Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

I entered first grade at the Emerson Grade School, one of Kearney's several public elementary schools, when I was five. Private schools were unheard of; Kearney would have been offended by anyone who thought its tax-supported schools couldn't prepare its young people for whatever they decided to take on, be it farming, shopkeeping, or college. From Emerson through junior high and Longfellow High School, I felt I had to be the best-behaved and best-performing student in the school. And I was. Hard as it may be to believe, I don't ever recall any notable naughty behavior on my part. I accumulated gold stars and As with a vengeance. My only B was in biology, and that was because I couldn't draw the frogs we were studying. I started playing the clarinet in the ninth grade and I practiced obsessively. I even persuaded my father to buy a machine made by Philco that made recordings on a plastic disc so I could listen to myself and work on my mistakes. In a little over a year I had mastered—I use the term loosely—the third and fourth movements of Mendelssohn's violin concerto, held first chair in both the high school band and orchestra, and was selected as first clarinetist in the Nebraska clinic orchestra, composed of high school musicians from throughout the state.

It Wasn't That Easy Being Greek

My dedication to pleasing my parents sometimes found its limits. This was partly due to the conflict they felt at being American but nonetheless determined to remain loyal to Greece, its religion, and its customs. Kearney's Greek community was an isolated island in the American sea of Nebraska, and this insularity affected me in ways that I stopped counting. The worst of it was the clothes Mother sent me off to school in. She made, at home, bouffant, blouselike shirts with ruffles on the front. These frilly white numbers, worn with knickers and high-topped black patent leather shoes, set me worlds apart from my schoolmates. On my first day in the first grade, all the other boys in their bib overalls, denim shirts, and work boots stared at me in my Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, first with curiosity and then giggling behind their hands while I flushed with embarrassment. I protested when I got home that afternoon, but she persisted in making me wear those clothes to school, and she did the same to John when he started the first grade. This went on only for a few years but, at the time, it seemed like forever.

Special occasions such as Easter were even worse. For these, she dolled us up in foustanellas, outfits worn for Greek folk dancing and by the king's guardians known as Evzones. These consisted of a white shirt with bloused sleeves and a skirtlike flared bottom, worn with a vest, a decorative sash at the waist, and leggings with garters at the calves. So much for fitting in.

In both cases, I later wondered if Mother was trying to reclaim Elaine by dressing us in these effeminate costumes. If so, even understanding her motive could not offset the embarrassment we felt at having to wear these ethnic red flags that looked girlish to boot. None of the other Greek boys in town had to wear such outfits. My good friends throughout my childhood, Gus Poulos and John Mitchell—John's family name was condensed from Mitchellopoulos—at least understood my discomfort, but the non-Greek majority gave my brother and me looks and snickers every time we had to go out wearing them.

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