Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Explain Latvian Summer High School?

Every summer from age thirteen through age seventeen I willingly and happily spent six weeks in the woods of southwestern Michigan at the summer high school located within the Latvian Center Garezers. Founded in 1965 and known as GVV (Garezera vasaras vidusskola - Garezers summer high school), this school has been an integral part of the Latvian community within North America. Beginning with only a few students the very first summer, the school quickly became quite popular and beloved, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s around 200 students attended the program every summer. Nowadays the number of students has held steady around 100 for quite a few years. Teenagers travel from all corners of the continent (and even beyond - there have been students from Mexico, South America and Europe) to spend the majority of their summer studying and socializing.

You might be asking yourself "what exactly is a Latvian summer high school?" To understand that, one first needs to know that cities with large enough Latvian communities had/have Saturday or Sunday Latvian schools. Those typically begin with kindergarten and run through eighth grade. The academic year begins in September, and ends at the end of May or beginning of June, and a "school day" might be between three and five hours long. Typical classes at these schools include Latvian language, dancing and singing, and for older grades Latvian history, literature and geography. Usually religion (some of the schools are affiliated with the local Latvian congregation, and even if they are not, the Latvian congregations and church have played an important role in the communities) is a part of the mix, and sometimes folklore is, as well.

Latvian-American kids attended Latvian school in their hometown during the winter, and in the summer they would often attend a Latvian children's camp for two or three weeks. There used to be quite a few of them, but today only three remain: Katskiļi in New York State, Mežotne in Washington state, and the kids' camp and middle school programs at Garezers, and I believe Saulaine, Sidrabane and Tērvete in Canada are all still functioning to some degree; although of all of them Katskiļi and Garezers are by far the largest and most active. However, once a Latvian-American children graduated from the local Latvian school and aged out of the kids' camp, s/he typically didn't have any other opportunities to further their Latvian education. To fill this gap a man named Eduards Avots came up with the summer high school idea. Initially envisioned as possibly only a two-summer long course, GVV grew to have five grades (although it now has four since the founding of a middle school program) and certainly exceeded the founder's wildest dreams.

The basics have been the same for many years now. To attend the "first grade" (or 'freshman year' or 9th grade), a teenager should have graduated from their local Latvian school, or - if there isn't one in their city or they didn't attend it for some reason - be 13 years old. GVV typically begins at the end of June, and runs through the beginning of August. For a full six weeks the students spend their mornings Monday through Saturday attending classes. The classes include homework (for which there is a full one hour long study period every evening, but kids often have to find other time to finish their studies), tests and exams.

Afternoons Monday through Friday are reserved for activities: sports such as volleyball, basketball and soccer, pottery, Latvian jewelry making, yearbook. Saturday and Sunday afternoons are reserved for free time - often parents come to visit, and take the kids into town for earthly delights such as pizza or Taco Bell. Every evening Monday through Thursday there is a different activity for all the students. Some might be sporty: dodgeball, games at the lakefront, some might be cultural: a literary evening or concert, others are just fun: scavenger hunt, Latvian polka marathon. Friday nights are reserved for a campfire, complete with lots of singing and funny skits, while Saturday nights feature a three-hour-long dance.

Just as it does in a university setting, all of this togetherness fosters many friendships. It's not unusual to see girls crying at the end of the summer as they bid farewell to friends, each returning to their homes in Minneapolis, Boston, Toronto, etc., and counting down the days until the next summer, or  the American Latvian Youth Association congress over Thanksgiving Day weekend, or a confirmation in the spring when they might see one another again.

This year GVV celebrated its 50th academic summer with a weekend full of events and festivities. I am a graduate of GVV (as are my younger sis, eldest niece and eldest nephew, and I fully expect my youngest nephew and niece to attend and graduate!), my parents taught at the school for many years, and I have also worked there as a teacher and counselor. The place holds a very special place in my heart and life. Therefore I knew I couldn't miss the celebration, but that is an entirely separate post! Stay tuned...

(Also, this post was supposed to have a couple of photos, but my iPad and/or Blogger were just not cooperating!)


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