of their enrollment at the school. To the girl’s ignorance, that incident ended with the exchange of flowers amongst the two students and their families. In fact, this incident was merely an exception in a chain of events that exhibited the reaction of Greek Cypriots at the change in the English School status quo but were anticipated during that wobbly first period of coming together. I have recollections of Turkish Cypriot girls being threatened by Greek Cypriots so as not to attend the graduation ceremony, Greek flags were miraculously found in the planners of Turkish Cypriots whilst there were claims that Greek Cypriot students possessed knives during a joint year excursion. Yet, this girl is not to blame for her ignorance. Besides, the press at the time was preoccupied with presenting the “English School experiment” as doomed to fail, perhaps fearing the awakening of the younger generation. The information that matched this “picture” was taken by the press and was often exaggerated only to serve the purpose of separation and hostility amongst the two communities. What was a problem within the school and had to be dealt from there, was taken up by the media or the politicians that used it to promote their own agendas.
Despite all the attempts by exterior forces to perpetuate the hostility, the students at the English School had to find a way to co-exist within the spirit of the school and to the benefit of themselves as rational beings. What society failed to allow them to experience, they were called to face and deal with. The whole process, with all the tensions that would occasionally arise, was a unique opportunity for students to engage in tolerance and understanding even for those that you were brought up to distrust and never called to know. Greek and Turkish Cypriot students found themselves in an environment where they had to learn together, share time, discuss and debate their opinions, ask each other questions and challenge each other in class.
In 2006, the first tangible signs appeared that showed that the English School had started to shape its own course, a course based on the students’ experiences from within the school and aside from societal prejudices. In November 2006, a group of 15 ‘outsider’ students dressed in black, stormed in the English School and were directed against the Turkish Cypriot students. They managed to injure two of them but what marked the day, was the reaction of the Greek Cypriot students at the school. Some of the people who rushed in to protect the Turkish Cypriots were those who were most strongly opposed to them upon joining the school, whilst some of them had the greatest inhibitions when called to face the Turkish Cypriots as equals three years before. I am in no way suggesting that the three years of co-habitation brought all problems to an end. Besides, the directions that led the attackers to their targets were so precise that it was understood at the end that it was a Greek Cypriot student from within the school that had orchestrated the situation. It cannot be denied though, that when the students are left alone to shape their opinions through their interactions and experiences, in an environment that urges them to respect each other, first as human beings, above everything else, then they start developing a collective consciousness that allows them to set aside any prejudices. The incident of the attack was once again used then by various external actors who tried to only emphasise the negative aspects of it. For the English School students at the time though, their desire was single and universal: they wanted to be left alone to carry their course. They wanted parents, politics and media to allow them to create their own opinions, shaped through their personally constructed recollections.
Since then, many years have passed and the English School still makes the headlines when there is a story that sells. What remains constant since is that the students carry on competing in the same athletic competitions, jointly participate in the Choir and travel together on educational trips. Those students, who have passed from the school during these turbulent times, have started to form an identity that reflects the multi-communal aspect of Cyprus. At the same time, their experiences set them aside, not from the Greek or Turkish other, but from those who fail to see the future of Cyprus as one in which the various communities can live in harmony and co-exist, learning from the mistakes of the past and creating a different future. The fact that a Turkish Cypriot has been elected as the Head Boy of a school with a majority of Greek-Cypriots can only make us hopeful as a proportion of the younger generation has learnt to be able to set aside occasional tensions and look at each other as equals and that was the first step to be covered. Besides, the greatest question amongst the students of the school today, is: “why all this fuss about these elections?” The students today, just like in our days, want to rid themselves of the burdens that others set on their shoulders and want to carry on maturing in this cradle of education.
At the end of the day, the moral that the story of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots at the English School teaches us is clear. When people are left alone to develop their stance, irrespective of politics, army forces and the irrationality of sentiments cultivated by exterior factors, they are able to see, identify and focus on what brings them together. The English School students taught us that you can judge someone by his personality, intentions and motivations aside from whether he is Greek or Turkish Cypriot. Their common ground was the well-being of their school and it can only fill us with hope that they perceived it. In fact, it is high time that the whole Cypriot society does the same and establishes as the common ground the well-being of this country and its citizens, in their entirety. Who knows? Maybe the “English School Experiment” is not that far away from becoming the reality in our society.
English School Graduate 2007