Kurano Bigiman (37) grew up in a family without a newspaper subscription. His father worked for the facilities of an insurance company. “And my mother on Leidseplein in Amsterdam. At Burger King.”
From work his father sometimes brought a newspaper that was a few days old, usually one Telegraph or Ordinary newspaper. Pre-internet, it wasn’t so strange to read a newspaper from two days ago. They lived in Watergraafsmeer in Amsterdam East, but Bigiman went to Vossius Gymnasium in Amsterdam South. “In the middle of a residential area, I can imagine that other children would be dropped off if they don’t come from there. You have to enjoy being in such an environment every day.”
In high school, newspaper clippings would sometimes be used for papers. “I will never forget that a classmate looked at me in surprise: huh, you study at home The telegraph? Until then, I didn’t know that a newspaper meant something, that you could use it to show something about your social class. But I immediately understood that it was code that I should no longer come to this school with clippings from the Telegraaf. So now I’m reading NRC.“
In 2020, Kurano Bigiman was named Amsterdammer of the Year for his work in setting up a gymnastics department at Ir. Lely Lyceum in Amsterdam-Zuidoost, or Bijlmer. In 2018, a high school education was started in a district where it was not previously offered.
Kurano Bigiman is the type of person who is modest about such a price. “It’s a nice recognition for my work as a teacher, and it’s nice for the students. It’s not about me. This part of Amsterdam needs to be put in the spotlight.”
His parents both came from Suriname and belonged to the indigenous people, the original inhabitants of the country. In Sranantongo, bigi man literally means: big man. “I have no idea where that name comes from. We are not large in size. Maybe I had a big-mouthed ancestor.”
They didn’t feel good at home, he says, but they weren’t part of the bottom line either. “We could keep up with society, but we remained Surinamese. My father in particular had a strong desire for the children to learn as much as possible. He himself had completed havo, my mother mavo. I think that was a bit wishful thinking. They would have liked to have had more education themselves.”
Is that how you ended up in high school?
“Yes. My father had really learned. He knew that with gymnasium you had an extra stick, that it was seen as a little higher than normal pre-school education. That is why he had a strong preference for categorical gymnasium, I didn’t have to go to a comprehensive school. I think his thought was that I could hang out with the better students in a gym or that I could build some kind of network. I never asked. It’s also possible that he thought I would be tempted to think about a school community: pre-school education is also good enough. And afterwards: havo is also possible.”
Was it natural for someone like you to be advised by the school to go to gymnastics?
“In elementary school, I was blessed with good-looking teachers. And I was lucky enough to end up in a small class. By chance, many children dropped out or went to another school. In group 8 we had a class with only sixteen students. I already worked a lot with language. There happened to be a book in the room with the Greek alphabet, I wanted to know all about it. I copied those letters. The teachers had the idea: you can do this, you have to do gymnastics.
“My father went to the open days. You were given a booklet where on a map it was written which schools offered gymnasiums. I remember thinking that the geographical distribution was strange: almost all the schools were in Amsterdam South. There was nothing in the southeast. We visited the three categorical high schools that existed at the time in Amsterdam. At Vossius I immediately thought: what a building, what a palace, I want to walk around here for six years. It has been a little longer, in fact I have never left.”
After high school he studied classical languages at the University of Amsterdam. “My passion started with Latin in first grade. The translation, the enigmatic, everything you can learn about another culture. I got the feeling that I was really in touch with the people of that time.”
Greek was added in second grade. “After that I was completely unstoppable. That language is so rich, there is so much feeling in it. That odysseywhat book I saw connections with other languages, really got the idea: now I’ve cracked the code. There is a case system in German that I already knew from Greek. Like the tense without a preposition. With French or German I thought: it’s simple, with Greek we already had that. My focus went all the way to such a language system, I wanted to see that through.”
You took two more studies at university.
“Yes, modern Greek and European studies, but I only passed the propaedeutic phase. At university I had the same feeling as when I first entered Vossius: there is a lot to gain here, I can gather all this knowledge – now I at university, then I want to use it too. I want to know a lot about a lot. In the first years I thought: why not take another study? And then another. But it became too much. I had to focus on classical languages.”
Are you a geek?
“Yes. It took a while, but I can say that now.”
When he was still at Vossius, it started with a part-time job. “Manages the book fund, during the summer holidays. Ensure that the books were collected and redistributed to the students. During my studies I was asked if I wanted to teach Greek and Latin to the first and second grades.”
A few years later he was called by Jeroen Rijlaarsdam, a former colleague of Vossius who had become director of Ir. Lely Lyceum. “Whether I wanted to set up a secondary education at that school and teach myself. I actually didn’t have time for that, at Vossius I had a full-time job. In the end I said yes, I thought it was important. Now I work part of the week at both schools.”
Why do you think there wasn’t a high school in Amsterdam-Zuidoost?
“I only have suspicions. About politicians who thought: there is little demand for that, the parents probably won’t? And if they want it, can they go elsewhere in the city? Whereas you say to a twelve-year-old child: if you want this, you have to take the subway to another part of the city, travel back and forth for 45 minutes. You want children to be able to follow any education in their own neighborhood. And you want them to feel: this is just a part of the city we belong to.
“The idea has been around for a long time: Let’s not do it to people who are already disadvantaged, all the difficult classical languages. Let’s keep education practical for them. And if they want more, isn’t Atheneum good enough?”
Miraculously, he says: “Latin and Greek are the least discriminating subjects. All students start at zero, their cultural baggage does not count. I work at two schools in very different parts of the city. You don’t think they pick it up any slower in Bijlmer, do you? The ablative absolutus remains complicated for anyone learning it.”
Can you see the difference in the world view of the students at the two schools?
“I try to focus on what I have to teach them, not their lives. It feels different, but I don’t teach differently. My commitment is: I have to guide them to their diploma. That’s my work ethic, I will commit equally to all students.”
He sees, he says, that the children at Lely Lyceum feel more quickly that they have to make up for a deficiency. “Or that they think they are in a disadvantaged position that they cannot get out of. And they are more likely to have an opinion about the world described in the ancient texts. They get their reactions from the present, they compare that world to their own life. Then we can contrast it again with the theoretical reality of the lesson. The students at this school have big, passionate dreams. Become a surgeon or a lawyer. Subjects where they think they need Greek or Latin.”
Are the parents different?
“They are no different from the south in Amsterdam-Zuidoost. Parents in Bijlmer also want their child to go to gymnasium. In this part of the city there used to be only apartments, now there are many low buildings: beautiful, new houses. It includes the exclusive and elitist taste of a kid at the gym.”